Speed dating meets theater-going. That’s the idea behind Bethesda Urban Partnership’s (BUP) Play In A Day, now in its 15th year.
Six professional Washington, D.C.-area theater companies are assigned the same one prop, one theme and one line of dialogue on Friday, Feb. 22. Through the overnight hours and into the early morning, each team will write, direct, rehearse and perform original 10-minute plays. What they do with those tools will be seen by the public on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 23 at Imagination Stage in Bethesda.
Just a theme, a prop and line of dialogue. Not a lot to work with, which is precisely the point. “Because the plays are written the night before the performance, we work to find a prop, a line of dialogue and a theme that the playwright will find fun and challenging as they write their scripts,” explained Brenna O’Malley, BUP’s marketing and communications manager. “We also want the audience to enjoy comparing how each company uses their assigned elements differently.”
“In the first act, three theater companies will use the same theme, prop and line of dialogue. In the second act, the next three theater companies will use a different theme, prop and line of dialogue,” O’Malley said. In years past, lines of dialogue were derived from familiar works, such as Dr. Seuss books, nursery rhymes or well-known movies.
The BUP team selects the prop, theme and line. Michael Bobbitt, Play In A Day Director and Adventure Theatre MTC’s (ATMTC) Artistic Director, then weighs in on the final decision. “This is one of our most fun meetings of the year,” O’Malley said, citing the process of “brainstorming fun props that seem a little out of place in your typical play that will also inspire creativity for the playwright.”
Bobbitt, Play In A Day director since 2006, was a participant in 2004 and 2005. “We really enjoy working with him,” said Stephanie Coppula, BUP’s marketing and communications director. “He brings extra energy, knowledge and creativity direction to our process.”
The theaters that participate differ every year, depending on the company’s performance schedule. “We invite several professional Montgomery County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. theater companies to participate,” said O’Malley. This year’s line-up includes ATMTC, Flying V, Happenstance Theater, Imagination Stage, The Keegan Theatre and Rorschach Theatre.
Playwrights are asked to write one-act plays just 10 to 12 minutes in length, so the entire performance lasts only about one hour. Ticketholders see all six theater groups perform. At the end of the show, O’Malley said, “Cash prizes are awarded for: Best Acting/Ensemble, Best Direction, Best Use of Prop and Best Writing.” This year’s judges are Nan Barnett, Executive Director of the National New Play Network; Daniel Bryant, Artistic Producer & Community Programs Director at Baltimore Center Stage; and Tom Prewitt, Artistic Director of WSC Avant Bard.
Patrick Flynn, who has been both a playwright and director for the ATMTC team, is no stranger to the thrill of “shot clock” theater. “Doing a play in one day is certainly a challenge. But, to me, it’s more fun than challenging,” he said. “You don’t have time for worry when you’re putting on a successful 10-minute play in only 24 hours. You have to rely on your instincts.” Play-in-a-day-style theater, which is performed in various versions in cities and towns across the country, suits Flynn’s own personal mantra: “A good answer today is better than a perfect answer tomorrow.”
“The audiences are wonderful,” Flynn said, “…generous and open to the experience. It’s a real credit to the performers that the audiences every year have been thrilled with the results — and I see a lot of the same faces year after year.”
As a participant in the national/international 48-Hour Film Project — a “wild and sleepless weekend in which you and a team make a movie” — for the last dozen years or so, Flynn said he has “found that these timed creative competitions will make you a better writer, director, actor…whatever…if you’re willing to learn from them.” After the competition is over, he makes sure to take time to reflect “back over the script, and my notes from rehearsal to see what worked, what didn’t work, what can be improved for next year.”
Flynn uses Play In A Day to check in with his growth as an artist: “Did I learn anything about myself that I can apply to my career overall?” he asks himself. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these competitions have made me a better writer and director.”
Play In A Day will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda. Tickets, $15, may be purchased at www.bethesda.org/bethesda/play-day-2019-tickets. For information, contact Bethesda Urban Partnership at 301-215-6660. Please note that some material may not suitable for children.