West (Feature Article)
Overnight theatre can be highly stressful--and richly rewarding.
Most theatre productions--the quality ones, anyway--take months to
prepare. From writing the script and casting calls to nonstop rehearsals
and breathtakingly boring tech nights, theatre is a lengthy and precise
process. Even the shows that look like they were slapped together
overnight probably involved a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on the part
of everyone involved. And that's how it should be, right? After all,
could I possibly recommend a play that was put together in a day?
Actually, yes. One of the best theatre experiences in town is also
becoming one of the most popular. It goes by many names, from 50 Hour
Drive By (Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group) to TheaterCRAM (The
Actor's Lab). But the general idea is the same: Short plays are written,
cast, rehearsed, and performed in just a few hours. Perhaps most
ambitious is Fast & Loose, presented by Sacred Fools Theater
Company. While some groups give two days to mount their productions, the
masochistic Fools have only 24 hours in which to mount several new world
Fast & Loose premiered in 1998 and has surfaced every few months
between mainstage productions at the theatre. Under guidelines, writers
draw random elements the night before the show. These elements can vary
from the simple (a noun and a verb) to the obscure (a piece of artwork),
but they're all intended to jumpstart the writing process. The writers
also arbitrarily draw how many characters they will be writing for and
what their sex will be. They are then given 12 hours to write a short
script incorporating those elements, which is turned in promptly the
next morning. Directors and actors are then assigned to scripts,
literally by having their names drawn out of a hat. Each group is given
a set period to rehearse and tech onstage, but most practice is done in
an apartment or a parking lot. Somehow this all goes into a show that
goes up that night with (hopefully) very few hiccups.
But that was still too easy. So now, through May 1, Fast & Loose
will be presented on a weekly basis, every Saturday night at 10 p.m.
This is the brainchild of producer Joe Jordan, a veteran
writer/actor/director of countless F&Ls, who made a few adjustments
to the formula to prepare it for its run in the late-night slot.
"I'm basically doing this as an experiment," he told me early
on. "I wanted to see if it would stand up to being done on a weekly
basis. It's a show that a lot of people are really in love with and
enthusiastic about, and I figured why not give them more." Now,
instead of the usual eight plays, there are four. And unlike prior shows
where as many people as possible were used regardless of experience,
Jordan auditioned actors for this round and is pulling from the same
small group of writers and directors from week to week.
One of these writers, who will be writing all six weeks, happens to be
myself. In my outside life, I like to fancy myself a playwright--albeit
one who has never gotten a positive review from this very paper. But
until Fast & Loose, I had rarely written short-form plays, instead
concentrating on full-length productions. My feelings about the format
changed on New Year's Eve 2002, when I attended my first Fast &
Loose show. I realized that not only was I intrigued to see how the
writers would incorporate their elements--in this case, New Years props
like a photo of Dick Clark, confetti, or a noisemaker--but also that I
was witnessing great writing and performing. All done in 24 hours.
Since then, I have written six Fast & Loose scripts and even dared
to act in one. My reasons for writing began simply: It was a good way to
get my work seen, and it sounded like fun. Over time, it's become
something much more. Aside from forcing me to not procrastinate and
actually put pen to paper, it's given me an opportunity to write
characters I never would have before. I've been known for writing
primarily lighthearted romantic comedies. But due to some of the
constraints of F&L, such as the time I drew three men, I've been
forced to get creative. I've written about a grown businessman who
regresses to breast feeding in the space of minutes. And two women
fighting over who gets to be a gay man's best friend. And a couple of
nasty theatre critics evaluating each others skills in bed. They haven't
all been gems--one was an outright disaster--but each has left me
wanting for more. The potential for reward is enormous; nothing tops the
feeling you get when a piece gets pulled off. On the other hand, if it
doesn't go so well, at least you haven't invested more than a night in
it. Margaret Easley, a new F&L actor, described it perfectly:
"It was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my acting
career, and yet, somehow, the thrill and joy was directly proportional.
What a high!" Indeed, F&L is quickly replacing alcohol as my
drug of choice.
On April 9, 2003, I kept a journal of my experiences on Fast &
Loose, which I now offer as an insight into the process of creating
Friday, April 9, 10 p.m.: These things never start on time, and I'm
desperate to pick my variables and get started, as I'm still getting
over a really nasty case of food poisoning. The elements for this week,
we've been told, are "Black and White: Black Sabbath and Barry
White Songs." As I don't know a single Black Sabbath song, I'm
already concerned. And nauseous.
10:15p.m.: I'm the first to draw my songs. My Black Sabbath song is
"Iron Man," which I know only because it was used on a recent
episode of The Simpsons. My Barry White song is "Can't Get
Enough of Your Love, Babe." I'm predicting I will be writing a
sexy, romantic scene, maybe something in which a woman uses the pet name
"Iron Man" for her boyfriend. These plans are dashed when I
draw my characters: three women. Great. I make a promise to myself that
there will be no women kissing, something that frequently happens when
an F&L writer draws more than one woman.
10:30 p.m.: In the car on the long ride home from Hollywood to Culver
City, I toss around several ideas in my mind. This is usually when I
decide upon a plot, and by the time I arrive at my house I'm ready to
go. I'm not so lucky tonight. I start with a few ideas--a bunch of
superheroes hanging out, one of whom is named Iron Man. (Is there a real
superhero with such a name? I can't remember.) Or a parody of The
View in which those nattering ninnies talk about what music they
like to listen to and what names they call their men when they're
"getting it on." I spend a good 20 minutes with that idea,
even starting to write it once I arrive home. I get four pages in and
throw it out.
11:20 p.m.: I decide to use my songs not literally, but more
metaphorically. I write a script about two sorority sisters who are at
one's home, preparing to kiss. At the last second the mother of the girl
comes home early from her vacation, disrupting the romantic atmosphere.
Completely clueless, the mother humiliates her daughter by revealing the
daughter's embarrassing habits. These include her struggle with weight
("It's OK to be a little bit anorexic, you know") and that the
girl needs to take iron pills (the brand, of course, is Iron Man)
because of her "unnaturally heavy periods." Fed up with her
mother's nagging and interference, she tells her she's "had enough
of your love."
April 10, 12:10 a.m.: I hit up on the idea that the girls aren't
lesbians but rehearsing a scene from Showgirls for an acting class. So
when the daughter has to reveal her "secret" to her mom, it's
not that she's a lesbian--it's worse. She's an actress. The mother will,
of course, flip out and disown her. I'm also pleased that I've managed
to write a scene that doesn't fall into the two-women--kissing
stereotype. I go to bed shortly thereafter, deciding this is the best
script I've ever written.
3:20 a.m.: I wake up and decide this is the worst script I've ever
written. I decide to finish The View parody after all.
4:10 a.m.: I wake up my rather crabby roommate and ask her to read both
scripts and choose. She gets halfway through the Showgirls one and says
it's fine, to just go with that. I question her commitment to my art.
10 a.m.: I decide my script will be fine if I draw a solid cast. I have
seen mediocre scripts saved by great actors. Then again, I've seen great
actors completely forget their lines and choke onstage. And if F&L
has taught me anything, it's the value of a director. Watching them
condense the rehearsal process into one day and the ideas they come up
with consistently amaze me. I end up drawing one of my favorite
directors, Ben Rock. And my cast is the people I had in mind while
writing it: Andrea Ruth, Julie Mullen, and Margaret Easley. As we step
outside to do a few read-throughs, I feel a sense of relief. All three
are hilarious and I know Andrea, who has done countless F&Ls, will
make a great mother.
10:20 a.m.: Ben casts Margaret as the mother. Andrea is the best friend;
Julie is the put-upon daughter. Margaret, a terrific comedienne, has
never done a Fast & Loose. I tell myself not to worry and head home
10:25 a.m.: I start to worry. What if Margaret has trouble remembering
lines? Even the most accomplished performers can struggle with the
one-day process. It's not easy to learn a 10-page, verbose script in 12
2:30 p.m.: I talk to Ben via phone and ask him how it's going. I get,
"Fine." I try to push for more and get, "Really
9:20 p.m.: I run into Margaret outside the theatre and ask how it's
going. She tells me she's incredibly nervous and really worried about
remembering all those lines. I start to sweat more than usual.
10:00 p.m.: Showtime. My play is up last, so I'm left to squirm. I'm
amazed at what the other writers have come up with using their elements.
Padraic Duffy used the song "War Pig" to write a tour de force
about a businessman who dresses up like a pig and expounds on combat.
With "Hand of Doom," Paul Plunkett penned a script about
bratty kids on a cruise ship, one of whom strangles the other on a sugar
high. And Gerald McClanahan turned "Electric Funeral" into a
meditation on four men who find themselves in hell. I hate going last.
10:55 p.m.: Much to my relief, Margaret not only remembers all her
lines, she improves on most of them. I make a mental note to take credit
for her improvisations later. Andrea and Julie are brilliant, and there
are tons of nice little touches I wasn't expecting. Most important,
people laugh--though probably none harder than myself. Even lines I
didn't intend as jokes get laughs, thanks to their delivery. I relax for
the first time in 24 hours, realizing I'm off the hook. At least for
What do you get when you take four writers, four directors and twelve actors and give them just 24 hours to create and produce four totally new one-act plays? The most upbeat and lively late night show on (or off, as the case may be) Melrose Avenue.
The equation all adds up to Late Night Fast and Loose at the Sacred Fools Theater.
Here's how it works: at 11:00pm on Friday night, four writers congregate and some suggestions are thrown into a hat. These "variables" are drawn from the hat by the writers and become the basis for the plays they will compose overnight. How they do it, exactly, is anyone's guess. But the result is four completely original theater pieces.
Twelve hours, the writers reconvene with their finished scripts and each is given to a different director. Then the four directors "cast" the plays by pulling actors' names from the hat.
In the following hours, each team gets all of 45 minutes of actual stage time to rehearse. The rest of the time, they are rehearsing in their cars, their living room, the parking lot or anywhere else they're not going to get kicked out of. There is no "time to prepare." No getting with The Method. Because twelve hours later, the curtain goes up and the result, whatever it is, is performed... Ladies and gentlemen, it's both opening and closing night! This process repeats itself every weekend.
The result was not only fast and loose, but fun, unpredictable, and impressive.
First, you would have to have a lot of confidence and a strong stomach to even undertake such a project. As there is no time for writer's block and certainly no time to relearn forgotten lines, these folks are sharp. The mere thought of composing a totally original script -- idea, story, characters, and lines having nothing more to go on than two suggestions (in one case these were "snow" and "lunch lady") -- is enough to make a less adventurous writer pull the covers over his head, especially when the writer couldn't possibly write for a certain director with one or two certain cast members in mind since he doesn't even know who these folks will be!
Further, for a script never read by the director and then shoved in his hands to produce for performance, is a task most directors would never volunteer for. And then to have it blocked, rehearsed and performance-ready in just half a day is almost masochistic.
Finally, consider the actors who were out there in the hotseat with everything riding on them. You don't forget a line (you just learned that day). You cannot forget a step or miss an entrance... there is no time.
©2004 L.A. Splash