When the first draft. . . is the only draft

Thu, Feb 23, 2012, 00:00

Last weekend an army of leading writers, producers and actors took on the challenge of writing and staging plays in only 24 hours. Was it a good day?

SIX PLAYS WILL be conceived, written, rehearsed and performed for an already sold-out crowd – it’s only a matter of time. More precisely, for the six writers, six directors, 24 performers, five producers and army of co-conspirators behind The 24 Hour Plays, it’s a matter of one day. Forming a circle in Project Cube at 9.30pm on Saturday night, they introduce themselves and contribute props and articles of costume like sacrificial offerings, while the actors also reveal a special talent or artistic ambition.

Caitríona Ní Mhurchú, for instance, confesses to an ability for “liturgical dancing” and Maeve Fitzgerald, an actor with a long résumé of unhinged characters, merely requests to play somebody who is relatively hinged.

These and other suggestions are to get the writers’ creative juices flowing. They have until 5.30am to each deliver a 10-minute script. There is a purpose behind the mad experiment. New York’s 24 Hour Company which, for 16 years, has facilitated such adrenaline-fuelled experiments in insta-theatre, is raising money for Dublin Youth Theatre, now 35 years young, itself a crucible of quick creation, and the nursery of many professional theatre careers.

This may be a frantic assembly, but the performances are intended to be as finished as possible: no scripts are allowed onstage for the actors. There are obvious and subtle dilemmas to the distillation of theatrical process. If everything comes crashing down, the participants risk professional humiliation while the audience learns the limits of its charity. If the shows seem too polished, however, they undermine the development process that defines theatre and excuses its shortcomings – “It wasn’t ready.” Here, the first draft is the last draft. The dress rehearsal is opening night.

Somewhere around 2am, Elaine Murphy is the first to finish writing, while Tom Swift soldiers through to the deadline. Deirdre Kinahan has some experience in this method – her 2005 play Melodybegan as an overnight exercise for Semper Fi Ireland’s similar Within 24 Hoursproject in 2000 – while it’s a baptism by fire for the fearless Pauline McLynn, who is writing her first play.

At 6am, the directors select the scripts and rehearse independent of the bleary-eyed writers who are finally given permission to sleep. “It’s a bit like giving your child up for adoption,” says Willie White, director of Murphy’s mini-drama. “Then meeting them again when they’re 18.”

If a sitcom ever depicted a theatre, it would resemble the unreal hive of activity in Project Arts Centre on Sunday afternoon. Actors run lines in urgent whispers and stage managers move around with the silent efficiency of polite ninjas while the director Wayne Jordan marshals the cast of Kinahan’s piece, Protest, and plots the lighting of a very modest school-office set. There is a certain hum of anxiety but, like the lighting designer Marcus Costello, everyone seems to be a parody of composure.

“I don’t think there’s time for panic,” actor Rory Nolan says of the weird calm, although Karl Shiels, who organised Semper Fi’s three 24 Hourprojects and is acting in Kinahan’s play, points out a certain dread behind the eyes of the performers. He knows what he’s talking about. In 2001, an actor was so gripped with stage fright that he locked himself into a shower. Sometimes the show must go on, even if it means breaking down a bathroom door.

Once the shows began, though, it was easy to forget that they had been put together in less time than it takes the Earth to spin on its axis. Kinahan’s play, a subtly political piece about depoliticised people, found a protest against education cuts mooted among a dismally small turnout: “You picked the worst night, Trish. It’s Operation Transformation.”

Paul Meade’s Yellow Roses, a study in double-cross among a broken family, ran longest, a reminder of the much-attributed explanation for writing a long letter – “I didn’t have time to write a short one.” And Pauline McLynn’s mind-bending and preposterously amusing play, directed by Alan Stanford, seemed archly aware of the rules it was breaking, passing its Irish mother and son characters between four actors like a surreal baton. It was also the first performance in which the actors had the good grace to corpse, compose themselves, miss lines and recover, to which the audience responded with something like relief: we could only handle so much accomplishment.

Murphy’s The Waiting Room, a morsel of social comedy, made creative use of some volunteered resources, but none more so than the comic pairing of Jacinta Sheerin and Georgina McKevitt as an expectant mother and her friend, sucking down alco-pops in a maternity ward. If that smacked of mild implausibility, Tom Swift’s play seemed to reflect the whole project’s accelerated time for laughs, featuring Derbhle Crotty as a bitter, unmourning widow, whom Rory Nolan’s married man attempts to seduce at her husband’s grave. If its spaghetti of sexual attractions bore the giddiness of those who work at 5am, Gary Duggan’s final piece had a similarly unrestrained sensibility, enhanced by Annie Ryan’s direction of physical comedy. A young woman’s new boyfriend is revealed to have once been a stripper, leading, for reasons only mistily apparent, to a whirling improvised dance from Paul Reid.

Although there is a safety net in having an audience prepared to make allowances – it’s part of the fun – the amplification of the energy, risk, mutual support and miracle-working of theatre is hugely reaffirming. That may also be the model of DYT, which generates and benefits from buoyant goodwill. Sadly, Ní Mhurchú did not get to dance liturgically. Nor did Fitzgerald’s various characters in McLynn’s piece seem anything short of deranged.

That may be for another day.