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Theater in a Day

September, 2011
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The city of Shanghai is known for its fast-paced, often spontaneous lifestyle, as well as for its highly diverse culture populated by people from different parts of China and the world. This very same description can be applied to this past weekend’s debut of the internationally acclaimed theater show “24 Hour Plays”, produced and presented by Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) Hongqiao in collaboration with SCIS Pudong, Hangzhou International School, the British International School, Shanghai (BISS) Pudong, Shanghai American School (SAS) Puxi, and Dulwich College Shanghai.

24 Hour Plays made its successful debut for the very first time in Asia on September 3rd in front of a live audience of around 300 at SCIS Hongqiao. Attendees ranged from parents to local spectators. The event was packed with energy and excitement as no one knew quite what to expect, not even the actors. There were a total of 5 plays presented over an hour span with each play lasting 8-10 minutes. Each show averaged four performers and most of the props and wardrobes were re-used from play to play, such as the bunny slippers, white suit, scarf, and wheelchair. However, the delivery, energy, and performances were all beyond excellent. The show opened with the “The Ballad of Norman the Clown, a play that describes how on any given day you can decide to change the direction of your life…if you truly believe it. This was the perfect play to kick off the show as it shared the theme of 24 Hour Plays – the element of surprise! The opener successfully hyped up the crowd, paving the way for the remaining shows. With the collaboration of over 100 students, educators and theater professionals, it was truly an experience like no other.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the concept of “24 Hour Plays,” it was created by Tina Fallon (Saturday Night Live) in Manhattan, New York in 1995 and was originally intended as a one-night-only theater experience. Since then, it has become a trademark and has expanded globally. What makes this theater experience different from others? Well, just as the name suggests, the whole process of casting, writing, rehearsing and performing all take place within 24 hours.

Writers choose the actors they want to write for, limited to four actors per play. Props and wardrobe were brought in by the cast and crew with each person contributing one item to help stimulate the writer’s creativity. The entire writing process took around 10 hours or so from 1 am, where nothing was created until six in the morning when the scripts were ready to go. Then the directors arrive to choose their script with actors already assigned. Unlike other shows, the 24 Hour Plays directors only find out who their actors are on the day of the performance.

24-hour-plays-6s“Since the kids don’t have the time to think twice about certain lines or blocking, they perform on instinct. The initial reaction is the best reaction! That’s true theater!” says Kelly Webber, the chair of Fine Arts at SCIS Hongqiao and the artistic director of 24 Hour Plays Shanghai. Kelly has worked previously as the artistic director for the 24 Hour Plays in New York for 3 years and this time around was the only person with 24 Hour Plays experience. She wanted to take this opportunity to introduce this visual and raw theater experience to Shanghai, as she was the main person responsible for putting this amazing show together.

Of course, there was help from an assembled team of international talent and professionals including Alice Tuan, renowned Chinese American playwright and the Head of Writing for performance at Cal Arts, Jonathan Geenen, the director at Shanghai 3rd Culture Theater, Verginie Knight, a talented French artist from the La Troupe du Theatre Francophone de Shanghai, and many others. Alice spent two days holding a workshop working with all the playwrights, helping them to develop their skills and offering advice on idea development. Jonathan Geenen also brought in his expertise from professional theater and took the time to work with the students one by one, honing their performing skills on the day of the rehearsal.

In addition to industry experts, teachers from the international school communities in Shanghai also contributed greatly in making the first ever 24 Hour Plays a success! Participants included Randy Girdner (director of A Ladies’ Man) who teaches drama at SCIS, Juanita MacGarrigle (director of The Joker) who teaches drama at SAS Puxi, and Philip Wood, the new drama teacher at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, Gubei. All of them stepped in as the directors for their respective plays.“The Plays that I have presented in the past have all been done over a 6 week process at the very least,” explains Juanita. “This was far more high-paced than I was used to, but the students were dedicated and made their ideas and concepts shine through!” On the other hand, as the director for The Ballad of Norman the Clown, Philip approached 24 Hour Plays in a fairly relaxed manner. “The students responded very well to directions,” says Philip. “Young actors generally exceed expectations as their extra nerves and the energy from the audience propels them to complete performances!”

24-hours-play-2sIndeed, there couldn’t be a show without the performers and tech support. Many students from the above listed international schools volunteered their weekend to participate in this grueling, nonstop 24-hour event! Some even travelled from Hangzhou just to stay up all night preparing the costumes and props as well as participating in the rehearsals from morning to the afternoon. “Being happy and sleepy at the same time can be a pain,” says Orri Gudlangur Jonsson, the technician for The Red Scarf from SCIS Hongqiao.

Losing sleep was painful but for most if not all the students, it was definitely a great learning experience for them. “I had the chance to learn how to successfully cooperate with others,” says Justin Park, a student at SCIS Hongqiao and the technician for The Lion Who Tamed the Lion Tamer. “I discovered the power of art and human creativity can be incorporated in as short of a period as 24 hours.”

It was a short period for some but a long grueling day for others. Without rest, the actors stepped right on up the stage for the official performance at 8 pm. After going through the process, the cast, crew and even the audience gained a sense of accomplishment, established stronger creative relationships and earned a renewed sense of self-confidence. “When you think you are done, you are just about to start,” adds Dai Jin Jeong of SAS Puxi and the writer of A Ladies’ Man, which talks about a womanizer who took his tactics a little bit too far and later came back to haunt him.

24-hour-plays-5s1“Before I was quite nervous and excited, but afterwards I was relieved and completely satisfied,” says Sarah Wellman (Actor from The Red Scarf), a student at SCIS Hongqiao. “Months of hard work crammed into one day makes for some dirty, dynamic chaos!” exclaims TJ Gourlay (Actor from A Ladies’ Man), a student from SCIS Hongqiao.

Similar to the play he directed, The Red Scarf, which was a satirical journey on discovering purely feminine quality within human beings, director Jonathan Geenen also discovered something new for himself after this one-of-a-kind experience. “The openness to friendship is amazing,” says Geenen. “This event really rejuvenated my creative spirit!” Under the format of the 24 Hour Plays, there isn’t any time for building chemistry or trust between actors and directors. One must put trust into a stranger’s hands and give 110% to run with the material. “I put faith in the kids,” says Randy Girdner. “It was a wonderful experience for the kids to experience pressure.”

When the 24 hours was over, the curtains raised and the audience gave a standing ovation, applauding the cast and crew for their hard work. Kelly couldn’t be happier. “Exhausted and exhilarated,” says Kelly Webber. “They (students) learned, they pushed, and they thrived in this extreme theatrical condition, where anything could go awry at any moment. They came out on top smiling, and I could not have been more proud.”


By Richard Chung


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  1. Malik
    October 7th, 2011 at 21:57 | #1

    Rome wasn’t built in a day but these plays sure were!

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