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Old Pueblo Playwrights race through 'Play-in-a-Day'

Hooray! Hooray! It's Play-in-a-Day!

The enthusiasm voiced by those who are familiar with this crash course in creativity is downright infectious. First launched seven years ago by the Old Pueblo Playwrights, this year's Play-in-a-Day competition happens this Friday and Saturday.

Here's the drill: Friday night, six teams of two playwrights each are sent off to write short plays—overnight. The mini-plays must be no more than 10 pages long and have no more than three characters.

The next morning, the brand-new scripts are randomly assigned to six directors. They cast the works from a group of actors hoping to lend their services. Then these newly formed "troupes" rehearse for the rest of the day. At least they don't have to memorize their lines: The plays will be given staged readings, so the actors will have the scripts in hand.

Saturday evening, an audience assembles at the Temple of Music and Art's upstairs Cabaret Theatre, and at 7:30, the curtain rises on the premieres of these less-than-one-day-old plays.

Sounds crazy.

"Yep, and that's part of the fun of it," says Jerry Elias, president of OPP and the chairman of the event. "You never know what you're going to end up with."

Elias, a stockbroker, first "wandered" into an OPP meeting four years ago at the suggestion of a colleague.

"I left the meeting just sort of mulling over what had gone on, and by 10 o'clock, I had an idea for a play," he remembers. "And I thought, 'I can do this.'"

OPP has been around for 20 years, encouraging and supporting local playwrights. Twice a year, the organization sponsors public events that showcase the writers' work. The other regular outing is the New Play Festival, scheduled for February next year.

The best part of Play-in-a-Day, says Gavin Kayner, a retired educator who has belonged to OPP since 2002, is that it gives the community the opportunity to see playmaking in a new way. Consequently, "it's really good for theater in general."

The audience is a critical part of the whirlwind. The audience reports to the theater on Friday night to watch staged readings of several brief plays already written by OPP playwrights. During intermission, theatergoers will be asked to write and submit one line of dialogue for the competition.

These short pieces of writing will be collected, and OPP members will sift through them and select four or five by the end of the evening; these "finalists" will then be put to a vote of the audience. The winning line must be included in each of the plays that will be written overnight.

The plot thickens.

The audience will also be presented with a variety of objects and asked to vote on which ones they'd like to see in the each play; three will be selected for mandatory inclusion.

"These can be pretty much anything," says Elias. "Leather chaps, a baton, a big ring of keys, a large, squishy ball—whatever."

Most importantly, at the end of Friday evening, the six playwriting duos will be chosen. Is this accomplished by matching temperaments? Writing styles? Similar interests in subjects or themes?

Nah. "We have two hats," says Elias.

The new partners, selected in a random draw, then depart to begin what they hope will be a productive all-nighter.

Kelly J. Hardesty, a playwright who has participated before and whose name will be in one of those hats this year, loves Play-in-a-Day.

"The collaboration is special," she says. "Writing is solitary. I like having a partner."

What if the team doesn't get along?

"I've never had that happen. One of the good things about this process is that you're forced to find a balance between putting your ideas out there and being flexible," Hardesty says. "Besides, there are the time constraints, and the adrenaline is pumping. It takes you out of your comfort zone. It expands your ideas about what writing can be."

Some writing teams work all night; others finish in a few hours. No matter what, by 7 a.m., they must have their scripts to Elias, via e-mail. He readies them for the directors, who are scheduled to show up at the theater at 9 a.m. With casting complete, the six groups are off to rehearse.

"This is such a wonderful, good time," says director Sara Falconer. "The people are fun and creative and supportive. There's a totally different energy from what you experience in the traditional approach to directing.

"We never know what actors will show up. We have no control over what script we get. It challenges you to think on your feet. You have to keep things simple. You can't think too much. You have to be quick and convey your ideas concisely."

Right now, Falconer is directing Rabbit Hole, a fully staged play opening this weekend at Beowulf Alley. Play-in-a-Day, she says, "helps me so much as a director."

What turns up on stage is "always a surprise," Elias says. Two prizes for Best Play are awarded. A small team of judges chooses one; the audience determines the other.

The small cash prizes are "not going to change anyone's life," Elias laughs.

As playwright Kayner says, "We don't do this to make money. We do it to make happy."

More by Sherilyn Forrester

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