10 Lessons from my First 24-Hour Playwriting Challenge

I’m still running on caffeine, a bit of adrenaline, and goodwill toward my fellow human beings. It was a long day, but entirely worth the efforts and the hassles.

And there were hassles.

Two of the students who had committed to doing the event were forced to back out in the middle of the night due to unforeseen circumstances. So I met with three in the morning, as well as my partners in the endeavour, Michael Rawley and Shane Patrick McClurg, and we went over the first script while also beating the proverbial bushes for more participants. Meanwhile, my son (one of the remaining three) pounded away on his 10 minute script. Little by little, through phone calls and text messages — and even sending volunteers to their friends’ houses — more participants appeared. By mid-afternoon, we were up to nine teenagers and a third play was underway!

I think the hardest part for myself was in stepping back and letting the kids have at it. My instinct, as a teacher and a dramatist and a writer, is to want to take control in some way. I latch onto the vision and I start to want to shape it as I see it, or at least contribute in some meaningful way. But I was able to make myself stick to gentle nudges when the students had gone a little too far out of focus, and by staying in a mostly supervisory and advising role, I saw that they were capable of guiding themselves and accomplishing their goals of writing, directing, and performing ten-minute plays in a day (or less). And their creativity was absolutely wonderful.

I learned a lot from this experience, though, and I need to get these thoughts down before I forget them. So here are some of my do’s and don’ts for organizing a 24-Hour Playwriting Challenge for teenagers:

  1. DO set up a schedule or agenda of deadlines, and have it printed or visible for reference. It’s good for participants to gauge their time and work out how many run-throughs they can get in, a very practical exercise of time-management and goal-setting.
  2. DO be flexible with the schedule and deadlines — except for the opening of the house for the audience! Stuff happens. Even with the best of intentions, individuals may arrive late, have to restrict their roles, or struggle with completing a task like writing a script, especially if it’s their first time. They’re being introduced to the challenges and rewards of theatre, so being overly strict can be discouraging. If time is passing too quickly, offer guidance in problem-solving by suggesting alternatives, providing scaffolding or templates, and delegating jobs.
  3. DON’T let students get away with distracting each other. There’s fun, and then there’s driving each other off-topic. For the most part, they’re going to respect that the writers need to write and the directors need to direct, but in the process of going outside their regular roles and inhibitions, it happens that the goofiness can go beyond constructive creativity into interference. Give the kids who are waiting for scripts some jobs to do, or food breaks, so they don’t get on each other’s nerves.
  4. DON’T organize it alone. Enlist at least one other adult to assist in coordinating, advertising, supervising, and mentoring the participants. There are a lot of errands that will need to be run in the weeks leading up to the event, and on the day itself. It’s too much for one person to do, in my opinion. I would have liked that extra help a few weeks ago, and was extremely grateful for the additional adult personnel today.
  5. DO become a human bullhorn. I had individuals arrive late today who had forgotten or mistaken the date (e.g., thinking it was next week), and a few who didn’t know about it at all in spite of the radio and online advertising. I think my registration form should have been a pamphlet rather than a flat sheet of paper, just for convenience, and I needed to canvass more kids at school. It would have been good to set up an information table at lunch hours with reminders and maybe even some swag or merchandise to promote it more visibly or effectively. But again, to thoroughly approach those most likely to want to participate, more than one adult needs to be involved.
  6. DO have access to a printer on-site. I ended up running back and forth to my house over and over to print scripts, which cost time and was draining on my own energy (although in looking back, maybe it was better that I had those little breaks).
  7. DO provide a “tickle trunk” of costume pieces and props. Although it’s good for kids to be resourceful, not everyone can simply run back to their own homes to retrieve what they need.
  8. DO let your students use their scripts in the performance. The objective is to access creativity and help them to realize what they can do on their own. Forcing them to go off-book when they might not be prepared is not a good idea. They can relax more and go with the flow if the script is in hand.
  9. DO charge your camera battery. Nothing is worse than losing power in the middle of photographing and / or taping the process and final show, and you do want to document the teens’ achievements. It was great that we had a professional photographer come and document the work as well!
  10. DO invite other local artists to contribute. We had singer-songwriter Mellow Lily perform for us as an introduction and an interlude between each performance. Bringing in other performers raises the status (I know there’s a better word for this* but I can’t think of it off-hand; caffeine is wearing off) and reminds the students that their work is going to be held in high esteem.

*Calibre — the word is calibre! Thanks, Kim!

I’m sure that there are other things I’m going to think of later on. For one thing, I’m debating whether it’s wiser in future to have a small admission fee instead of charging a ticket price for the audience members. The admission fee could be divided between things like materials costs, t-shirts (imagine if everyone who participated got to take a printed t-shirt away with them! Mind you, t-shirts could also be made available to purchase separately . . .), food, drinks, and go toward the building maintenance costs (or in our case, the refurbishing of the LaSalle Theatre). But as my students told me when I canvassed them, a fee might only discourage participation because few of them can afford the extra money at this time of year, especially if they’re saving for spring trips or college tuition fees.

There’s also the question of whether it would work to have the 24 hour experience happen all in one place. When I was in high school, I attended a couple of wake-a-thons involving staying awake for a whole night in order to raise money, and I’ve supervised or participated in events that required staying up until dawn to walk for cancer research or awareness of world hunger. In this case, staying awake all night would provide the writers with time to complete their scripts before the day of rehearsals, and the actors and directors could pull double-duty in creating costumes and props and set pieces. But they’d still have to have time to sleep or their final performances would be affected. We’d have to provide quiet sleep-zones, supervisors to sleep in shifts, and more materials and food. We started our inaugural event at 7 pm last night, met for two hours to go over the expectations and requirements of the 10 minute play format, did a little team-building, and then went our separate ways to sleep. The writers ended up staying awake later than the rest, and had to be up early the next morning because they were also going to participate as either actors or directors or both. Keeping all of the students together might provide more motivation to get the scripts done, but some individuals need quiet and privacy to write. Everyone sleeps better in their own beds. Then again, sequestering the whole group in one building for the duration of the event makes it even more of an adventure. It’s something to consider.

Anyway, those are my uppermost reflections. My work on this project is not quite over — I still have to upload and process my videos to share on social media and burn for kids whose parents couldn’t be at the performance, create and print and sign certificates, and a few other wrapping-up tasks. And sleep. I get to sleep in tomorrow morning!

Aaaaand just when I was about to hit “Publish” . . . Ah-hah! I knew there was one more thought floating around in my brain: refreshments and post-performance reception / cast party! I think it would have rounded our evening off nicely to have had coffee and tea and pop, cupcakes and brownies and whatnot, to thank everyone properly for their involvement and support. And then the adults would slip away for a more grown-up down-time event. That’s what’s missing the most from tonight. I have that post-performance high and it would have been fantastic to go out for a celebratory beverage with my fellow supervisors / mentors / coordinators. It didn’t even occur to me to suggest it, though, perhaps in part because my own children were tugging and pushing for all of us to go home together.

I think that’s my final take-away from this experience. I love working with energetic, creative, thoughtful and generous teenagers, showing them how awesome they can be and what they can achieve, but I need to balance that with participating in performances with my own peers as well. It would be really nice to develop and produce a play with adults and follow it up with a cast party that I can enjoy on a different level. Frankly, it’s not appropriate for me to do a cast party with students. They can go off and do that on their own (and they probably have). But I could do it if I was in a play with people of legal age, and it would be wonderful just to put together a show like that as well.

Well, that’s enough for now. Going to tackle my wrap-up tasks tomorrow, after I’ve had my good night’s sleep, and let these learnings percolate for a while. Next theatrical project: Sears Drama Festival, in about two months or slightly less.

LaSalle Theatre 24 Hour Playwriting Challenge is underway!

I was hoping for 12 participants, but the five students who came out for the two-hour organizational meeting are enthusiastic and motivated — can’t ask for better than that, especially the first time around. As far as I know, our town hasn’t had a theatre project like this before. I’m hoping it becomes an annual event.

There were some glitches, of course. The theatre space is still under renovation, so it wasn’t nearly warm enough to stay more than 45 minutes in the lobby where we hoped to perform and I’ve had to book a different space in the event that it’s still uncomfortably cold tomorrow night. We tried moving the space heaters currently in use, and then we tried using blankets and quilts to make a blanket fort over the space heaters, but that required sitting on the floor. It kind of worked to capture the heat, but then the cold radiated up through the concrete and tile. Finally, we said “enough” and retreated to the nearby Tim Horton’s (after putting everything back, of course).

For their patience and fortitude, I rewarded the kids with hot chocolates on me.

We had some great ideas coming forward, and now the writers are working away on their scripts. I’m hopeful that there will be three scripts prepared for the morning. Then we will dive into a full day of blocking, memorizing, and rehearsal to the performances at 7 pm. Thankfully, I won’t be the sole supervisor — the theatre’s artistic director and his assistant will be there also to lend a hand. And maybe some of the kids will be able to bring friends with them to bulk up our cast and crews.

I have to say, it was really cool sitting around the table at Timmy’s, talking theatre with these young people. Just general guidelines for what they’re doing tomorrow, the schedule of activities, what is expected of the directors and actors, and the possible contingency plan for the performance space. (The latter has been taken care of, thanks to an open and friendly local church with a terrific space for presentations in the basement.)

But I am disappointed with my inability to get the posters out. I’m trying not to berate myself, accepting that I’m only one person with a full schedule of my own. And yet . . . I know it wouldn’t have taken long to canvass local businesses to put our posters up. So why didn’t I do that? I was able to post the event listing on Facebook and create an online sign-up sheet, coordinate students to record a radio ad and I did an interview with the radio news as well.

I think that I hit a limit, though. As much as I want to be like Leslie Knope, a powerhouse of getting things done, I’ve come to a wall. There is a reason why theatres (or other organizations) have publicity teams in addition to coordinators. It’s a hell of a job, getting the word out about an event or project. It can be a very fun job, too, for someone who is outgoing and has a lot of energy. And if that is your sole focus, the work is even easier. I tried to psyche myself up to go out after school, carried posters in my bag, asked students to help me out, too. I had some lovely offers of help from other adults last weekend, but I think at that point I was feeling like it was too late to put up notices with the event less than a week away. Good advertising needs to happen at least three weeks before the thing, not six days before. Actually, I don’t even know if that’s true for all things, but for theatre, I think it is, especially in winter and during a cold snap when people think carefully about their plans before making them.

I think, too, that I was holding myself back on the posters because I was terrified (and still kind of am) that the project will flop. For days, now, I’ve been afraid to hear the ad on the radio. It’s difficult to put your enthusiasm and energy into a great idea knowing that it’s not going to see the response that you want, yet I know it’s still important to try. The five kids who came out tonight made it worthwhile. I swing between being determinedly optimistic and flatly despairing, pushing forward because I said I would, and because they’re having a good time and a good experience from it.

Plus, an up-side to all of this is the learning experience for myself. I’ve never done one of these and it’s been interesting to feel my way through it, research other similar projects, suss out the potential problems and find ways to close the loopholes. Scary and challenging and exhilarating all at once. I said to my son (who is participating), maybe it’s better that we are starting with a small group.

And anyway, isn’t that how grassroots events and movements begin? Could this even be termed a grassroots event?

I really just want to go to bed. But my son is typing away on the other end of the couch and I cannot abandon him . . . I know what it’s like to suddenly have a creative writing deadline, and I greatly admire and respect him for taking this on. 10 pages of script when you’re 14 and you’ve never attempted to write a play before! It doesn’t seem like much, not at first. Sitting around a table in a doughnut shop, or in a circle of chairs in a theatre, what’s 10 pages?

It’s when you’re staring down the blank screen and trying to come up with character names, actions and dialogue, remembering that the story should ramp up on page four and that it needs to connect with a specific theme — that’s when burgeoning (or professional) writers need support. Once the roll gets going and the words are flowing, it’s all good. The hard part is getting into the flow. And for myself, the hard part is also keeping my mouth shut so that the words are all his. All theirs.

IF you happen to live in or near Kirkland Lake and want to show your support, the students’ performances are tomorrow night (Saturday Feb 21) at 7 pm, likely at Trinity United Church. I’ll put a note on the door of the LaSalle Theatre to confirm the change in locale, weather depending. Tickets for the show are $10, with proceeds going toward  refurbishing the LaSalle, and I know the students would sincerely appreciate the support.

logo for LST24HPWC