All in a play's work

From the first minutes of last weekend's "Play-in-a-Day Festival," I knew we were in for a long haul. As work assignments were read from the stage of the Central Florida Theatre Alliance's Theatre Garage at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, it was clear that the available positions in the first-ever dramatic marathon far outstripped the number of eligible applicants.

Forming eight ad hoc creative teams is an intimidating proposition, especially when you're asking them to write, rehearse and perform a commensurate number of short plays in just 24 hours' time. But the 21 companies taking part in the festival had submitted their suggested representatives' names well in advance. Why were there suddenly so many holes to be filled?

Matt Wohl, the CFTA's president, was fresh out of nomination slips before he had made it halfway through the "acting" lottery. Many of those who had earlier volunteered their services, we were told, were suddenly unavailable -- some due to illness, others to unexpected, insurmountable conflicts with their day jobs. Such is the thespian's life.

While Wohl frantically placed phone calls to potential substitutes, the eight designated playwrights retired to the CFTA's Amelia Street offices to start typing. The scribes compensated for the surrounding confusion by tearing into their tasks with a vengeance. Bob DeRosa (of the comedy troupe Them) appeared the most efficient, completing a first draft of his 10-minute dramatic piece within a matter of hours. Josh Flaum, DeRosa's longstanding partner in tomfoolery, progressed at a slightly slower pace, breaking up the room with his frustrated admission, "I've got the words 'chump' and 'whatever.'"

Brian Bradley of Discount Comedy Outlet was the last to arrive, having just wrapped up his group's latest sold-out show at Zoë & Company. Drawing himself a beer from a keg set up in the hallway, Bradley confidently bellowed, "This play is going to involve wasps!" -- the insects, not the demographic group. He soon vanished into an adjoining office, cranking up a boom box and burning some incense to stimulate the creative process.

Into the wee hours of the morning they toiled, models of concentration under pressure. At 2 a.m., the scene was static enough for me to retreat into the Theatre Garage's backstage area for a short nap. I awoke not two hours later to the sound of someone screaming about bugs. It was Bradley, running lines from his winged opus.

Good morning, Amelia

Wonder of wonders, the scripts were finished by the Sunday-morning deadline -- well, most of them, anyway. Their respective directors showed up on time at 6 a.m. -- or close enough. The actors followed as scheduled at 7 a.m. -- give or take 30 minutes.

When I saw the faces of the actors who had been earmarked to interpret the output of young writer Todd Feren, I knew the long night had been worth it. His eyebrow-raising script was a parody of the running of the bulls at Pamplona, but with angry Jewish matrons taking the place of bison. Shocked guffaws greeted the first read-through, and I decided to stick close to the Feren unit for the rest of the morning. When you're running on two hours' sleep, you instinctively look for the easy material.

Feren's director, Chris Robinson, turned out to be a highly insightful team captain, immediately picking up on the play's rhythm. Within minutes, she was suggesting extra dialogue and bits of business that swiftly turned a highly funny romp into a hilarious one.

Around lunch time, scripts gradually began to disappear from the hands of the actors in all eight camps. Powerhouse actress Babette Garber was deep in rehearsal for "Women Are From Venus," a sci-fi sex comedy written by Laura Keohane. Garber had been drafted into service at the 11th hour, but was already making inroads with a part that had her emitting alien squawks and crawling around on the floor like a futuristic mudskipper.

The remaining projects included "Gator Creek," a Florida-based character study by Playwrights' Roundtable's David McElroy; "Squad Detail," a military drama from the pen of Fox-TV 35's Steve Rowell; and "The Otter," a ghostly comedy by Mark Mannette. "Otter" was blessed to number both Wohl and the talented comedienne Lisa Curtis among its cast, and "Creek" drew support from the flawless Dixie vocalizations of actress Sheila McIntosh and the smooth directorial hand of Michelle N. Falana. "Detail's" redheaded Megan Whyte effortlessly shifted between the hardened G.I. poses of her role and a consistently easygoing out-of-character demeanor that was among the day's most affable. If she knew she was operating under a crushing deadline, she didn't let on.

The desperate hours

Somebody had to be offensive, and I realized by the late-afternoon technical rehearsal that I was not only semidazed, but unshaven and smelling somewhat ripe. I tried to sit far away from anyone who might be easily distracted by incipient vagrancy, but I felt a bit better when DeRosa came by for a chat. He too was slightly the worse for wear, having pulled an all-nighter after volunteering for double duty as his play's writer and director (filling in for the absent Michael Roddy in the latter role).

Everyone appeared to be fighting fatigue as the eight companies ran through their lighting and sound cues. Though some went well, others looked to be operating on a wing and a prayer. There just wasn't enough time to get every detail down pat.

A live setting can bring about miracles, however, and the 8 p.m. public performance went off with remarkably few hitches. "The Running of the Jews" drew a huge response as the program's opening selection, its cast displaying an energy and cohesion that had largely eluded them in rehearsal. Too bad Feren wasn't there to enjoy the fruits of his labors: He had been taken to the hospital a few hours earlier to be treated for kidney stones.

Flaum's "Smokers Cough" -- an uproarious tale of a nicotine addict's futile attempts to kick the habit -- played to screams of laughter. But the real hero of the evening was director Mike Marinaccio, who led "The Otter" through a rapid-fire series of scene changes (four in just 15 minutes!) and audiovisual embellishments. Marinaccio had worked like a demon all day long, conferring with Mannette on script changes and offering boundless support for his crew. He hadn't even been allowed to practice all of the lightning crashes, thunder rolls and blackouts Mannette's pages required; the schedule had been too tight for anything but a cursory glance.

Through it all, Marinaccio's enthusiasm had never flagged. He hadn't appeared tired for one second, even at times when I thought I was going to drop. That sort of dedication doesn't happen overnight, and I was glad I had stayed up all night to experience it.

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