24 hour plays: round the clock drama
Published in The Guardian, 28.10.2011
It’s 11pm and what looks like a children’s birthday party is set up in the middle of a stylish open-plan office in Bermondsey. There are muffins and bananas, Percy Pigs and fruit juices. And there are two crates of a new taurine-free energy drink called 28BLACK that no one’s dared touch yet. That’s up to six cans per playwright settling down to write a short play. From scratch. Before sunrise.
The next day, each of the seven scripts is to be performed on the stage of the Old Vic in front of an audience of industry professionals, including leading producers, directors, talent agents and casting directors. If that wasn’t enough, the 52 writers, producers, directors and actors responsible for ensuring the show goes on are all aged 25 or under. Even on a normal timetable, with the luxury of six-weeks’ rehearsal, none of them has done anything on this scale before.
The Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays – a fixture in the theatre’s calendar that grew out of a fundraising celebrity version featuring Ray Winstone, Meera Syal and artistic director Kevin Spacey in 2004 – is co-produced with New York’s 24 Hour Company and arts charity IdeasTap. It has already produced an impressive list of alumni. Writers Mike Bartlett and Joel Horwood, Paines Plough’s co-directors James Grieve and George Perrin and actors including Bryony Hannah (Earthquakes in London, The Children’s Hour), Charity Wakefield (Sense and Sensibility) and Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones) have all taken up the challenge. Producers from the 2005 event alone currently hold senior posts at the Donmar Warehouse, Lyric Hammersmith and Nimax Theatres.
At this point, however, none of that is at the forefront of Lee Sutton’s mind. Instead the 25-year-old writer is trying to work out what to do with the set for the Old Vic’s incumbent production of The Playboy of the Western World. An ancient Irish pub with stone walls and wooden doors too fragile to be slammed, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to new writing. “The set is just too beautiful to abandon, but I’ve genuinely got no idea at the moment,” he says.
Before starting, the writers pick their casts in a ritual much like the final tabletop selections by X Factor judges. Writers are encouraged to write for specific actors, so the process is ponderous and excitable. Sutton ends up with four boys and a girl. And an olde Irish pub.
By morning, that pub has become The Bearded Lady, a kitsch Northern England themed bar, pedalling Yorkshire bitter to London hipsters. Sutton’s plot, a case of mistaking a casual drinker for a powerful critic, is basically a reduced version of The Government Inspector. It’s not going to win an Olivier any time soon, but it holds together with some great gags and a strong balance of contradictory characters.
“Looking back,” he says the next morning, surprisingly together, “I can see so many little mistakes and decisions I’d avoid if I did it all again. This is by far the strangest, most chaotic, random piece of work I’ve ever written, but I wouldn’t change a second of it.”
At 7am, while Sutton beds down for a few hours, his script is read by seven directors and, after a miniature bidding war, it lands in the hands of Tara Robinson, 25, formerly an assistant director at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. “I was thinking strategically,” she says, “trying to pick a play I liked, but also one I knew I could do really well.”
At a restaurant across the road, the 31 actors are finally unleashed and, suddenly, the atmosphere grows in giddiness. Whoops go up with each cast announced and handfuls of people scuttle off to rehearsal rooms around the National Theatre Studio and the Old Vic itself.
Actors only see the script during the first read-through and, by the end, they’re already making character choices. Actor Sam Donnelly, 25, later explains, “It really is like a six-week project squeezed into 10 hours. You’ve got to go with your gut instinct: make a strong choice and if it’s wrong, make another.”
Robinson’s plan “to get the whole thing mapped out by lunch” is clearly not her usual method. She seems a naturally pensive director, but today there’s no time to even consider the play as a whole, so blocking begins. Every now and then, the process snags: a decision about pre-show music consumes 15 valuable minutes before Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp is settled upon. Everyone knows it’s not quite right, but it’ll do.
After lunch, however, things really take off and it’s quite inspiring to watch the piece fleshing out by the minute. As the actors grow more comfortable, characterisation gets bolderand they find the play’s natural rhythms. But with two hours to go, no one’s close to being confident with their lines.
“If you give yourself five minutes of breathing space, the fear starts to keep in,” says Donnelly. “It’s best to keep going and going.”
Over dinner, the nerves start to show in frantic, incessant line-runs. The thrill of the Old Vic stage, cited by several actors as the main reason for their involvement, sets adrenaline pumping by the gallon. Robinson is reposed, describing the process as “incredibly illuminating”; Donnelly, less so: “This is huge, much bigger than my drama school showcase.”
Then, at 7.30pm, in front of the most excitable, supportive audience I’ve ever been in, they go out and perform. The results are ramshackle, random and eager to please, but they’re also witty, infectious and interesting. Most of all, thanks to the helium of support and taurine-free energy drinks, they exist – and, in itself, that’s pretty impressive.