Diurnal theater tests cramming, creativity

This is what is happening in the Yale Cabaret 20 hours before opening night:

Deeksha Gaur DRA ’07 runs through bottles of Elmer’s glue and shakers of glitter before deciding that glitter glue is probably better than glitter and glue for painting her lead character’s costume.

School of Drama Shop Carpenter Matt Gaffney, having run his lines over meals for the past few days, is proposing transition music, half-jokingly, as he sits below a cutout of a trapeze artist, fez askew.

And Aurelia Fisher DRA ’09 is shading her eyes from the ring of spotlights as she looks around.

“So do we think the Siamese twins can move that bench?” she asks.

The Siamese twins shrug and sidle next to each other. They don’t really have a choice about being able to move the bench.

This is “24-Hour Theater” — that’s 24 hours, total, spread out over a week, for eight plays to be written, cast, rehearsed and run through — which is theater with no backup plan, a warp-speed exercise in improvisation, letting go and enthusiastically saying “yes” to every idea.

“There is a joyful lunacy about the whole thing,” explains Dorothy Fortenberry DRA ’08, the show’s curator (that means something like “shepherdess,” she says, responsible for getting everyone on the same page and in the same room). “And out of all that pure energy comes a unique type of creativity.”

That last qualification — saying yes if only because nobody has time to say no — probably explains some of the things that will take place on stage this weekend. Gaffney, for instance, will play himself, a Yale Repertory Theater carpenter moonlighting as an actor. Gaur’s costume is for the paramour of the world’s fattest trapeze artist, a clown whose dangerous livelihood bothers his beau. And there are not one, but two plays featuring conjoined twins who want to separate.

“’24-Hour Theater’ reminds us that having fun is half the battle,” says Jeff Rogers DRA ’07, artistic director of the Yale Cabaret. “And it reminds us that we come to the School of Drama as 200 theater artists, not 40 actors and three playwrights, and somewhere in the depths of our souls, we still are theater artists.”

The logistics are as follows: Participants, for the most part working outside their School of Drama concentration, convene to lay out a calendar. Then self-designated playwrights have six hours to write a short one-act within a given set of parameters; this year, the play had to take place at a circus, incorporate the line “are you coming on to me?” and feature a montage. Then the scripts are handed over to directors, who have an hour apiece with their actors and then an hour apiece to figure out their lighting and sound designs.

“The things that get written about feel contemporary, on the leading edge of who we are, whether it’s something political, or how we feel about a relationship right now or how we feel about drama right now,” Rogers said.

The Yale Cabaret occupies a unique place in the Yale School of Drama experience. Completely independent from curricular activities, the Cabaret gives students an opportunity to experiment with plays that are generally lower in time commitment and more flexible in scope than their school-related projects.

The “24-Hour Theater” project is that philosophy taken to the nth degree, with playwrights acting and managers writing and actors managing. As with the entirety of the Cabaret season, the “24-Hour Theater” plays are designed to be taken in as one canvas, a composite of perspectives and styles, Rogers said.

The unifying theme this year among all the “24-Hour” plays, says Rogers, is the anxiety of the artist “poking out.” In one irreverent piece, the characters are openly indignant about being in a poorly-written play and are overly obsessed with their dramatic ideas. In another, a former circus performer has sold out and is well on his way to becoming a well-paid CEO.

Patricia McGregor DRA ’09, director of both the latter piece and one of the Siamese twin plays, reminisces about the “madcap” experience. There have been emergency Salvation Army trips and corset mishaps and one particularly desperate moment where the playwright had written in a “mysterious dance,” of which nobody quite knew what to make.

“You don’t have time to sit around and think, ‘Well, what if they were joined at the leg instead of the hip?’” she says. “There is no overintellectualizing. You put your ego to the side, and you just go.”

As for the “mysterious dance”?

“It will involve maracas covered in tinfoil,” McGregor laughs.

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