Three actors sat in a semi-circle on the cement, facing a director and his assistant seated on a low brick wall. They held photocopied scripts in their hands — scripts that hadn’t existed the day before.
Like a stalker with permission, I leaned against a tree 10 feet away and listened to the group run lines. The moment was surreal. Not only was I spending time at a rehearsal in which I didn’t get to speak, but the lines they spoke were ones I wrote.
This was the weirdness of 24-Hour Theater De Los Muertos, produced by Lodi’s Changing Faces Theater Company. Director Mike Bartram emailed me seeking volunteer writers for a horror-themed theater project. Never one to shy away from challenges — and knowing this one wouldn’t require me to run in mud or lace up roller skates — I was in.
The rules were simple: Six writers had 12 hours at the Bartram household to come up with a script for a one-act play, starting on Friday night. In the morning, those scripts were handed out to directors, who had 12 hours to turn them into an actual performance. By Saturday night, the success or failure of the project would play out in the Wishek Amphitheater at Hutchins Street Square.
In a challenge with such limited time, mistakes are inevitable. Would my jumbled 2 a.m. mind focus enough to create a coherent script? Would the director have fun with the plot and embrace the story? And would my actors, two very young and one very inexperienced, manage to learn their lines and add some feeling to the performance?
I swear, I was just as nervous when the lights came up as the folks on stage.
Friday, 5:44 p.m.
I walked into Mike and Sabrina Bartram’s Lodi home with my laptop, a sweater and a box of peanut butter and chocolate snack bars. Four brown paper sacks lined the table. Five other local writers stood around it, eyeing the bags warily. They contained our fates, the ideas we were to wrangle into submission. The first was a number. It referred to the order in which our plays would be performed, and corresponded with a pre-determined cast list.
I drew No. 6. Dead last. Sabrina Bartram handed me an envelop with three photographs in it. One of a teenage girl with bright eyes, another of a dark-haired teenage boy, and a third of an older woman.
Next, I pulled cards for a title, a theme and one character description. My picks were “Nightmare on Sesame Street,” done in the style of the Syfy channel, with a philosopher character who thought he or she was best at their job.
The first two I could handle. Throw in some puppets and dramatic one-liners with a geeky attitude and I’m set. But a philosopher? I wasn’t so sure.
My fellow writers were equally perplexed. Other styles were Shakespeare, superheroes and Spanish soap opera. And the titles? “Moopacalypse.” “The Octopus at Midnight.” “Honey, Where is the Scalpel?” This was lining up to be a weird night.
I called dibs on the corner of a comfortable red sectional sofa and plugged in my Macbook. The photos of my cast and the theme cards were lined up on the cushion next to me. With only a few hours ahead of me, I knew this was a case for “write what you know.”
Time to break out a newsroom parody. The News-Sentinel is a weird place. There’s no shortage of dramatic and quirky personalities. The loud, rumbling printing press downstairs grumbles and thunks late into the evening each day. Tensions run high, especially on deadline. This was the perfect setting.
Friday, 10:17 p.m.
A short brainstorm session set me up with the concept of a newsroom haunted by the ghost of a puppeteer who disappeared before his profile story could be published.
The cast: An eager green reporter, a world-weary editor and a pushy, flirty part-time photographer.
The plot: The crew is stuck late in the office, typing madly to make deadline. Searching through old files, the new reporter finds a photo of a puppeteer who turns out to be the photographer’s uncle. The editor remembers the subject vividly, because the story that didn’t run marked a major turning point in her career.
The team is spooked by bumps and clanging in the night. It’s not the printing press starting up. It’s the ghost of the puppeteer, who makes a break for it by possessing the body of the young photographer. The reporter and editor must scour the newsroom for tools to perform an impromptu exorcism if they are ever going to make that deadline.
I threw in many newspaper-themed jokes. That was risky. I could potentially alienate the audience.
One challenge was knowing my actors’ limitations. Could a teenage boy handle switching from a possessed puppeteer to a normal photographer? Would the older woman stay energetic throughout a monologue on a story from 30 years ago? No idea. So I forged ahead.
Saturday, 1:27 a.m.
Fifteen pages was a long road to tread in a nearly silent living room. Only clicking laptop keys and strange Halloween music flowing in from another room provided a soundtrack. Among the writers, I was the only woman, and the one with the least amount of theater experience.
I wrote a play at Lodi High School with my best friend, appeared in a handful of shows and directed a couple as well. I spent two seasons on stage in college performing in “The Vagina Monologues,” a multi-act play about womanhood and feminism. But the rest of the script team was made of members of Changing Faces Theater Company, two high school English teachers, and Micheal Fitzgerald, a well-known columnist from the Stockton Record.
On the surface, this project was not a competition. But if my work was to be on stage next to that of a great writer from my newspaper’s greatest rival, I had to give it my best.
Even in the early morning, the jokes were funny enough to earn a few laughs during a quick read-through. I hoped they weren’t pity laughs.
Saturday, 3:05 p.m.
I arrived at Hutchins Street Square to find six groups rehearsing on the lawn. Zach Rogerro, a lighting technician for the Square, had drawn No. 6 from a bag and was directing my play.
But by mid-afternoon, the team was still madly running lines. The teenage boy was Cameron Gardner, and he had a bad cough and a fever. The young woman was Claire Stoner, whose expressive face would carry the play. And the older woman was Barbara Rankin, who had never been in a play before and struggled to pick up the lines.
Hearing them go through the script was harrowing. I heard words I wanted to change, and minor mistakes in journalism lingo I wanted to correct.
But I promised Mike and Sabrina Bartram I would be hands-off during rehearsal in exchange for a peek into the process. I prayed for a forgiving audience.
Saturday, 6:50 p.m.
The cast had improved vastly in confidence from their first run on stage three hours earlier. But the lines were not mastered, and Gardner had not gotten the hang of transitioning from flirty photographer to demonic spirit.
“Over again,” said Rogerro. “No scripts this time. Try not to call ‘line’ unless you absolutely have to. Let’s see if we can work through it.”
The actors were tense and panicky. The end of a long day of practice was an hour away, and it was nearly time to perform.
It felt insane that this group of people spent their day repeating over and over words that I strung together the night before. It was also strange that I had many of these lines memorized but I could not correct the actors or offer help. I was no longer in charge of the play, and I had to let it take its own path.
Saturday, 9:40 p.m.
The proverbial curtain rose over the outdoor Wishek Ampitheater at the Square nearly two hours earlier. The stage was sparsely decorated with mummies, axes and ghoulish statues. A fine layer of mist flowed around the set.
My fists were balled up in a blue flannel blanket on my lap. I sat in the audience with my mother and niece, anxious to see how my script would go.
Five plays had been performed for the 87-person audience bundled in blankets on the lawn. Music played and the lights went up for “Nightmare on Sesame Street.”
The first few lines went OK. Stone had good energy. Rankin looked scared. The word “puppeteer,” a cue for banging and crashing noises from backstage, was dropped from a line. A few moments later, disaster struck.
One line was flubbed. Another dropped. Rankin and Gardner stumbled, and jumped forward a page or two in the script. That was bad for the audience, because it skipped over a monologue by Rankin. That paragraph would explain how the newsroom became haunted, and how puppets figured into the story.
Stoner picked up the lines and the play moved forward. But now the story was missing pieces. Valiantly, the trio pushed forward. When Gardner burst onstage, embodying the spirit of the dead puppeteer, he was a terrifying mass of elbows and crazy eyes. The cough almost helped his screechy tone.
Rankin took on a stiff editorial persona, reminding her team that deadline was looming and no demonic ghost would get in her way.
Stoner’s high energy and vivid expressions carried the day, even when a section where the puppeteer spirit hits on her was dropped. By the time the pair of women performed an exorcism with a ruler and black coffee, the play was back on track. And seven minutes short.
“So, do editors still keep whiskey in their desks?” asked Stoner, on stage at the end of the show.
“You bet your ass we do,” said Rankin.
I could use a drink, too.