Outside the men’s bathroom at GableStage, Deborah Sherman paced back and forth likeAl Pacino at the bank in Dog Day Afternoon, wringing her wrists with a ferocity usually reserved for final exams in college. It was midafternoon inside the Miami theater, a tight space choked with dozens of bleary-eyed actors, shouting directors and playwrights dozing on cots. A huddle of actors cursed nearby, but it sounded closer to incoherent rambling. The 30-something Sherman had yet to resort to swearing, but she felt a flood of exhilaration and punch-drunk panic — or was it a mix of fright and fatigue? — coming on like the worst kind of stage fright.
In just a shade under four hours, Sherman was supposed to memorize a dozen pages of new dialogue and perform a brand-new play before a live audience for the 24 Hour Theatre Project. The plot: a sister must convince her 26-foot-tall, Godzilla-esque brother to stop wreaking havoc on a metropolitan area lest he be gunned down by black-suited government agents.
“Nothing can be as daunting for actors as the first year with that amount of text to learn,” Sherman now says of that day four years ago. “There’s this moment of panic that lasts about 20 minutes, where all the acting groups just start to deteriorate and lose it. I mean that in a good way, like in a ‘Holy shit, whose idea was this?’ way. It’s like climbing Mount Everest. It’s like blowing all your money at a casino and knowing you won’t lose.”
If Sherman sounds a bit melodramatic, it’s only because the chaos of taking an idea from page to stage in 24 hours flat justifies these kinds of overblown metaphors. The 24 Hour Theatre Project, now entering its fifth year, will be presented 8 p.m. Monday at the Count de Hoernle Theatre in Boca Raton.
The concept: About 50 of South Florida’s big-cheese actors, directors and playwrights are charged with concocting eight 10-minute comedies and dramas from scratch during an overnight writing marathon. Writers earn little to no sleep for their troubles, directors scramble to block scenes with no prep time, and actors memorize pages of dialogue in mere hours.
Nobody gets paid. It’s a volunteer-driven effort, so come performance night, this massive troupe can punch out at least a smooth-looking short-play festival with minimal improvisation and even fewer episodes of vomiting or cursing onstage, says Katherine Amadeo, who co-founded the 24 Hour Theatre Project with her husband, Antonio, and John Manzelli, who has since departed the group.
“It's like theater on crack, really,” says Amadeo, whose Miami-based troupe, the Naked Stage, produces the hyperspeed festival and occasional full-length plays at Miami’s Pelican Theatre. “We were sitting around in our living room thinking up creative ideas for a fundraiser that would bring much of the theater community together. Antonio said he heard about Chicago and New York doing these things called ‘24-hour plays,’ where writers write plays, they cast the actors and perform it the next night. We tweaked it and made it our own.”
Actors on this year’s bill include Sherman, Irene Adjan, Clive Cholerton, Ken Clement, Betsy Graver and 27 others. So far, the producers have confirmed big-ticket directors such as Barbara Bradshaw, Todd Allen Durkin, Avi Hoffman and Michael Leeds, and playwrights such as Michael McKeever, Juan C. Sanchez, Andie Arthur and David Michael Sirois.
In all, 32 actors, eight directors and eight playwrights will shuffle into Boca’s Caldwell Theatre next Sunday night — about 24 hours before curtain up — and hash out plot lines based on silly titles that Amadeo writes beforehand.
“The titles are so ridiculous, I’m embarrassed to read them out loud,” jokes Amadeo, whose festival relocated from GableStage to Actor’s Playhouse before finally landing last year at Caldwell Theatre. The Amadeos live in Coconut Creek. “Last year, we had some really crazy ones, like Henry the VIII: Male Order Bride, Cecilia Cecily and the Case of the Stolen Silly Bands, Amputease and OMG … ROTFLMAO. We put all the playwrights onstage, and they pull from a hat and choose who the director is, and we pass down a box full of headshots until they select four actors for their group. Whoever gets to me quickest gets first dibs on the titles.”
Once cast and crew are randomly chosen, playwrights brainstorm for two hours and start writing dialogue almost immediately. Michael McKeever, one of South Florida’s most-prolific scripters (his play Stuff recently wrapped a summer run at Caldwell Theatre), has been pulling all-nighters for the Amadeos’ brainchild since the inaugural festival and is participating this year. Most often, the playwrights — loaded with beer, cigarettes, dinner, snacks and coffee (to counteract the beer, of course) — spend the wee hours of Monday morning bouncing ideas off one another. Midway through the writing marathon, the droopy-eyed playwrights sometimes become a little “punchy,” McKeever says with a chuckle.
“The bulk of us sit in one room, and there’s this really great energy and adrenaline to keep you going through the night,” he says. “Knock on wood, we haven’t gotten into any fistfights.” The moment McKeever learned his playlet’s title, OMG … ROTFLMAO, he trained his sights on Facebook, the ever-polemical punching bag of social networking.
“The playlet was about this woman who is obsessed with Facebook, and she starts talking to her husband in Internet shorthand, like, ‘I was talking to TWG on FB for H&H.’ The husband is like, ‘Honey, what the fuck are you talking about? You’re way too old to be talking like that,’ ” says McKeever, who churned out last year’s short play in six hours and crashed on a cot until actors and directors arrived at dawn. “I gave [actor Karen Stephens] a glossary so she knew exactly what she was saying, and she nailed every one of those phrases, even if she had six hours to memorize all of those lines of dialogue.”
Barbara Bradshaw traded two years of acting in the project for directing last year. The veteran actress, who lives in Palm Beach County and is directing again this year, says some of her favorite theater memories stemmed from the 24-hour format, including witnessing actress Laura Hodos learn to play electric guitar in five hours flat and last year’s Dinner With Dracula, which involved a comely girl and the titular count sharing a decapitated woman’s head as the main course.
“I just absolutely love it. The most-intense pleasure you can possibly have is seeing something that was literally birthed that day,” Bradshaw says. “Everyone is under immense pressure. Actors hide out in the men’s bathroom and rehearse all day, and people just about pull their hair out. You go through every possible emotion you can go through in those 24 hours. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
The 24 Hour Theatre Project will take place 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3 at the Caldwell Theatre, inside the Count de Hoernle Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, in Boca Raton. Tickets cost $25 to $50. A wine and cheese reception will follow the show. Call 866-811-4111 or visit NakedStage.org.
Contact Phillip Valys at email@example.com.