One day of creativity and madness ‘24-Hour Theater Project’ returns to Northampton

Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014

Theater is designed to be an intense, immediate experience. There’s nothing between the actors and the audience — no cover for missed cues or lines, no time for rewrites or second takes.

How to make it even more intense? Have a group of theater enthusiasts write, produce and perform six one-act plays in the space of one day.

That’s the premise of Northampton’s “24-Hour Theater Project,” a high-wire act that one participant likens to a “day of creativity and madness.” Done as a fundraiser for Northampton’s New Century Theatre, the project begins with six local playwrights writing separate one-act plays based on a single “trigger,” or phrase, in the space of 12 hours, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Then the writers hand off their coffee-stained pages to six directors who, with about two dozen actors, have 12 hours to turn the scripts into finished plays — with costumes, set and props — that will be performed that evening.

“What’s great about it is the level of energy that’s generated,” said Tanyss Rhea Martula, a Hadley playwright who started the 24-hour project in 2002. “The work can be very raw but also very honest, and there’s a spirit behind it that’s just wonderful ... more than anything, it’s an incredible amount of fun.”

The newest “24-Hour Theater Project” takes place Saturday at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College in Northampton. There are two shows, at 7 and 9 p.m.; tickets cost $12; $10 for seniors and students.

Liz Foley, a filmmaker and theater director who divides her time between Northampton and New York City, has also been with the project since its debut and says its goal — aside from having fun — has been to give actors, playwrights and directors a different kind of challenge, as well as to give playwrights more exposure for their work. Some participants in the project have long been regulars, but new faces regularly come onboard, she added.

“There’s such a great pool of talent here in the Valley, so many people to draw on,” said Foley, who notes that the “24-Hour Theater Project” is entirely a volunteer effort. “Sometimes people we ask [to participate] aren’t available, they have some other commitment, but there’s always someone else who wants to be part of it.”

Over the years, the project’s planning committee has aimed to bring in actors representing a mix of ages and experience. This year 23 actors take part in the production, including newcomers like Northampton High School students Alex Koester and Rozi Tabachnick; Linda McInerney, artistic director of Old Deerfield Productions; and Erika Kate MacDonald, the co-founder of a Brooklyn-based theater group, Pack of Others.

Some of the veteran returnees include Court Dorsey, Matt Haas, and Northampton City Council President Bill Dwight. The latter, Foley said, “always gets a great laugh just coming on stage — he could blow up balloons and be funny. How could we not invite him?”

All told, Foley says, over 50 people, including stage managers, producers, dramaturges, stagehands and box office personnel, put the creative extravaganza together.

“It’s kind of a crazy thing,” said Foley, who will direct one of this year’s plays. “We spend three to four months organizing it, and then it’s over and done in the blink of an eye. ... So much of it is an experiment, throwing a bunch of people together and seeing what kind of chemistry you have. But that’s what so fun about it.”

Both Foley and Martula give particular credit to Elaine Hoffman, the “randomness coordinator,” whose job, among a variety of things, is to oversee all the rehearsals and other preparations for the plays and make sure everyone has what’s needed and that the plays actually run on schedule.

“Elaine handles all the stuff during the day that could spin out of control if we’re not careful,” Martula said.

Starts with a trigger

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the one the playwrights face: hammering out a script, on the most daunting deadline, that begins with nothing more than a single phrase and the number of actors assigned to them.

It works like this: The six playwrights meet early on Friday evening, at which point they’re given the trigger (the first year it was “Are you sleeping?”), which has been chosen by members of the planning committee. Then the writers draw actor profiles out of a hat; the profiles list the actors’ experience, physical characteristics, age (generally) and any special talents they might have, but not their names.

“One year I got a guy who played the accordion, and I was determined to make that part of the script,” said Martula, who this year is taking a break from writing and will instead find props and other necessities for the performances.

Once they have this threadbare framework in hand, the playwrights immediately start writing, as they need to hand in the scripts by about 7:15 Saturday morning. It can be a grueling process, harder for some than others, like being back in college and pulling an all-nighter to get a term paper done, Martula said.

“That’s what it feels like when it gets to be about 4 a.m. and you’re still trying to make something work,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not the way you usually write a play.”

The emphasis on speed doesn’t mean the plays can’t be serious or dramatic, Martula added. “We’re always looking for a good mix, and comedy can be a part of that. But we don’t want to just put on skits.”

First read-through

Early Saturday morning, the writers hand off their work to the directors, who do an initial read-through to get a sense of the work and to ask questions on things that don’t seem clear; sometimes there’s time for a little rewriting if needed. Then the directors and actors have to start their rehearsals, while production teams plumb their own and their friends’ homes for costumes, props and materials for creating scenery.

Dramaturges, meanwhile, spend time at the rehearsals to help out with any script problems that pop up.

At this point, organizers says, there are enough project veterans involved to keep the chaos from getting out of hand. Some returning playwrights this year include Tom McCabe, Phil O’Donoghue and Peter Shelburne; another veteran is New Century Theatre co-founder Sam Rush, who will direct one of Saturday’s plays. A new face is director Susan Daniels, a theater professor at Mount Holyoke College.

A relatively new face is Rose Martula, Tanyss Martula’s daughter, one of the playwrights; it’s just the second time she’s taken part in the “24-Hour Theater Project.” A writer now living in New York, the younger Martula calls the project “a fabulous exercise for playwrights — that pressure to write quickly really helps you focus on your characters, and my writing tends to be very character-driven.”

Her first stint writing for the project came three years ago when she filled in at the last minute for someone else, and doing that “didn’t leave me any time to get nervous,” she said. Now, knowing what’s involved, she joked that she’s a little more on edge about writing on a tight deadline but added “It’s pushing boundaries, and I like that.”

Both Tanyss Martula and Foley say Smith College has been a big help in recent years in hosting the event, as all the rehearsals can take place in rooms and spaces right near the Mendenhall Center’s stage. In the past, Martula noted, “There were times we had six different rehearsal spaces around town, which made things really crazy.”

A number of the plays that have debuted in past 24-hour projects have gone on to be staged in other places like the Boston Playwright’s Festival. And Martula says she later developed one of her plays for the 24-hour project into a full script.

Martula also stresses what the “24-Hour Theater Project” is not: it’s neither improv theater nor staged reading. Some actors bring their scripts on stage, but they stay faithful to them, and the plays themselves are full dramatic performances — maybe short on polish but with the kind of spontaneity that can sometimes get lost in traditional theater.

“And,” she quipped,” if you don’t like a particular play, you only have to wait a little bit to see the next one.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Tickets for Saturday’s 24-Hour Theater Project can be purchased online at the New Century Theatre website, They can also be reserved by calling (413) 320-3147.


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