48 hours, 1 act, 9 teams, and the works of Shakespeare.
These were the ingredients baked into the first ever 48-Hour Play Festival at San Jose State University. The festival was a joint venture, put on by the SJSU theatre department, SJSU’s SPOTLITE Stage Company, and the Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company. Nine brave teams would be tasked with creating a one act epilogue to one of Shakespeare’s plays in just 48 hours.
For the participating teams, the journey began at the University Theatre at SJSU. Actors, writers, and directors slowly filed into the room as the energy and noise began to percolate. Bryan and Kimberly Martin hovered in the back and presided over the action. Bryan was tall and only looked a few years older than the students, despite the presence of his wife and newborn baby. He attended San Jose State for graduate school, so the event was a bit of a homecoming. He explained, “I actually performed on this stage a few times, so that was fun. My thesis when I was doing my master’s here, was on the one act play, the ten minute play, specifically. So, this really ties in with that.” As an undergrad, he worked on a similar event at UC Davis called “The One Act Express”. All of the experience gave him a relatively composed demeanor in the midst of the bustle.
The play assignments were decided in a somewhat convoluted system reminiscent of the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. The writers from each team were given a chance to take two random choices from a hat filled with the bard’s twelve most popular plays. If the writer passed on those two choices they could select from what was deemed “The Indiana Jones Hat” with more obscure plays. Doug Brook, who pulled Richard III, was the only writer to willingly plunge into the risky Indiana Jones hat. The teams of actors were pre-sorted by the event producers and assigned to the writer/director teams at random.
The freshly assigned teams assembled for introductions and planned how to pull together a one act play in the course of a weekend. Doug Brook was partnered with director Roberta Morris. The Richard III team also featured actor Alex Draa, of the theatre department at SJSU, in the title role. Courtney Baldwin and Michelle Maher completed the team as actresses from the local theatre scene. The team’s makeup was representative of the diversity across the play festival. SJSU Theatre/Film Director, Barnaby Dallas, said, “About 40% of the participants were current students, about 40% alumni who’ve come from the department, and about 20% from the local theatre community and professionals.” Creating on a deadline required trust and collaboration across generations and theatre backgrounds.
From the time they left the gathering, the writers had about eighteen hours to write their epilogues. And to sleep. To ensure the honesty of the process, they didn’t know the additional constraints for each team until the assignments were handed out. Each play had to incorporate the phrase, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” and each play had to use a prop that wouldn’t have existed yet in the time period. Lastly, each play had to incorporate a popular song from the 1950’s or later. Because he selected an obscure history play, Doug Brook would also have to reread the play in the allotted time. He expected about four hours of sleep on Friday night. The rest of the team would have to wait nervously, until the final scripts were due at 1pm on Saturday.
The scripts which resulted from this shortened process were surprisingly smart and engaging. The Richard III epilogue wove famous quotes from the play together with references to Young Frankenstein and Billy Joel. It drafted Rosencrantz and Gildenstern from Hamlet into Richard III by way of Tom Stoppard. The other epilogues spanned a wide array of tones, genres, and time periods. Minor tweaks to the script continued as late as five in the evening on Saturday.
The words on the page wouldn’t be theatre without taking life through the arduous process of blocking the action and memorizing the lines. 48-hour play festivals share the magic of other compressed creation settings like game jams and weekend film festivals. In these settings, those kinds of technical decisions are made on the fly and the fresh idea is brought into reality ex nihilo at a breakneck speed. Director Roberta Morris noted, “A lot of plays, when you first read them, you think, ‘Oh nothing’s really going on. It’s just talking heads.’ But it really isn’t, once people learn their lines. There’s that point when you think, ‘Oh my God. The audience is going to die. It’s just talking and nothing happens.’ In fact, it’s just really fast.” This unformed stage went by in a flash. After a quick table read and three to four rehearsals, an actual play was taking shape.
Saturday was filled with ups and downs as the remaining details came together. The team ended up with the last slot in the costume room. Costumes were assembled in a mad panic as the team tried to decide on appropriate belts and shoes without stretching the costume designer any further past the time for which she was paid to be there. Roberta’s drive for verisimilitude was in constant tension with her desire to stay hands off and accept the limitations of the shortened process. Blocking and rehearsals continued into the night, but spirits remained fairly high.
Ready or not, the teams would be performing at 6pm on Sunday night. The Richard III team drew another challenging schedule with the last rehearsal slot and the first performance time of the day. Frustrations and questions seeped into the run-throughs as actors continued to try and memorize large Shakespearean flourishes of dialogue.
Thankfully, the night was a success. The University Theatre was full and the audience attentive.”All of the shows had the audience the whole way” and they “Well exceeded expectations”, said Barnaby Dallas. Five epilogues were performed before the intermission and four after. An audience favorite award was presented to the Hamlet epilogue to close out the night.
The festival and the show were viewed as successes. Dallas said it was, “A great night, not only for San Jose State, not only for Shady Shakespeare, but for South Bay theatre, I think.” The cross-pollination between the university and the theatre company was beneficial for all. Courtney Baldwin had never performed in a 48-hour play festival before. She said, “I learned a lot about how to figure out your characters and how to get that done quickly.” As Shady Shakespeare Artistic Director, Angie Higgins said, “What we’re really seeing is a bunch of veteran artists that are getting energized by fresh new blood, by these younger artists. And we’re getting to see the students really get that experience of acting and performing alongside seasoned performers.” The partnership has seen many students from the department intern with Shady Shakespeare and it has resulted in co-productions like the upcoming run of The Tempest. As for the 48-Hour Play Festival, organizers were frank about hoping to bring it back as a yearly event.
Words by Marshall Sandoval
Images by Nathan Sundberg