This weekend I participated in the 27th installment of The 24 Hour Project – an exercise in sleep deprivation, stress, and collaboration that has become, over the past fourteen years, central to the cultural life of the city. It’s my fifth time in the project, but it’s been a while since my last one; over the past six years, my role with the Peterborough Folk Festival hasn’t left a lot of room for other things, even short projects, so I took a long break. Coming back to it this past weekend was such an adventure, and it reminded me yet again how happy I am to find myself in this arts community right now.
Organized primarily by Ray Henderson, The 24 Hour Project brings together artists from a variety of disciplines to write, rehearse, and perform a play within 24 hours. Â Five writers begin at 8pm on Friday night; as scripts roll in through the night, Ray assembles the working copies for the Directors, who arrive at 6am to read through the finished works and choose a play to direct. Â At 7:30am, the actors arrive, and are treated to plenty of coffee and delicious, fresh-baked muffins by bar owner Dave Tobey at The Spill while auditions go on upstairs.
I arrived a little late (as always), having had only about 5 hours of sleep but revved up by caffeine and DubstepÂ 1, full of energy and raring to go. Â I joined theÂ crowdÂ of more than 40 actors, about half of whom were doingÂ theÂ project for the first time. There’s a happy, social buzz about the morning casting session; it’s not like a normal audition for a play. Â The nerves aren’t quite the same, because pretty much everyone is guaranteed a part, and there’s less of a sense of competition between similar ‘types.’ Â A cheerful cacophony fills the air, as people who arrive run into friends and people they haven’t seen in a while. Â It’s loud and bright and energizing, even for a night owl like me.
Wanting to get the audition over with early, Kemi and I went up together as soon as we could. Facing down a panel of 5 directors, you’re asked various things:
Can you sing? (Yes)
Have a conversation in a British accent? (Not very well – I started to sound like a pirate. Kemi did better than me)
Give me your best radio announcer voice? (Awesome)
Do you know what a taint is? (Yes…?)
Unlike a regular audition, you don’t read from a script, and you don’t have to have anything prepared. Â And you have absolutely no idea at all what you’re in for; there’s no hint what kind of character you might get cast as.
Five minutes later, we’re back downstairs with coffee refills, laughing about the audition questions and trying to imagine what kind of roles we’ll get cast in. Â I’ve seen dramas and comedies, musicals and political pieces, ridiculous nonsense and carefully-constructed plot arcs at The 24 Hour Project; you can’t really predict what’s going to come down the pipe. Â And while it’s possible to edit the scripts a little, it’s sort-of againstÂ theÂ spirit of theÂ thingÂ to do heavy editing, so maybe you’re a baby-murderer or a nudist or the potty-mouthed enfant terrible of the play.
SufficeÂ itÂ to say that most of the participants don’t invite their parents to the show.
When Ray came down to announce the casting decisions, I was excited to find that I was cast in 30 Dollar Slumdog, written by Wyatt and Rowan Lamoureux and Directed by Esther Vincent. Having seen the other four plays, I’m sure I would’ve had fun in any of them, but I especially like working with Esther. Â The cast trooped upstairs to a studio above The Spill, and we settled in to do a read-through and find out what kind of mess we’d gotten ourselves into.
Set in the near-future, 30Â Dollar Slumdog is a mashup of Â pop culture influences and a skewering of the culture of constant connectivity, where Steve Jobs is revered and instead of an iPhone everyone has a small implant called an iTaint installed in their, well, in their taint. Â I was one of the Slum-dwellers, and a famous pop star was visiting our slum. There were plenty of opportunities to be silly, outrageous, and wild, several songs which we needed to compose music for, and the necessity for most of the characters to spend about 1/3 of the play with their hand on their crotch.
One of the things that I love about The 24 Hour Project is that, as an actor, what it comes down to is learning your lines as quickly as possible and diving into to the play without reservation, fully committing to whatever you’ve been handed by Playwright and Director. Â Much like Improv, it takes away all of the certainties of regular theatre andÂ encouragesÂ you to take whatever situation you’re presented with and say ‘Yes! And…’ It’s the exact opposite of all the things I love about theatre (process, careful text study, rehearsals), and it’s taken me a long time to come ’round to loving this sort of thing. Â All of my life, I’ve hated Improv, and while I’ve previously enjoyed the 24HP for plenty of reasons2, I’ve never loved it Â as much as I did this time ’round. Whatever was mentally blocking me from enjoying Improv has loosened up, and I can dive right in and not worry about being funny or being judged or whatever – I can just run wherever the text takes me, and trust that the rest of the cast will catch me if I stumble.
It helps to have great people to work with – Esther and the rest of the cast were really energetic, open to ideas, and hard-working, and by the time we had our 2pm tech run on the stage at the Gordon Best Theatre3, it felt like an actual play was shaping up. To go in 5 short hours (with an hour lunch break for delicious lasagna by the wonderful Jen Sek!) Â from a bleary-eyed morning read-through to a mostly off-book tech rehearsal is pretty amazing, and the work we put into rest of the afternoon polished up some of the rougher spots.Â TakingÂ a break for dinner, we reassembled at 6pm, did a couple of quick run-throughs, and headed over to the Best for our 7pm call.
When we arrived, people were already lined up waiting for the doors to open; I can’t remember a single 24 HP that hasn’t played to a capacity crowd. Until then, I hadn’t really felt any nerves at all, but when the doors opened a little electric bolt ran down my spine and into my stomach. For me, stage jitters are a delicate balance between being nervous enough to give me a spring in my step while being confident enough in the work we’ve done that I’m not overwhlemed by nerves. Â This was just right; enough to keep me bouncing on my toes through the threeÂ playsÂ and intermission that preceded ours, not so much that Â I couldn’t enjoy those plays.
Riddled with arts-community in-jokes and local references, the 24 HP is still a lot of fun for people who are new to the community, and the audience roared along while the actors at the back of the room4 hollered and cheered. Our play went off without a hitch – we remembered our lines (a minor miracle), got a lot of laughs, and had a good time. While I think everyone did a pretty fantastic job, I have to shout out to Dan Smith, who is always awesome and whose performance as a leprechaun left me in stitches, and Justin Boyd, whose performance as the elderly but feisty chairwoman of the Peterborough Little Theatre made tears roll down my face.
The rest ofÂ theÂ evening was a celebrationÂ ofÂ another great 24 HP; surrounded by good friends and fantastic people, riding the post-performance high, I felt grateful that I get to be a part of such a excellent tradition. Part family reunion, part cultural celebration, part bawdy drink-up, The 24 Hour Project rolls some of the best and the brightest people in Peterborough up into a whirlwind adventure. Â I look forward to the 15th anniversary next year, and I hope I get to be a part of it!