Six Plays, One Day, Infinite Insanity

Let's do a little role-playing for a second.

Let's pretend you're, say, a playwright. It's a Friday evening, and you're probably a bit worn out from working your day job all week. You head to Hotel Congress with the following mission: You have to write a 10-minute play, in conjunction with another randomly assigned playwright, with whom you've probably never worked before. Oh, and there's an audience there, and they get to choose three weird props--whatever they choose, like, say, an elf's hat, a Tiki head doll and a pair of maracas--and one random line--like "even a kick in the ass is a step forward"--that you have to work into the play.

One more thing: You have about 12 hours to write the show--during the hours that you probably should be sleeping--by early the next morning. And when you're done, as you go home and sleep (if you're lucky), directors and actors will hurriedly rehearse to perform your work, no matter how crappy it may be, that evening. Afterward, the audience picks the best play, and a cash award is given.

It's all called "Play-in-a-Day," and this will actually happen Friday and Saturday, Oct. 1-2, at Hotel Congress. Tickets, including both the Friday kickoff (in The Room) and the Saturday play performances (inside Club Congress) are $10. Both nights' events start at 7:30 p.m.

This is the third year of the Old Pueblo Playwrights (OPP) event, which was modeled after similar events in larger towns, says OPP member Hal Melfi. He's participated in the event each year: the first as a playwright, and last year as the "rover" who was around during the middle of the night to provide help and comfort to any playwrights in meltdown mode. He will be doing the same this year, along with OPP president Gavin Kayner. (Melfi's also helping set up Friday night staged readings of short OPP works, to help kick off the event.)

The event, says Melfi, is meant to be an interactive thing. In other words, a lot of audience participation is vital on both nights, preferably from the same people.

"This is audience participation at the highest level, because they're sticking their fingers in the plays with the props, the line, and by taking the playwrights and then locking them in a room--and then coming back to see the plays the next night," he says.

The task can be daunting for all involved, because of the short timeframe, and because many people will end up working with people they don't know. Going back to role-playing: How would you, as a playwright, feel to be locked in a room overnight with someone you've never worked with before, with random props and a random line, and be expected to come up with a masterpiece? Or to be a director with less than a half-day to pick actors and put on a performance (a staged reading, really) of a play that didn't exist 12 hours before? Or an actor expected to perform said play with said harried director?

When he participated as a playwright, Melfi says, the hardest part was not knowing the identity of the playwright he'd be writing with.

"The anticipation ... was my biggest concern, the chemistry, and hoping we were going to hit it off," he says. But he got lucky--he ended up knowing his randomly assigned co-writer, but that's not to say his experience went off without a hitch.

You see, he had a construction job. "On Friday, they told me I'd have to work Saturday," he says. "This meant I stayed up all night. ... We worked out a storyline and did improvising back and forth. By about 5:30 a.m., I needed to leave and go clean up." The other playwright tidied up the play while Melfi readied for work. After work, a sleep-deprived Melfi returned to see the play performed.

Well, it turned out that the director assigned to the play had a different vision for the play than the writers did. "It was driven by the director at a manic pace, making it an absurdist drama," Melfi says. "It looked a lot different than I imagined it would."

Melfi says he was "intrigued" by the end result. His partner was "crushed."

This begs the question: With plays written in such a short amount of time, and under such adverse conditions, aren't they generally destined to, well, suck? Melfi says this is actually not the case.

"Last year (when the event was at the Muse; this is the first year at Hotel Congress), each play had at least one intact moment," he says. "And none of them showed signs of being really rushed."

Of the 12 playwrights scheduled to participate this year, from Phoenix and Tucson, some have impressive credentials; others are nearly beginners. The authors include Toni-Press Coffman, who's penned 20 plays including That Slut and Touch; Arizona Theatre Company's Bevan Bluemer; and 19-year-old Gary McGaha, a UA sophomore.

Their goal? Do better than last year's winning play, which has actually earned its way into some festivals for plays that are 15 minutes or less.

Not bad for a play with an elf's hat and the line, "even a kick in the ass is a step forward," eh?

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