From Broadway to Boise, all new plays face the same obstacles. The writer agonizes over when the play is finally complete. The director struggles to combine the writer’s intent with their own artistic vision. The actors breathe life into characters that have only been words on the page.
In the Fifth Annual All-In-A-Day Play Festival, a joint effort between Dreamwell Theatre and City Circle Acting Company of Coralville, all of the artists agree to face these obstacles at lightning speed. They must write, rehearse and perform a 10-minute play in 24 hours.
On August 31, the writers, directors, and 35 actors were randomly assigned into seven teams. Each team had to incorporate three elements into their play: a genre. a setting, and a dramatic trope. These elements were also assigned randomly, leaving the artists without the safety of working with familiar partnerships or subject matter. The writers had a deadline of 8 a.m. on Sept. 1 to finish a script, which they handed off to the directors and actors for rehearsal. After the performances, the plays received awards given by a judging panel that included Dreamwell founder Matt Falduto, former City Circle president Chris Okiishi and Mayor Jim Fawcett of Coralville.
The only consistent element in all the plays is, indeed, randomness. The commitment to leaving every element of the plays up to chance brings to mind the work of Dada, an avant-garde art movement that swept Europe from 1916 to 1924. According to the movement, the universe is a series of coincidences. As a protest against artistic conformity, artists would create works based on unplanned combinations, such as a collage of unrelated pictures. They would then see how audiences attempted to find meaning in these coincidental combinations.
While the seven plays in the festival did not completely embrace a Dadaist aesthetic—after all, they still had linear plots—they reflected the human desire to find meaning in our given circumstances, even when they do not make sense. They took on the challenge of creating plays in which the wildly different elements come together organically. (Teams might not always succeed in this task. When I participated in a similar 24-hour play festival during college at Indiana University, one team realized at the literal 11th hour that they had forgotten to include all three elements. They ended their play with a conga-line dance and chant of the missing elements.)
“The Worst Slumber Party in the West,” the first play on the program, was an example of how random chance can be interpreted by one person. Audience members likely have a clear picture come to mind when they see the words “Western” and “slumber party” in the program. Writer James Trainor, however, decided to go in a different direction, turning the play into a coming-of-age story about a preteen girl who moves to Nevada with her single father and tries to make friends by throwing a Western-themed slumber party.
“Seizing Decisions,” was the result of drawing “melodrama,” “mineshaft” and “interrupted suicide.” While working on a high school science project at a mineshaft, a girl decides to end her project partner’s string of accomplishments by murdering her and making it look like a suicide. The victim is saved by her brother, no thanks to her brother’s propensity for quickies with his girlfriend along the way.
Although no overall award was given for “best play,” the closest the festival had was “All My Problems,” which garnered a near sweep of the awards. It was a subway soap opera by (Best Writer winner) Amy White and directed by (co-Best Director winner) Elijah Jones. The play—in which Dr. Ridge Parkway (portrayed by Best Actor winner Duane Larson) deals with a web of affairs and long-lost daughters—made excellent use of the resources available in such a short time. The lighting design helped facilitate the complex editing of the scenes and the actors showed great comedic timing.
The feel-good play of the night was “True Hero,” a sci-fi tale about an inventor who creates a machine that bestows superpowers on innocent bystanders, directed by another co-Best Director winner, Mary Sullivan. When a group of people at a bus station breaks out into a musical number, the inventor realizes that he was the only person who got the full force of the machine, leading the others to conclude that “bringing out the best in people” is the best superpower of them all. (This elicited an “Awwww” from the audience, while the inventor responded, “Well, that’s lame! I wanted to stop bullets!”)
“Phobos,” a mystery in which the captain of a Jesuit mission to Mars tries to determine who is sabotaging their work, was the only play that went for a strictly dark tone without any intentional humor.
The award for Best Ensemble went to “Funhouse,” a play about inmates of the Adventureland Jail who suffer psychological deterioration after being incarcerated for such crimes as skee-ball fraud and possessing contraband trail mix. The play had a balanced mix of characters, as well as effective use of stage combat directed by Jason Grubbe, who completed the three-way tie for co-Best Director.
The final play was “Put Some Clothes On, God is Watching,” a comedy of errors in which Christian missionaries visit a lesbian couple on the eve of a visit from an adoption agency. Comedy of errors, like mystery, is a genre that can suffer from a short writing period and even shorter performance length, but writer Elizabeth Breed did a skilled job at creating a complex story within the time constraints. The young Serina Collins won the Best Actress award for playing the lesbian couple’s daughter, a sharp performance with immense energy.
While the audience did not directly participate in the creation of the festival plays, they left feeling that they had been part of something truly unique and ephemeral. The Iowa City/Coralville theatre season has only just begun, but there will never be performances like these until next year’s festival.
Jorie Slodki earned her MA in Theatre Research from University of Wisconsin-Madison and has past experience in acting, directing and playwriting. She is currently the Audience Education volunteer for Riverside Theatre, writing their “Between the Lines” dramaturgical blog.