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Twenty-four hours may not seem like enough time to complete anything substantial. But to the playwrights, directors, and actors participating in Bethesda Urban Partnership’s Play In A Day, the time constraint is a dare, not a roadblock.
Play In A Day works like this: Thespians from six theater companies have just 24 hours—Friday to Saturday evening—to write, produce, rehearse, and perform a 10-minute play. To add to the challenge, playwrights must each incorporate the same prop, theme, and line of dialogue revealed by the Bethesda Urban Partnership this Friday, Feb. 20.
Play In A Day co-founder Robin Mansfield, who co-hosted the first performance 11 years ago, says the original intent was to spark the creative potential of D.C.’s theater companies under pressure.
“There’s electricity in the air,” says Mansfield. “The variety is astounding. Funny, sad, sweet. They’re all very professionally acted.”
With prompts in hand, it’s a mad dash to the finish line. Writers race to their computers, gulp down coffee, and pound out stage plays by the 7 a.m. script deadline. Then, just as the writers collapse from exhaustion, the actors and directors begin learning lines, blocking movements, and rehearsing the play.
At 8 p.m., the theater companies present their masterpieces on Imagination Stage’s Lerner Theater in front of an audience. Performances are often unpolished, but in a quirky, likeable way, like an short indie film. And if lines are forgotten, there might even be a little improv.
Once the curtain falls, a panel of judges chooses which plays had the best writing, best direction, best acting and ensemble, and best use of prop. To sweeten the pot, winning companies receive a cash prize of $250.
Ben Kingsland, a Play In A Day veteran and commissioned playwright for the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Md., says the event forces writers to operate outside their comfort zones. “It’s a fun experience, but it’s also this incubator for weird, offbeat work,” says Kingsland.
Two performances Kingsland’s written for Play In A Day, Discord and Crunch Time, have gone on to be published by Heuer Publishing. “It’s fun when this work that was born in this crazy fever dream of writing gets a little revised and goes on to have a life in schools or theaters across the country,” he says.
“It gets your blood pumping,” says Jason Schlafstein, a five-time Play In A Day participant and Flying V Theatre’s producing artistic director. “It’s like going to the gym for theater. It’s getting reps in and doing cardio.”
Another part of the fun is that it doesn’t always go smoothly. Last year, Kingsland wrote and produced a full musical, complete with original songs, in a few hours. The end result was kind of a mess.
“It totally collapsed under its own weight,” he recalls.” “Like Icarus, I ascended too high. It was way too much.”
But that element of uncertainty brings audiences—and performers—back year after year.
“This is a dangerous kind of event,” says Kingsland. “It’s not often that most of us get a window into what art looks like in its incoherent craziness.”
Ready or not, the performance begins at 8 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 21 at Imagination Stage’s Lerner Theater. Tickets are $15. Buy them here.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this post stated that Ben Kingsland’s plays were published by Courier. They were published by Heuer Publishing.