This Friday evening, a cabal of student dramatists will seal themselves off from the light of day for a full 24 hours to complete a Herculean trial of wits and wills. But this isn’t the congregation of a shadowy cult to the dramatic arts; it’s the 24 Hour Play Festival hosted by Pens, Paints, and Pretzels (3Ps), Tufts’ umbrella organization for theater and performance groups. During this 24-hour creative free-for-all, participating students will write, direct and rehearse original plays, completing the marathon with a public showcase of their creations.
The 24 Hour Play Festival is a relatively recent addition to the Tufts performance circuit. It was first introduced to Tufts last year by junior Katie Rooney, the director of programming for 3Ps this semester. Rooney acted in student productions during a similar event as a student at Conn. College, but when she transferred to Tufts last year, she missed participating in the performances. She proposed the idea to her fellow members of 3Ps, who voted to add the festival to that semester’s program as a workshop. A workshop has “lower commitment [and] lower stakes than a major [production],” Rooney said, making them the perfect vehicle to introduce Tufts to this experimental format. Although new workshops are selected every semester, as the director of programming, Rooney was able to add the festival to this semester’s program as a special event. Whether the festival will secure a permanent slot in 3Ps’ annual fall lineup remains to be seen.
The concept of the 24-hour play was born in October 1995 from the mind of Manhattanite Tina Fallon. Although not originally intended to be an ongoing project, the concept quickly took on a life of its own. In the two decades following its debut, 24 Hour Plays have taken to stages all over the world and enjoyed an annual spot on Broadway since 2001. Alumni of the 24 Hour Plays include household names like Daveed Diggs, Amanda Seyfried and Peter Dinklage. The series has raised millions of dollars for charity and sparked spin-offs like the 24 Hour Musicals. Schools and community groups across the country have also seized on the idea, hosting their own festivals as fundraisers or exercises in community building.
So how does it all work? Playwrights will convene at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4. Only then will they receive a topic on which to base their plays, so they’ll have no way to prepare material in advance. After receiving their prompts, the writers will spend the next 12 hours conjuring up their original creations. At 9 a.m. the following morning, the directors will arrive, and the works will begin their transition from the page to the stage. To help bring the plays to life, participants will have access to the Theater Department’s prop stock. Finally, at 10 a.m., actors will enter the fold to begin rehearsing the works. Ten hours later, they’ll take to the stage in Curtis Hall for a free public performance of the works, and at the end of the night, the best play will be crowned the victor.
Although the intense time crunch may sound anxiety-inducing to an outsider, it actually helps many participants feel liberated from audience expectations.
“It’s really fun because you just get to commit to something and not be worried about judgement in that way,” Rooney noted. “It’s just like throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
Combined with moderate sleep deprivation, such unbridled creative freedom can yield some pretty strange results.
“You get to write a play and see it performed within 24 hours, which is kind of fun. But also sometimes embarrassing, some people don’t really like what they write at 2 a.m. on a Friday night,” Rooney laughed. “There are some very, very strange things that get written for play festivals.”
Indeed, one of last year’s plays included bees, cryogenics and murder among its key features. That show ended up taking home the title.
Abbreviated playwriting experiments are not foreign to Tufts. In the past, (Un)true to Form (née Bare Bodkin) collaborated with introductory-level playwriting classes to produce “Play by Play,” a series of student plays clocking in at a tight 10 minutes each. Entries in the 24 Hour Play Festival generally aren’t much longer than that — they average at about 10–15 minutes each — but the tight time limit under which they’re produced distinguishes them from the works featured at Play by Play, which are generally developed in a classroom setting over the course of a few weeks.
That being said, what really sets the 24 Hour Play Festival apart is its accessibility. While the endurance component of the 24 Hour Play Festival ostensibly restricts the event’s target demographic to die-hard thespians, it’s actually an ideal introduction for newcomers to college theater.
“It’s kind of like … a very, very watered down version of what we do for a whole semester on a major production or something like that,” Rooney remarked. “That’s why it’s good for people who’ve never really been involved [in the theater]. They can just come in, act in a play or write a play and then have it performed.”
As of yesterday morning, sign-ups remain open for actors, directors, playwrights and combinations thereof; participants can also volunteer to lend a hand with basic tech support (“It’s like turning a light on and off,” Rooney insisted). A link to the registration form can be found on the 3Ps’ Instagram page. Finished products will be performed on Saturday Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. in Curtis Hall, in what is sure to be a strange, spectacular and unforgettable evening.