Writing a play in 24 hours sounds like an impossible task that would appeal to only a few people. Yet this year we had as many people on the waiting list as taking part in the contest itself. Why would any one do it? How do you get through the process? Is it really worth doing?
To learn the answers, we asked this year’s first-, second- and third-place winners — Allie Bell, Cody Sears and Evan Bawtinheimer — to share their experience and tips. Their approaches are as diverse and the scripts they produced. The only response in common is they’d all do it again.
What was your goal in taking part? Did you achieve this goal?
Allie: I wanted to take part in another 24-hour theatre writing extravaganza. I participated in the Toronto Fringe Festival 24-hour writing contest, and I wasn’t happy with the results. I didn’t feel I was true to myself as a writer in that process, and I wanted to enter another contest of the same style, to grow from the results of the first contest. Whether or not I achieved my goal is up to the audience.
Cody: I’d have to say one of my biggest goals, besides actually finishing the play, was to maybe get a little recognition and a chance to move forward with my writing. I’d say I achieved that goal. Both of them, actually.
Evan: My goal was to learn more about how plays are structured to deliver information to the reader/audience. When I write a play, before I write anything down, I listen to characters for months, understanding why they use certain phrases, tones, attitudes. This time is difficult to condense into 24 hours. It was the excitement of the freedom to choose a form, or a combination of multiple forms, and extend it to an unknown theatrical end that draws me to competitions such as this. Did I achieve that goal? I wrote a play following the journey of a rock. (I’m quite happy.)
What aspect(s) of the 24-hour format appealed to you?
Allie: I really enjoy the quick turnaround, because so many contests have you waiting months for results. There is an appealing immediacy about this format, and I feel my work benefits from strict deadlines.
Cody: The deadline. Work, for me, can be a bit crazy, and finding the time to sit down and write has been a struggle, so the fact that I only had 24 hours as opposed to 3 weeks really helped.
Evan: The impulses. My creative impulses are always stronger than my pre-planned thoughts. Once you give over to the Theatre Gods, your impulses reward you with pitch-perfect theatre. Also, the little bits of humour that come from complete exhaustion. When they blend with the story, they’re pure gold.
How did you prepare for the contest? Or did you?
Allie: I had an idea of what I wanted to write about, so I was mentally prepared, and really I was looking for an excuse to lock myself away and write it.
Cody: Once I decided on my idea for a play, I looked up some quotes that I felt hit at the heart of what I wanted to write, and made a little playlist of music that evoked my ideal mood for the piece, just things that would keep me on track. Then I just thought about it. A little bit everyday, made the conscious effort to take a few minutes to let my imagination go and dream up all kinds of things that might make their way into the play.
Evan: I read plays. And I read plays. (And I read plays.) I read anything. I read dozens of plays, mostly Canadian ones, and analyzed their structures. Afterwards, I picked my favourites and explored. The three plays that I could not forget during the competition were Robert LePage’s Polygraph, Guillermo Verdecchia’s Fronteras Americanas, and Hroswitha of Gandershiem’s The Conversion of Thais the Whore. These three plays took theatrical leaps and bounds higher than a living-room or courtroom drama play structure. I combined the forms, found some wonderful people to explore, and after drafting a simple plot-line, I began writing.
I did not have a story before I entered the contest. I’m currently studying at Brock University and knew that I would write a play on an idea that I learned in class. It would have either been a play involving rocks or cultural anthropology. I wrote a play about a rock.
How the 3 secret words play into your writing process? Did they help or hinder you?
Allie: My primary goal with the three words was to get them out in the first twenty pages, mostly so I wouldn’t forget to include them in a sleepy stupor. But, I also didn’t want the words to dominate my writing and thought process, so I waited until there was a natural fit in script. I’m not the type to cram things into a sentence because I have to, which is why I appreciated the unobtrusive nature of this particular contest, and the words themselves. I truly felt it was a control for the contest and not a hindrance for my writing.
Cody: The 3 words were more just a means to an end. They had to be there, so I put them in. I didn’t shrug them off, mind you, I tried my best to work them in as a part of my actual writing, and not just add 3 stand-alone lines for the sake of having them there. They were neither a help nor a hindrance, mostly because I kept my focus on what I wanted to achieve with the play, and didn’t let the other 11,023 words in the play get held back by 3.
Evan: Oh, I loved the words. Loved them. Loved them. Loved them. I spent thirty minutes learning their definitions, synonyms, antonyms, anything that could inspire the work, including pictures of water, diagrams of perpendicular lines and letting the word shift melt on my tongue as I repeated it ominously. (I haven’t done that in ages.) The secret words helped me narrow down the very general topic of “rocks” to specific concepts of erosion, change, and connection. I felt that those concepts can be connected to minerals as well as to family, friends, and lovers. Like rocks, don’t all relationships change, erode, and connect over time?
What tricks did you employ to stay focused?
Allie: I think I’m a little crazy because I willingly write for 12 or 14 hours, so adding a few more hours was no big deal… even though by 2 in the morning there were little dots where my computer screen once was, so I took a two-hour nap. I think it is important to allow a brief period of incubation before editing, so the writer is able to remain critical about the piece.
Cody: I don’t know if these were tricks or not, but I just set up a little workstation on our dinner table and setup everything I might need — snacks, pillows, water _- so then I didn’t have to let myself procrastinate by looking for things I didn’t really need. Yeah, I guess it’s a trick.
Evan: I wasn’t able to take one foot out of my room without thousands of thoughts continuing the story, cutting and pasting, and keeping my mind active. I kept thinking and watching the characters move about on the stage in my mind, asking questions and not taking any idea for granted. The more you think and ask the more focus you achieve. If I was silent and still on the outside, you better believe I was buzzing and talking on the inside.
What surprised you the most about the process?
Allie: Winning. I wasn’t expecting it. In fact, I almost passed out when I read the website.
Cody: I wasn’t surprised that at about the 6 hour mark I hated what I was writing, but I was surprised that at the end of it all I had a product that I felt fairly comfortable with. It’s not perfect or even that good yet, but I feel it’s definitely the outline of something that might come to life someday, and I can’t help but feel surprised about it.
Evan: I was able to take a small nap, wake up, and still know precisely what I wanted to write and where I wanted to write it. I don’t imply that I had dreams about the play (I should be so fortunate); rather, that I quickly became familiar with the story and my choices that I had to guide their pursuit and not back down until every character in the play was exhausted from trying too hard to achieve their wants.
Would you do it again?
Allie: With Pat the Dog Playwright Centre, YES! Absolutely!! I recommend this process to anyone. It was, and continues to be, an amazing experience.
Cody: With my schedule, It might be the only way I force myself to sit down and write anything. I’d do it every week if I could.
Evan: If you aren’t offering it, I’ll do it again purely for the spark. If you are, then yes. Hell yes.
Photo © alexkerhead. Published under a Creative Commons License.