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Write it one night, perform it the next

Students write, cast and perform three plays in 24 hours

An actor wearing a pink tutu rides a low tricycle onto the stage of the Bentley Theater. She gets off right as she pulls up to a large black box. She steps onto the box, and holds her hands above her head, standing on tippy-toes, smiling vapidly.

She is Topsy the Elephant, circa 1903, just before she is to be electrocuted by an absent-minded Thomas Edison for killing her trainer, in an effort to show the usefulness of the electric current.

And she is the product of the imagination of a sleep-deprived playwright. 

Welcome to Wired, Dartmouth's most caffeinated theatrical tradition.

From left: Andrew Dahl '05, Rachel Karpf '07, Cameron Mitchell '05, Rosie Hughes '07 and Matthew Stoff '07 rehearse a scene from the one-act play "How to Write a Play," with was part of the Wired theatrical production on Oct. 2. (photo by Matt Lewis '05)

Performed for the ninth time on Oct. 2, and a production of the student-run Displaced Theater Company and the Department of Theater, Wired still has the same format it started with. Three teams of two students write, direct and produce an original play in 24 hours, having no advance plans. The plays can be about anything, but each must be written in a way that takes into account a rule that the student production managers keep secret until 24 hours before the plays are staged.

This year's rule was that each of the plays had to have a beginning, middle and an end, but not in that order.

What emerged were three one-act plays. The first, "AC/DC," starred Topsy the Elephant. Next came "Lusting for Tomorrow," an existential romance about a frustrated young heir who finds love in a mysterious traveler.

"How to Write a Play" followed, which had the paths of the crew of the H.M.S. God's Terrible Vengeance and a suicidal New York corporate-type cross, with hilarious results.

Once the plays ended, first time playwright and director Tim Grinsell '05 of "How to Write a Play" said he felt relieved.

"It was about testing my creative mettle," Grinsell said. "And I think I passed."

"You're obviously not going to create high art. You don't have the time. So you might as well have fun and enjoy the process."

- Carly Mensch '05

To get each play off the ground, the six student playwrights and directors went through 24 hours of near-constant work. It all started at 8 o'clock the previous night, when the playwrights found out the rule that governed the structure of their play. They had until 7 the next morning to finish a draft of a one-act play. All the playwrights managed to stitch together a play on time.

"You're obviously not going to create high art. You don't have the time. So you might as well have fun and enjoy the process," said Carly Mensch '05, writer of "AC/DC," the second play she has written for a Wired performance.

At 7:30 a.m., on the day of the performance, the actors arrive.

"When the actors sign up, they have no idea what they're auditioning for," said Kathleen Hamon '05, the production manager of this term's performance who has worked on Wired since the spring of 2002. "They just know that they've signed up for a one-act play."

The actors split into three groups, and if there's enough time, the directors have them act out a few scenes from each play. By 10 a.m. the directors have settled on which actors they want for which parts. Rehearsals are ready to begin.

Then the actors, guided by the director, rehearse each play in three two-hour shifts. Time is short, so the actors and directors reach compromises that they would struggle over in a full play, said Karisa Bruin '05, who directed "AC/DC."

"The structure of Wired forces you to make choices," Bruin said. "You have to just make a choice, trust your instincts, and go with it, because there's not a lot of time to discuss and debate."

Writers will sometimes watch over rehearsals to answer actors' or directors' questions. Bruin said that having the writer there ensures that the original vision of the play stays on track.

For that reason, Wired is a writer's enterprise, Bruin said. It puts primacy on the role of the writer, because the actors and director do not have enough time to put much of their stamp on the play.

"It's just for a bunch of actors and a director to come together in service of a piece of written work," she said.

The writers, directors and actors participate for the fun of it; they aren't paid, and they don't get academic credit.

As the writer and director hammer out the last details of the script, the actors try to nail down their parts. Good acting can fill in the holes of an unpolished script, and in no small measure, the credit for a successful Wired play goes to the actors, said Grinsell and Ben Cohen '05, co-writers and directors.

But Wired actors have to overcome their share of problems as well. Most often, the few hours they have to rehearse aren't enough for them to memorize large parts, so they're allowed to read from the script during live performances.  This term, fewer students than expected tried out for Wired, which forced actors to play multiple roles, but the directors turned these constraints into advantages.

"We had one actor playing a salty sailor in one scene, and in the next scene, he played a wholesome dad," Cohen said. The sharp contrast of the two parts got a few laughs.

Hours before the show starts, amateurs and veterans alike start to shake out the usual pre-performance jitters by doing exercises, the equivalent of warming up before a sporting event. Props and other last-minute details come into place, and scripts are given a final look-over. The audience filters in, stage lights go on. And out comes Topsy in her pink tutu.


Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08