Curtains Up

Behind the scenes with University Theater's 24-Hour Play Festival.
The conventions and expectations in the theater are different when the audience is so aware of the spontaneity of the process. If a sound cue goes wrong, no one—performers or audience members—misses a beat."...

The Burton-Judson lounge was hardly set up for a fun Friday night, with a packet of research on infectious disease, a box containing a Viking helmet, a flashing roadside light, and a fur hat, among other items. But these items were inspiration to the teams of students who prepared to spend the next twelve hours writing plays.

This is the 24-Hour Play Festival, which presents participants with the task of writing, rehearsing, and performing a play in a single day. The festival is held the first Saturday of each academic quarter.

The festival is the brainchild of fourth-years Tamara Silverleaf, Sara Tamler, Eliot Feenstra, and third-year Ethan Dubin. Last spring, they organized the first festival, hoping to bring their passion for progressive, collaborative art movements to the University community. 

"Our first intention was to open up creative possibilities," Silverleaf said. "We encourage people to start their theater experience with us."

''It was the community-building and cooperative, collaborative focus on a goal that really attracted me to the form, and especially the all-around positive energy everyone feels and shares for the entire day," Tamler said. This mindset manifests in a number of zany ways, she explained, including the use of hand puppets, people rubbing snack food on each other, and a celebratory post-production parade. The parade, which involves flag flying, caterwauling and group singing, is open to the entire audience as well as cast.

"What makes Chicago theater awesome is that there is a very low barrier of entry," said fourth-year Josh Nalven, who has both written for and acted in the festival. "The 24 Hour Play Festival captures and miniaturizes that experience." Nalven said the combination of open community and adrenaline involved in such an undertaking makes for an "experimental and very organic" atmosphere. 

This quarter, the festival joined forces with University Theater, giving the organizers access to UT's resources.  "University Theater recognizes the importance of fostering a variety of projects," said University Theater Chair and festival liaison Elle Riley-Condit. "The festival is an exciting way to involve new people and build new types of theatrical experience into our community."

When second-year director Claire Stone arrived at the theater, she was handed the script for "Lily White," which second-year Evan Garrett and fourth-year William Glick had spent the night writing. With only twelve hours before her, Stone moved her actors, fourth-year Rachel Reed and first-year Fred Schmidt-Arenales, to Cobb Hall to begin rehearsing.

"In the rehearsal room," Stone said, "we began with simple reads and some character indulgence, a process we more or less let happen naturally." Every team gets only one time slot in the theater before the performance, and Stone's team had a unique challenge: to choreograph a fight scene between Reed and Schmidt-Arenales, who have nearly a two-foot height difference between them.

For other aspiring players, the peculiar list of set props posed further challenges, and opened up new possibilities.

In "Red Celery," a futuristic play written by Dubin, a festival co-founder, two college students volunteer to farm on a distant planet where they are tempted into eating the eponymous red celery—actually a bag of Cheetos strung up in the shape of a tree. The two girls, in the throes of red celery ecstasy, end the play rolling around in a pile of Cheetos.

Despite the time constraints, the festival consistently produces diverse and highly entertaining performances, according to Dubin. "The conventions and expectations in the theater are different when the audience is so aware of the spontaneity of the process. If a sound cue goes wrong, no one—performers or audience members—misses a beat," he said.

''It's a safe space to take wild risks,'' Tamler said.

Tagged: University Theater, 24 Hour Play Festival