All in a day’s work

Students scrunch a play ‘ s process into 24 hours

by Don M. Burrows

Cliffie has a problem.

He just celebrated his eighth birthday, and he hasn’t yet discovered the meaning of life. So he does what any erudite 8-year-old would: He meets with celebrities from Descartes to Tommy Lee in an effort to glean significance from his world.

Cliffie isn’t actually 8 years old. As a literally packed house gathered in the arena theater at the Rarig Center Saturday night, Cliffie wasn’t even a day old. He had been born only 20 hours earlier by theater undergraduates, Marc Halsey and Nick Ryan, in a midnight moment of inspiration.

“The Knife’s Edge,” Cliffie’s 30-minute sojourn with life’s most unlikely guidance counselors, was one of five short plays staged by the University’s Xperimental Theatre ” all of them written, cast, directed and rehearsed from 8 p.m. Friday until showtime 24 hours later.

Listening to first year Drew Draeger’s delivery of Cliffie’s existential crisis, it’s hard to believe the story originated (less than) 24 hours before as Halsey and Ryan huddled in the theater department’s TA office.

8 p.m. Friday
Halsey and Ryan are given a picture for their inspiration: A young boy holding his hands up to two squares, labeled Left and Right in Norwegian. After several hours going in circles over the idea of an autistic child, they stumbled onto the gifted Cliffie and his interaction with several celebrities, among them Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates and Susan B. Anthony, who takes the form of a talking coin.

“They felt like obvious choices,” Halsey said of the eclectic menagerie of icons.

Halsey and Ryan split up the work, each writing a different celebrity scene.

4 a.m. Saturday
Director Sarah Koehler is paired with the writers. She had no idea which writers she would be working with but had hoped it would be Halsey and Ryan. She has one hour to iron out the script before actors arrive for open auditions.

“We talked about the characters, about the possibility of combining characters if we had to, and basically how they were imagining things,” Koehler said.

The 10-character play will undoubtedly require some actors to play multiple parts. Because all the directors hold auditions together, necessary arm-wrestling ensues to win the right actors for the right parts, she said.

9 a.m. Saturday
The actors show up for tryouts. Among them is Colin Waitt, who will ultimately play the parts of Bill Gates and Descartes, as well as the voice of Cliffie’s dad.

“You just stood up in front of all the directors and they’d ask: “Can you do this kind of accent?'”

Waitt is chosen for his French accent in the Descartes scene, while Matt McNabb play the part of Beatle Ringo Starr thanks to his impersonation of the Liverpool dialect.

As one of three 24-Hour Theatre producers, McNabb performs on zero sleep. He supervised the entire 24-hour process.

noon Saturday
Rehearsals begin. Koehler asks Waitt to scream louder at Draeger’s Cliffie during one scene and point his gun closer to the boy’s face.

The actors initially have trouble refraining from laughter thanks to the script’s comedy. Usually, they would have weeks to let the jokes become familiarly stale to them, but today they only have hours. Koehler finally advises Draeger, whose part is dense in verbiage, to compromise the script if it means easier memorization and a fluid delivery.

4 p.m. Saturday
While the actors memorize their lines, Koehler meets with lighting designer Tara Arntsen, who just happens to be her roommate. Normally, the director would meet with tech crew weeks before the performance, not mere hours, before the actors have even been cast. Several nice touches are added to the performance: As Cliffie blows out the candles on his birthday cake, the lights are snuffed.

8 p.m. Saturday
Performance. Draeger is still memorizing his lines outside, but whatever lines that are cut certainly aren’t noticed by the audience. Others are buried beneath raucous laughter.

Afterward, the main character meets his creators for the first time as Draeger, Halsey and Ryan congratulate each other on the success of the performance.

That success is no doubt partially owed to the process. Cliffie’s journey perhaps unsurprisingly takes place in a dream overnight, as a stream of consciousness strings him and the audience along a tour of life’s absurdities. The spectators, playwrights, cast and crew must be left with an obvious question: Could such a creation have been born in any other way?