From blank page to stage in 24 hours


At the weekend, the Old Vic gave a group of writers, directors and actors a day and a night to mount six new short plays. Stephen Pile was there.

There’s no time for a fancy first paragraph. There’s a rush on. Furthering its interest in new writing, the Old Vic theatre in London has just staged Britain’s first 24-hour plays. Six playwrights, six directors and 24 actors wrote, cast, rehearsed and performed six new 10-minute plays in one day and night.

They started at 10pm on Saturday, when an upstairs room at this venerable theatre was packed with awesome theatrical talent. Jim Broadbent was there, for heaven’s sake, and Kevin Spacey was loping around as master of ceremonies and artistic director of this newly exciting Old Vic.

At 10.15 the actors introduced themselves, donated a prop to inspire the playwrights and announced their special talents. There was a cycling helmet, a packet of ginseng tea and an inflatable sex doll. Bill Paterson brought his watering can, while Harriet Walter’s special ability was impersonating a cockerel (stunning) and Penelope Wilton said she wanted to dance, but nobody had ever asked her.

At 11pm a fleet of black limousines arrived for the playwrights. Writers in limousines. Now, you’re talking. They went off to their hotel rooms strewn with flowers, where they had a laptop and a free run of the mini-bar.

Polaroids of the actors were laid face down on a table. The writers picked up their cast at random. By 1am they all had an idea. With Penelope Wilton in his troupe, Michael Wynne, a Royal Court writer, came up with a play called Cuba about a woman who had never been asked to dance in her life. It ended with her deeply moving acceptance of the first ever such invitation in middle age, but we race ahead of events. First the writers must suffer.

At 1am bravado wore off. The clock accelerated. At 3am Kwame Kwei-Armah, who wrote Elmina’s Kitchen for the National Theatre, rang the producer. “I’m scrapping my play and starting a new one.” Go cold now, reader. He had three hours left and the prospect of a capacity gala crowd that night, gathered with the aim of raising £40,000 for the Old Vic’s new writers US-UK exchange programme.

At the eleventh hour the terrible god of the deadline always relents and gives the broken author a workable idea. “I just motored,” Kwame said. Before dawn he composed Final Call, a powerful and beautifully written drama about an inmate in a secure hospital saying goodbye to his murderer friend of many years, who was being released.

In his psychotically challenged way, the inmate prepared him for the world with a brutal account of how sex works, using an inflatable doll. “There’s no love in this world,” he concluded. The main part (for Brian Cox) was so long and richly verbal that it was impossible for this brave and generous actor to learn in time. Wisely, he threatened to leave at 7pm and was allowed to use his script.

With everybody so depressed, there is a quiet moment now to fill you in on how this all happened. It was in America, land of the free and the instant, that this theatrical haiku began. These 10 minutes swell mysteriously to fill whole worlds. They can be thrillers or musicals or vignettes or atmospheres. It is the short story to the one-act play’s novella.

The weekend’s events were masterminded by Kate Pakenham, who runs the Old Vic’s New Voices programme, but it all started in 1995, when Tina Fallon, a New York producer, founded the 24 Hour Company. The idea for the company, which collaborated with the Old Vic on the weekend’s show, grew in response to that city’s theatrical realities. It ripped out the twin problems of time and finance from the process.

After September 11 2001, this company started celebrity fund-raising productions and has done 300 10-minute plays so far. Everybody works for free. Twice Brooke Shields has appeared. Both times playfully perverse writers have cast her as a lesbian.

At 6am our writers finished. “I want to sue someone. We have been abused,” said Michael Wynne wrily.

First home was the author of Mamma Mia!, Catherine Johnson, with a play called House of Fun about a birthday party for nine-year-old children where they play soldiers. After nine minutes of pure hilarity, it turned suddenly evil as they played “Iraqi photographs” and started urinating on manacled children.

At 7am the six directors came in to allocate the scripts. At 8.30am the cast arrived. By 9am they were giving line-by-line attention to still-steaming texts.

All six plays turned out to be complex, textured and about something. Many of them had a dreamlike quality that was due partly to the lack of explanatory exposition and partly to the positive effects of sleep deprivation.

Anthony Neilson, for example, who has written for Cracker and Prime Suspect and wrote the stage play The Censor, now came up with Dead Hand, a darkly comic piece in which a man discovers on his wedding day that his fiancée has been dead since he paid the introductory fee to the dating agency. But she still loves him in her way and wants to go through with the ceremony.

The technical rehearsal allotted only 20 minutes on stage to each play. As the audience gathered fragrantly in the foyer, the outwardly calm process reached its conclusion.

The curtain went up at 8pm and the results were astonishing. The American producers were struck by the way our seasoned theatre actors could create such believable worlds at short notice. The other difference on this side of the pond was the sheer literariness of our theatre culture: “The words are so important to you.”

With time for reflection, nobody would have written any of these plays, but they were all worth seeing. We were watching the playwright’s gut instinct shorn of the usual support system. Working like jazz or journalism, theatre found unexpected moments of happy invention.

For a start, this rapid process made topicality possible. House of Fun was the first theatrical response to those Iraqi photographs, and Abi Morgan, author of Tender and Tiny Dynamite, wrote The Little People, which was a dreamlike piece inspired by Dr David Kelly’s death.

It featured Bill Paterson and his watering can, which left Nick Grosso, another Royal Court writer, to use the ginseng and bicycle helmet in Cloud Nine, where a Pinteresque outsider has been turned into a sexually active satyr by his new health regime.

In the whole evening lines were only twice forgotten and both times the actors rescued each other in an impressive display of mutual trust.

The American producers explain that they are returning theatre to its first impulses, which is how it worked in Shakespeare’s day when they rehearsed on the hoof and the players helped develop the script.

The 10-minute form excited some of the writers. “I want to explore it further,” said Anthony Nielsen. “I am suggesting to Kevin that the Old Vic does this fortnightly.” Incredibly, he was not joking.