Gathered in a dim, tiny black-box theater in one of Hollywood’s seedier enclaves, five writers sit in nervous silence. The hum of a ventilator fan is colored with bursts of keypad chatter and the scribble of a pen from the room’s lone traditionalist. It’s 9:45 on Saturday night, and in 11 hours each writer will have finished a play to be performed in front of a packed house at the Elephant Stageworks Theatre Company’s fifth staging of 24 Hour Rush.
But at the moment, the characters, the plots and certainly the outcomes do not yet exist. It was only three hours ago that the writers browsed through Polaroids of some 20 actors, each of whom brought a prop, and selected two to four of them. The writers’ only other guidance is a pair of thematic elements that they literally pick out of a hat. Conjured by 24 Hour Rush producers Sara Bergman, Zibby Allen and Jon Caren, the themes change from show to show. This week, Bergman tells me, they’re honoring Halloween, “going with an eerie, horror sort of thing.”
Eerie is an apt descriptor for what the Elephant Theatre becomes during the first stage of 24 Hour Rush. After dinner and a round of drinks, these wonderfully extroverted writers turn reclusive and taciturn. Between spells of note taking and head scratching, they wander through the claustrophobic hallways inside the Elephant Theatre, filling up on Maxwell House and smoking cigarettes that burn too fast.
Before dinner, writer Dan Mahoney had shared the key elements he plucked from the hat: “?‘Prosthetics lab’ and ‘100-year-old magic mirror.’?” Having also snagged the one actor who brought her dog as a prop, he’s all smiles. “I got the dog,” he says. “How can I go wrong?”
But at 11:30, Mahoney’s confidence seems to be waning. He’s been staring at his screen for half an hour now. Apparently, there are plenty of things that can go wrong when an untrained dog is written into a live production of scripted theater. Then, from across the room, I watch as inspiration grabs him suddenly; he reaches for his three Polaroids, spreads them around, angles his eyebrows as if to convince himself that he’s on to something and begins to tap away at the delete button. This is when it dawns on me that play writing is not very engaging as a spectator sport, and I make my way home for bed.
The next morning, the writers sit dreary-eyed and — their critical faculties hopelessly dulled — hope it all makes sense. In any case, it’s time to pass their batons to the directors, who do their very Hollywood best to make the writers feel good. “It is genius, fucking genius,” says one director of the freshly printed script on her lap. In a few hours, she may wonder what in the hell she was thinking.
If Saturday night in the Elephant Theatre is like a late-night college-library scene, Sunday evening is closer to the hopeless hours that precede a horribly mismatched Little League bout. When the last rehearsals go bad — and most of them do — the directors conceal their frustration with a smile and fall back on any parent coach’s safest advice: “Whatever happens, team, just have fun. This is why we’re here.”
Cut to an hour before showtime: “It’s a mess, a total mess,” says Dave Fofi, co-artistic director at Elephant Stageworks and one of tonight’s directors. Most of the actors are scattered about the sidewalk in costume, still rehearsing. Some pace and gesticulate; one lone woman stands in her party dress and talks at a wall. A guy of linebacker stature is beet red and already sweating through his suit as he delivers the first emphatic lines of a eulogy, over and over again.
“This guy over here has been in, like, 30, 40 plays,” says Fofi, pointing to another actor. “He’s a total professional, but he’s freaking out because he can’t remember his lines.”
Why do it, then? Why volunteer for a physically and mentally exhausting process that seems to invite failure or, at the very least, mediocrity?
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“This thing could bomb and I’d be embarrassed,” says writer Tony Lepore in a can’t-be-from-anywhere-but-Brooklyn accent. “But it’s like, hey, this is what I can do in 24 hours.” And if it’s a hit? “Instant gratification,” he says.
When the lights go on, the show starts with the sweaty guy from the sidewalk. Standing before a makeshift casket, hands clasped at center waist, he begins his eulogy. “Doug loved Coldplay,” he says, and the audience erupts. As the laughter builds, the actor relaxes. And so it goes, too, with the panicky veteran actor and the girl in her party dress.
All six plays, each about 10 minutes long, are vulnerable and still evolving. But that’s what makes this whole thing tick: the beauty of 24-hour theater is that nobody knows what is going to happen.
Mahoney’s play closes the show. And Molly, the aged brindle mutt with arthritis in her amble, the prop the other writers so cautiously avoided, nails her lines. She is the indisputable star of the night. And she didn’t even practice on the sidewalk.