A woman I once met who'd just returned to arts administration after working for several years in the corporate world was fed up with the general laziness and cant of the for-profit sector. "There'd be all this corporate speak about how 'anything is possible through teamwork' and all that, but the truth is, I see people in the theater routinely do things that these folks would never dream is possible, FedEx or no FedEx."
One World/Three Card Monte/Consolidated Works January 7-8
14/48, billed as "the world's smallest theater festival," exemplifies this. Founded three years ago by co-creators Michael Neff and Jody Paul Wooster, it dares more than 60 writers, directors, actors, musicians, and, this year, visual artists to produce not one but two entirely original evenings of new material in just 48 hours. On the first night, writers are given a randomly chosen theme; they then draw to see how many actors and of which gender they're going to be writing for. After that they go away, to return at nine in the morning with a complete 10-minute script. Their randomly assigned director is then randomly assigned a cast and designer, and they've got nine hours to rehearse, find costumes, build a set, run lights and sound, and then perform before that night's audience. Then they do the whole thing all over again the next night.
It's of course entirely impossible for artists to work like this—which is a really good reason for them to do so.
That so much of the result was genuinely enjoyable was to me amazing, particularly because this time I participated as a writer. When the first theme was drawn on Thursday night, "Awkward Silences," the director who'd proposed it, Christina Mastin, let out a whoop of delight. "You've just ruined the entire festival!" a voice from the crowd yelled back. Several hours later, as I began my fifth draft, I was inclined to agree.
With this sort of deadline, a writer doesn't just seek inspiration, he or she tugs desperately at it. Look! An abandoned Lotto ticket on the sidewalk! I'll write about people playing Lotto! Or there! Two drunks trying to bum a cigarette! Perfect! As it turned out, sitting in my apartment listening for anything that might inspire me led me to write a piece about a man sitting in his apartment listening to a tape of people having sex. Once I figured out who those people were, I knew I had my play, and I popped into bed cheerily at about 2am.
The next morning, with Mark Murphy as my director, Matt Bynum and Mollia Jensen as my actors, and Curtis Taylor as my artist, I was relaxed and confident. As they worked I wandered about, watching rehearsals about obnoxious little old ladies in railway cars, a job interview from hell, a talking sheep introduced to a king, and other odd vignettes scattered about the various rooms. Despite the accelerated schedule, no one seemed panicked or even especially rushed, and when I asked around for a couple of actors to provide off-stage sex sounds, other directors happily loaned out Seanjohn Walsh and Peggy Gannon. (Strangely, the first evening's bill was sodden with sex and blue humor.)
It was really only after the first show that evening that dread settled heavily over me. One night was a thrill, and despite a couple hours or so of panic, I'd had a smooth writing experience. When the audience chose "Get Better" as the second night's theme, it suddenly sunk in: Again?
Staggering back to the theater the next morning, clutching my scripts to my chest like the dying courier in The Maltese Falcon, I was not in a good mood. Assigned to write a play for four actresses, I'd created a messy little skit about a mother taking her daughter in for gene therapy to make her more popular. As my director Matt Richter was talking to his cast (Gannon and Jensen again, along with Tina Kunz and Mara Hesed), I was wondering if I could still snatch my scripts back and escape to some foreign country where I'd never again have to write in English. As the rehearsals began, however, my fears abated, and I was even able to thank the cast before returning home for a long nap.
After the second evening's shows—which were generally even better than the first— I reflected again why I love this art form and the people who practice it. For little or no money, with less fame and recognition, they nonetheless routinely perform astonishing feats in pursuit of a strange but simple goal: to amuse, entertain, provoke, and connect with an audience watching them in the same room at the same time. Despite the stresses, terror, and lack of sleep, this was some of the most fun I've ever had in the theater.