Ezra LeBank, center, created Missoula 24-Hour Plays, a performance hatched in less than a day by local playwrights, actors, directors and dancers. Actor Eric Holman-Opper, left, and dancer Heidi Jones Eggert will be part of the deadline-intensive show.
Producing plays takes time. Actors need to memorize lines, production crews need to design sets and lighting, directors need to run through blocking, and all of it usually requires weeks of practice to get it all just so. Add in the time it takes to actually write the play and, well, you’re looking at anywhere from months to years.
This weekend, in direct defiance to convention, a handful of local playwrights, directors, actors, dancers and stage managers will attempt to microwave the process. They plan to create—from blank paper to live audience—four original plays and two original dance pieces all within the span of 24 hours.
Ezra LeBank, an assistant professor at UM’s Drama/Dance Department, decided to produce Missoula 24-Hour Plays after acting in 24-hour plays on the East Coast. He’ll produce this weekend’s show through his own company, Lynx Co.
“I had no idea of the scale that was possible inside of a day,” LeBank says. “In fact, we ended up with a lot of exciting things that maybe were better than if they were given more time because they were gutsy. There’s no time to second guess yourself so you have to go with your first impulse.”
LeBank says he’s seen smart, funny plays written and performed for 24-hour festivals that were good enough to reproduce later, or travel the festival circuits. Sometimes it’s the craft of the playwright’s storyline that makes it standout, other times it’s the way a director manages to breathe life into the script.
Of course, LeBank says there’s also the chance a piece will unravel, which can be just as entertaining. Things usually teeter when there’s a disconnect between the actor’s decision-making on stage and the intent of the play.
“You kind of sense and enjoy the precariousness of the situation where you have actors going for something, but really confused as to why they would do it,” he says.
Besides producing the festival, LeBank will also be one of four playwrights participating in the event. The other writers include Roger Hedden, UM’s current playwright in residence; Greg Johnson, Montana Rep’s artistic director; and UM alum Kaet Morris. The directors, dancers and actors include established Missoula performers, as well: Grant Olson of Montana Actors’ Theatre, UM professor and actress Annie Wright and dancer Anya Cloud, to name a few.
LeBank sets a rigid schedule for the event. At 7:30 p.m. Friday night, the playwrights draw from a hat a “secret prompt,” which triggers the play’s subject matter. In addition to the prompt, all plays have to incorporate the tag line of the festival—visually or orally—which aptly states, “Nobody said this would be easy.” The writers also draw how many actors they get to work with—anywhere from two to four—and a skeleton biography of each actor so they can get a sense of age, gender and particular skills they have to work with.
Whatever direction the prompts inspire the writers to take, they must finish the play by 7:30 a.m. the next morning.
“Some writers start at 8 [p.m.], have a glass of wine and are done at 9, and love the play,” LeBank says. “Some people stay up going and going and going—they want to get it just right—until 7:30 the next morning, and run over to turn it in.”
Once the playwrights turn in their scripts they each draw a director and stage manager. The trio then has exactly an hour to conference on a design concept.
Finally, at 9 a.m., the actors are paired with their respective plays and rehearsals go until 1 p.m.
The rules for dancers are similar in that they have to incorporate the tag line and a prompt, but different in that they’re split into two groups and each dancer must be a part of the dance piece and contribute to the choreography.
At 4 p.m., all four plays and two dances are rehearsed from beginning to end, and at 5 p.m., hungry and tired, the whole crew has
“Then people get about an hour or so to do what they need to do,” LeBank says. “A lot of people take naps, other people are fervently trying to memorize their lines. Some people run home to get a rubber chicken or [other props]. At 7 we warm up to get ready, the audience shows up and at 7:30 we go.”
LeBank admits to being nervous, though he insists that he has faith in the 24-hour concept. Still, this is the first time that he’s aware anyone’s done a 24-hour play festival in Missoula, and so he’s anxious to get everyone together and mitigate any potential disasters.
“The glory of it is—whether it’s the most amazing, smooth festival that’s ever happened or if it’s crazy, if I have an ulcer by the end of the day, if the lights fall down and people come in the wrong way, if it’s raining and snowing and there’s a flood in the dressing room—it’s still over in a day,” he says laughing.
The show will run Saturday evening once at 7:30 and again at 9:30 to give the participants a 45 minute break and a chance to tweak their work. In a way, LeBank says, you get the exhilaration of an opening and closing performance in one night. And the briefness of the event can be a good thing no matter which way the wind blows.
“At the end of each play you don’t necessarily have a cohesive, well-rounded, Pulitzer Prize-winning show, but they’re poignant,” he says. “It’s almost impossible for them not to be. The actors have to commit to an impulse and make it strong. There’s no expectation that it’s going to be done ‘right.’ But there is the expectation that we’re going to go all the way.”
Two performances of the Missoula 24-hour Plays are scheduled at the Crystal Theatre Saturday, April 11, at 7:30 PM and 9:30 PM. $12.