Sunday 17 December 2017

Just playing it all by ear - The 24 Hour Plays

'The 24 Hour Plays' set the stage for some real comic moments and serious improvisation, Joanne Hayden discovers

Improv on stage: Playing a blinder at last year’s event at the Abbey Theatre
Improv on stage: Playing a blinder at last year’s event at the Abbey Theatre

Most plays are a long time in the making. They can take months, if not years, to write. Rehearsals usually last several weeks. But in the case of The 24 Hour Plays - at the Abbey for one night only on January 29 - the time constraint imposed on the artists involved is the whole point of the event.

In less than a day, six plays will be written, rehearsed and performed. Over the past five years the evening has amassed such a following that it always sells out in advance.

"People love to feel a bit of disaster," says producer Eva Scanlan, who first brought the plays to Dublin in 2012. "Something you'd never normally see in the Abbey."

Licensed from The 24 Hour Company in New York, where the concept originated, the event is a fundraiser for Dublin Youth Theatre. Since its inception, €54,650 has been raised. Everyone works for free.

The framework for creating the plays is always the same. At 11pm the night before the show, the actors, directors and writers meet. The actors bring a costume and a prop, and introduce themselves, revealing a special skill and something they've never done on stage before. The six writers then have about seven hours to complete a 10-12 minute script.

"We ask them (the writers) to come with no ideas in advance," says Scanlan, "to come with as clean a slate as possible."

At six the following morning, the writers hand in their scripts. The directors are assigned their play and cast. Rehearsals begin at nine. Backstage in the Abbey every spare corner is used. As well as the directors, and 28 actors, there are lighting, sound and costume designers, and a stage management team. Members of Dublin Youth Theatre work as production assistants and assistant directors. Everyone tries to push through the fear.

"You see people during the day and they're ready to tear their hair out," says Scanlan.

Comedian, writer and actor Tara Flynn, who signed up as a writer last year and will be acting on January 29, describes the experience as "joyous, bonkers and impossible". She says: "It was one of the most surreal things I've ever done."

She remembers being "bundled" into a van outside the Abbey after the initial meeting and taken to the Lir theatre with the other writers. They were given rooms with wifi and had access to snacks and caffeine.

The time limit suits comedy writing, she says. "It simply wasn't possible to make a rounded play with different strands and elements. You just get enough lines for each character... of course, no one expects the show to run without a hitch. There's a real collaboration between the audience and the actors," says Flynn, "and that's a lovely thing."

But being able to count on audience goodwill does little to assuage the actors' nerves. Keith Duffy, a veteran of the plays, describes the experience as a "terrifying ordeal".

The 24 Hour Plays "grab hold of you", he says. Although he can't take part this year, he has participated twice before and both times was cast in a "very funny role".

Last year he was a porn star in a play by John Butler that also featured Peter Coonan (aka Fran in Love/Hate). The year before he played an alcoholic busker who had wound up in India and could only remember the words to songs from 1980s advertisements. The piece ended with him and Dennis Conway singing the Flake jingle: "Only the crumbliest flakiest chocolate..."

Because they happen only once, the plays are even more unique than most live theatre. No recordings are made. "You have to be in the room," says Scanlan. "The energy is so special."

Energy is the first thing Séana Kerslake (star of A Date For Mad Mary and RTÉ series Can't Cope, Won't Cope) mentions when she talks about the plays. "I think it'll be a lot of fun," she says. "Exciting but a huge challenge.

"It's a lot of actors' worst nightmare," she adds. "You don't know who you'll be working with. You have to have good improv skills in case an actor forgets a line. Some actors hate improv. I love it."

The 24 Hour Plays are in the Abbey on Sunday, January 29. For tickets, see abbeytheatre.ie

Irish Independent

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