The caffeine diary: Notes from the 24SEVEN theater project



Springs Ensemble Theatre took a big risk with last weekend's 24SEVEN project. While 24-hour theater events have become commonplace in other cities, to my knowledge no one's attempted one in Colorado Springs.

Would producers Chris Medina and Jason Lythgoe find all the people needed to make it work? Would there be enough time to get everything done? And with a Broncos playoff game starting an hour and a half before the first performance, would they sell any tickets?

Here's how it all went down, in the eyes of one participant.

Friday, Jan. 13
7:33 p.m.

I'm one of seven writers huddled in a nondescript office near Palmer Park and, not for the first time, I question my sanity in signing up for this project.

Why? Because I'm about to confront the writer's greatest fear: the blank page. And for once, I'll be writing without a net. With just eight hours to complete a play, I have no time to procrastinate, no room to go back and change things if I head down the wrong path.

I also have no ideas.

What I do have are prompts, the story elements that all seven of us need to include in our scripts.

Location: New York City subway
Character name: Lola
Prop: Rat
Sound cue: Ringing phone
Line of Dialogue: "The more coffee I drink, the more it throbs."

I take my own swig of coffee. I can do this, I tell myself. But first I've got to attack that line of dialogue.

The writers wait for the prompts

10:42 p.m.

I've been writing for three hours straight, and I've still got a long ways to go. My mind buzzes, my fingers ache. That can mean only one thing. Break time.

The four writers remaining in the office gather in the common area to talk about our progress and blow off some steam. We've taken four very different approaches to our plays, but when one writer describes a particularly violent scene he's written, we realize there's something we can all agree on.

"God, I love to torture actors," he says.

We laugh. There's going to be a lot of tortured actors tomorrow.

Saturday, Jan. 14
3:03 a.m.

I'm back home now, and the caffeine is finally wearing off. I give my script one last read. I wish I had another week to work on it, but I don't. I just hope that what the script lacks in polish, it'll make up for in ... in ...

In what?

Too tired to answer, I hit "send" and crawl into bed.

5:53 a.m.

Ouch. Way too early to wake up. My brain aches from lack of sleep.

Fortunately, there's a cure for that. Unfortunately, the cure — the half cup of coffee left over from last night — is now more biology experiment than beverage, but there's no time to make more.

I give the coffee a quick nuke. Microwaves kill microbes, don't they?

8:57 a.m.

While I was asleep, the producers printed out the scripts. While I showered, the directors did their casting from an array of head shots taped to the wall.

Now the actors gather in SET's black box theater, scripts in hand. Already, empty cans of Monster litter the place. There's a nervousness in the air, but mostly an eagerness to get started. And for good reason. They've got just nine hours to spin our ink into theatrical gold.

Medina and Lythgoe go over the day's schedule as well as the ground rules. There's no budget, so all of the props have to be found at SET or borrowed from other theater companies.

The rat may be the toughest to find. The original idea was to use the simple stuffed rat that SET owns. But in most of the plays, the rat is more than a prop. It has become a flesh-and-blood character.

One of the plays has the rodent scamper across the floor. Another has it speak. Yet another has it burst out of a guy's chest.

Rumor is that TheatreWorks has a remote-controlled rat. Someone is sent to find out.

Someone didnt drink all of their Monster

9:12 a.m.

The teams head off to their separate rehearsal areas.

One of the great things about an event like this is that it allows people to take chances, to explore opportunities they might be afraid of in a more formal environment.

My play is directed by Chris Vitale, a SET member and middle school director who has never directed adults before. I recognize one of the actors, but the rest are new faces.

The read-through goes smoothly. When they start blocking, however, it takes some time to choreograph the scuffle in which a cup of coffee gets splashed on a teenage girl. They run it again and again.

I hope she brought a change of clothes.

11:56 a.m.

I check in on the other rehearsals. At THEATREdART's space downtown, stage manager Amanda Eno trains the actors on using stage guns. Even with a quarter load, the blast is deafening. The young actress getting shot at can't help but laugh each time the gun fires.

"Let's skip the plays," Medina says later. "We should just shoot guns all day."

I think he's serious.

4:24 p.m.

Tech rehearsal has begun. In most productions this phase is known as Hell Week, but today they've got just three hours to design the lighting and sound for all seven plays. The full slate will get staged at 7:30, and again at 10.

The remote-controlled rat is here along with the rest of the props. Dog carrier? Check. Nose bandage? Check. Giant plush snake? Check.

But there's a problem with the programmable LED lights, used to cast a wash of color on the stage. Whenever someone steps up to the last row of seats, the power cord gets bumped and the lights start flashing like cheesy disco lights.

A techie jumps in to rig up a temporary fix.

10:05 p.m.

Half an hour ago the first performance ended and at last it's my turn to see the show. I take a seat right in front. The house is full, the atmosphere electric.

The show begins. The cast seems to be running on pure adrenaline. Lines are flubbed, but no one seems to care. The audience laughs loudly and laughs often. The LED lights work without a hitch.

As the show unfolds, what stands out to me are the images more than the dialogue: a drunken angel revealing the scars where his wings were cut off, three blondes holding a knife to their boyfriend's throat, a doomed man tied to a chair.

Before I know it the show is over and the audience gives the cast a standing ovation. Those of us involved in the production meet in the lobby to say our goodbyes. There's so much energy in the room I wish I never had to leave.

This evening, there may not have been any last-minute, game-winning miracles for the Broncos in New England. But in the little theater on Cache la Poudre Street, there was a miracle of a different kind.

Seven plays were created and staged in 24 hours — less time than it takes most productions to decide on casting. No, none of the plays are going to win the Pulitzer. But they were good plays, and the audience seemed to love them.

The best part? We've got just six months until we get to make it happen all over again.

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