Don’t sleep on overnight theater

There were only about six first-timers in the room. Producer Shane Mitchell carefully chose the first thing to say to them:

“Don’t worry.”

If Mitchell was trying to make this new experience seem less scary, his next words were probably a step backward:

“No matter what happens, you cannot quit.”

Yipes.

 Both Mitchell’s edict and the participants’ fears were appropriate. After all, in 23 hours they would be performing four short plays, and the plays hadn’t even been written yet.

This unique experience is known as the Alaska Overnighters, which took place Jan. 28 and 30 at the Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. The rules are simple. Four writers are given a topic or inspiration. The playwrights are given 12 hours to pen a script, and then four directors and casts are given 12 hours to memorize and rehearse it. Meanwhile, a team of technicians scraps together a set, props and costumes. Exactly 24 hours after the play’s genesis they are given full productions in front of a paying audience.

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Unorthodox, yes, but this style of theater is energetic, legitimate and growing in popularity. Dawson Moore, who first brought the Overnighter idea to Alaska, refers to it as a drug. 

“It’s addicting,” he said.  Numerous participants described the event as pure theater and the creative process in its essence.

Friday – let the chaos begin

I arrived at the UAA Arts Building at 8:50 p.m., where dozens of actors, writers, directors and techies had gathered in the lobby. There was a definite feeling of camaraderie. As I looked around I saw a cross-section of Anchorage theater. Every playhouse and company was represented. One of the great things about the Overnighters, said actor Jeff McCamish, is that the whole theater community is brought together.

At 9 p.m. Mitchell arrived in the lobby and boomed over the chatter, “Come on in, let’s have some fun then!”

He introduced writers to their respective director and team of actors, and gave them his inspiration. The topics were pulled from popular comic strips and suggested a myriad of topics including drugs, doctors and people dressed as onions. The playwrights were then released to start writing.

Mitchell would spend the next day gathering props, building set pieces, recording sound cues and attempting to keep tomorrow’s foreseen chaos organized. He talked with great exuberance about the broad range of plays the Overnighters have produced. Many are just fluff, he said, but often the playwrights address something that is really important to them. With no time to edit, he said, the writers have to go with their gut instinct. “No telling what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Mitchell said with a twinge of excitement.

Saturday – Watching it all come together

At 8 a.m. the next day the finished scripts were due. As I rediscovered, 8 a.m. is an ungodly hour for a Saturday in January. The actors and directors sluggishly drank coffee, but when the scripts came in it was straight to work. They only had 12 hours until the curtain rose.

The writers were obviously exhausted. The only one who got any sleep was Moore, managing two hours. I heard him address his cast, “The second half turned into a drama…maybe.”

As the groups split up to begin rehearsing I attached myself to writer Peter Porco’s group to watch the crackling energy the Overnighters are known for.

After reading through Porco’s film noir parody involving a detective unraveling riddles about onions, toy dolls and a man marrying his mother, the cast was ready to get to work.

Both impressed with Porco’s creative flair and disturbed by his ability to make Calvin and Hobbes lead to incest, I settled in to watch the process.

By 10 a.m. the rehearsal had definite momentum. Director Vicki Russell worked with curt efficiency, issuing decisions about who moved where, who brought what onstage, and how scene changes would happen.

In the afternoon rehearsals started being run off book, though there were still a lot of calls for lines into the early evening. As Arlitia Jones’ play was rehearsed in the Recital Hall techies put black curtains up around the wood paneled wall to provide the stage with wings. By this point the actors had their characters down, and it showed; but their fatigue was apparent too, as they would lie down whenever they were not needed. On stage, the action sizzled as the play began to gel.

However, the kinks that could totally disrupt the flow of a show were still there. Little things that establish the timing and rhythm of a production were still very rough. Normally it takes a cast weeks to iron out all these difficulties. The fact that they were trying to do it in 12 hours was mind blowing.

Yet no one was worried. Something always happens at curtain, and it always works out, Jones said with confidence.

Her confidence did little to persuade me, though. At three hours to go I was terrified, and I wasn’t even in the show. In a normal rehearsal period there is time to experiment and make mistakes. You can try different approaches to a script, and find out what works best. Here you have to make quick choices and stick with them, going forward with full confidence. I guess that’s part of the excitement.

By 7 p.m. everyone was taking care of last minute details. The directors and the techies had retreated from the stage and ran desperately through light and sound cues. Maybe this would turn out all right after all.

8 p.m., show time.

The plays were fabulous, of course. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would swear they had been practicing for days.

After the last play was performed Mitchell called four new writers to the stage, the playwrights who would be creating plays for Sunday’s performance. That’s right, many go through this ordeal two days in a row.

To get involved with the Alaska Overnighters, call TBA Theater at 677-PLAY.