It’s around 5:15 on Saturday afternoon, and the cast of Plan-B is struggling through their tech rehearsal on the stage of the Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. They are just one group participating in Plan-B Theatre Company’s fourth annual Slam, wherein a handful of maniacs have exactly one day to create five short plays entirely from scratch.
It’s understandable that they don’t all know their lines; they only got their scripts this morning. Though they are experienced actors, Yolanda Wood, Joe Debevc and Ariana Broumas are tired and frustrated, letting passive-aggressive comments slide by each other and reacting to pretty much anything from their director, Kay Shean, with sighs, shrugs and eye-rolls. They take most of their 20 allotted minutes on the stage to slog through not even half of their 10-minute piece. The entire theater'from the cast, to the technical crew, to the theater company director, to the reporter who thought it would be fun to hang around'is tense. This one is going to be a train wreck. You can smell it in the air.
Backtracking: At 7:52 p.m. Friday, I show up for the kickoff and playwrights’ meeting. The writers remain outside the theater until the prescribed time and at exactly 8, they are allowed in. The sanctity of the 24-hour period must be observed.
In order to ensure fresh material, the writers randomly select envelopes containing a title and an image to be projected on a screen upstage. They also select (randomly) a sound cue to be played as their actors take the stage. The actors themselves were first grouped by the scientific process of throwing their headshots down a corridor and bringing together whichever three happened to land near one other. The resulting cast groupings also are distributed blindly.
With everything established, the writers are released to fret, drink coffee, fret some more, and eventually get some work done before 9 a.m. Saturday, when the actors and directors will show up for rehearsal.
The next morning, the writers are bleary-eyed and disoriented. Debora Threedy'author of Toe Jam and the only first-time Slam writer'claims to have slept sometime between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. in order to “get some distance on the work” before resuming editing. Cort Brinkerhof, who wrote Squat, says he tried to sleep at one point, but that ideas and a residual caffeine buzz drove him back to the keyboard to continue tinkering.
Back inside the Black Box, scripts and schedules are passed out. Everyone scatters to their assigned rehearsal spaces, and the initial euphoria begins to be replaced by steadily mounting panic.
I spend my day flitting in and out of the rehearsal studios and lamenting the premature absence of coffee. From initial script read-throughs to the embryonic blocking process and beyond, the shows gradually take shape. There are 10-minute breaks every hour, most of which are used by actors to frantically pore over scripts and hopefully commit them to memory'or at least something passably close. Cigarettes are also smoked.
As the day progresses, it is obvious that some groups are coming along better than others. The cast of Smells Like Bacon by Matthew Ivan Bennet seems to have things'a few details about Western philosophy aside'well under control from the beginning. Actress Lori Rees doesn’t seem to mind giving Kirt Bateman a 12-hour lapdance'it’s all in character, I swear'and Mark Fossen’s apparent ease in a full lotus position belies his admission that he does not do yoga.
Then there’s Plan-B. Written by Jim Martin, it is a blunt reaction to the recent tragic killings at Virginia Tech. It is a strength of Slam’s format that such topical material can be brought to the stage so quickly, but the cast seems to have trouble with the script from the start. It lacks obvious action, which is compensated for by largely unmotivated staging that the actors can’t seem to keep in their heads along with the circular, meandering dialogue. All of this leads up to the near-meltdown at tech rehearsal.
To their credit, they come away from the disaster with a determination to wring the most out of their final two hours of rehearsal. Director Shean drills the problem sections repetitively, offering positive reinforcement and reserving her doubts for sly glances in my direction. Actors voice their frustrations constructively. They’re all in this together, sink or swim, and they know it.
Come performance time, I hold my breath, prepared for the train wreck I fear while hoping for the best. But they are professionals, and they fight through it. When one of them gets lost, another gently nudges her back on track. It’s not the prettiest piece of theater you’ve ever seen, but they manage to leave the stage with their dignity intact and a palpable air of relief.
Hell, they only had a day. Could you have done better?