After the Show: Burns and Murray Talk About the 24 Hour Theatre Project

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Event: The 24 Hour Theatre Project with WAM Theatre and MOPCO at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox MA on April 14, 2012.

Gail Burns: This looks like it is going to be a new adventure, sharing our after-show conversations with the whole world.

Larry Murray: I’m glad we are starting with a winner, which I think this second iteration of the 24 Hour Theatre Project turned out to be. Five women playwrights – Cindy L. Parrish, Rachel Siegel, Kelli Newby, Kat Koppet, and Liz Duffy Adams – wrote five new short plays, and with the help of dozens of actors, directors, stage managers and other theatre people managed to get them on stage before a paying public in less than 24 hours. It is an incredible feat, especially considering the pressure cooker atmosphere that must prevail.

Gail: I was invited to be a playwright on this project (What an honor!) and declined (Stupid ass!) because I wasn’t sure I could write anything coherent under all that pressure – and I knew I couldn’t do it between 7 pm and 7 am! So as a writer sitting there thinking “Damn! Those could have been my lines getting all the laughs!” I was really, really impressed with the caliber of the scripts. I would have drunk too much coffee and cried all night.

I love WAM’s dedication to the work of women. Sadly, women’s voices are STILL heard far less than men’s, on stage and off. Ideally we would all be equal players, but that isn’t the case yet. WAM hires lots of women, but men are welcome at the table too. I think the last play “The Bar at the End of the World” by Adams in which Ted Phelps got to play the last man on a female-ruled earth, said a lot of important things about gender roles. I also loved it because it incorporated music (wonderful guitar and vocals by Lora Lee Ecobelli) and dance and featured a fabulous cast – although big dancing props have to go to Ron Komora in Seigel’s “I Heart Cory Booker.”

Larry: Great writing is not limited by gender, or age for that matter. What I like about the five we just saw was the total diversity of settings, and the fact that none were about the commonplace topics we get so much of each summer. I loved watching sidelined actors talking about how their injuries came about, and the denizens of Hell coming up with new tortures for the present day. The answer was ingenious – just politics as usual! It would have been fun to do a rundown on each offering, but because it is so experimental the organizers specified that the performance was not open for review.

Gail: Absolutely. The process was the point, not the end product – and it was really about the artists, not the audience. We were all just there as cheerleaders. The one purpose of the critical response to theatre is to inform the potential ticket buyer whether or not the show is worth spending time and money on. This was a one-time performance and that was a moot question, even though the answer was “Hell, yes!” On the other hand, I always have an opinion, but this is not the time to be “critical.”

Larry: Well I think I was more than just a cheerleader, I ended up being an enthralled eyewitness. Arriving at the theatre, one of the first things I noticed was that this was not your summer audience, very little grey hair, and lots of young theatre people. I think it was like the Berkshire theatre community coming together without all those lovely New Yorkers who come here in the summer. The key people from the community theatres were here, and the actors who make their homes in the Berkshires, and the audience who lives here year round. The Bernstein Theatre was full, I only saw one or two empty seats in the whole place. Did you get a feeling that we were all part of the theatre family?

Gail: There are New Yorkers and there are New Yorkers, Larry. I think you mean “City Folk” or “Downstaters.” Our theatre colleagues from the Capital Region are certainly New Yorkers!

But yes, this really was our regional theatre family – at least the ones who weren’t on stage or in rehearsal for other shows here and abroad. Last night was an enormous playdate for theatre folk and there was lots of waving and hugging and cheek bussing all around. I felt like all the cool people were there – plus you and me!

But beyond the fun of being together to support friends and colleagues, this event served a serious purpose of helping to bring the communities on either side of the Taconics closer together. In the winter particularly those mountains and our unpredictable weather serve as pretty formidable barriers for artists and audiences to cross. Hard to get to rehearsals and performances, and hard to sell tickets . You can’t stage a play “weather permitting”!

I see a little more theatre in the Capital Region than you, and I have followed and promoted the many, many companies there on for years, but those same travel barriers exist for journalists as for artists and audience, and there is literally so much theatre in the Capital Region that no one writer could adequately cover it.

How do you perceive the theatre in that region and was it fun for you, as it was for me, to see artists – those we know by name and reputation only – strut their stuff?

Larry: Impressive. Sometimes I wish I was midway between Albany and the Berkshires so I could support both theatre communities. Even in the Berkshires the theatres can easily be an hour apart – the Mahaiwe and Unicorn Theatres in Great Barrington and Stockbridge are a full hour from North Adams where I am.  We could be halfway to Boston with the same amount of driving. You have encouraged me to broaden my scope, to take in more of the companies based in New York, and I have not regretted it.  They have as many hits – and clunkers – as does any metro area.

With the 24 hour project, we got to see five completely different plays, each with it own creative team, and there was no way of knowing who was from where. Theatre is theatre, and we do speak a universal language wherever we are from.

By the way, though we sat apart, I saw you join the audience for a standing ovation. As critics we are not supposed to do that, just applaud politely and not get caught up in the huzzahs. So a “Standing O”, that’s pretty unusual for you, isn’t it? What did you think of the plays themselves?

Gail: All of the plays had a lot to recommend them and each had several moments of brilliance. VERY impressive for 24 hours work by teams who may not have known each other until the day before! But what I loved best was the energy and the synergy between the performers and the audience, and that’s why I stood – I wanted to be part of that energy.

Professional theatre critics don’t make any outward sign of their opinions inside the theatre, other than laughing and applauding at the appropriate moments with the crowd, so for the past 15 years I have not participated in a standing ovation. While I agree that they are grossly over used, there have certainly been times during my career as a critic that I have been moved to stand and couldn’t – Julie Boyd’s Follies at Barrington Stage and a brilliant Raisin in the Sun at the WTF come to mind – and at those times I felt like I was making some kind of unintended negative statement by remaining seated. Now I can stand, and so I did, and it was fun!

Larry: I loved the play Grounded by Kelli Newby in which both Peter Pan and Dracula were sidelined due to aerial accidents. Sara Katzoff who runs the Berkshire Fringe Festival directed with lots of real action, and I noticed the actors in this one had dispensed with their scripts, they actually learned the lines. What a feat!

Gail: Not only an impressive feat of verbal memorization, but they also learned the choreography for complicated fight scenes. Kathleen Carey memorably played the title role in Peter Pan at Hubbard Hall many years ago – a really remarkable production – and the story of passing out “mid-flight” due to a “pirate” hoisting her in a painful position was a true one. Carey excels at playing tightly-wound, angst-ridden victims and is often cast as such, so it was wonderful to see her cue loose as a brilliant physical comedienne, and wonderful to see her as Peter once again.

Larry: You and I came away with lots of great moments to remember, and we sure agree that this 24 Hour Theatre Project deserves to reinvent itself year after year. The Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company turns out to be the perfect venue for it, what with rehearsal studios just steps away so that each of the various plays could get ready without it being a madhouse. So kudos to Shakespeare & Company and their great staff for making this fun evening possible.

Readers: Join the conversation – Gail and Larry would love to know what you thought of this event, and whether you agree or not. It takes a lot of individual voices to make up an audience!

3 thoughts on “After the Show: Burns and Murray Talk About the 24 Hour Theatre Project

  1. so pleased to hear that Kelli Newby was involved, and that her work was memorable. As an undergrad at MCLA, Kelli worked as a writing consultant in my dept. She was already doing wonderful theatre productions then.

  2. what an all-around awesome project! enjoyed every minute, and the long drive back to North County was the perfect chance to discuss all we had taken in… 5 plays is a lot for a night, even as an audience member!

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