On Saturday afternoon, a handful of professional actors, directors, playwrights, producers and improvisers gathered in a rehearsal room at Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre, some meeting for the first time, some rekindling years-old connections, others on a break from working together on current projects. As a photographer tested the lighting, the miscellaneous performers sprang into action, puzzling out how to capture their latest adventure in a single image.
They rolled rehearsal props aside and dragged a ladder front and center. “I like the precariousness of the ladder,” said one, mounting the steps.
“This can be the Berkshires, this can be the Capital Region,” says another, climbing the opposite rungs as performers cluster around the frame, test poses, dart their heads into different spaces.
“I have a banana!” interjects one.
“Should we high five? Thumbs up?” They try it. “Nooo. That’s cheesy.”
They settle on a pyramid of sorts, tumbling toward the lens in a simulated fall. Throughout the brainstorm, the words risk, excitement, fun and connection are continually juggled, and all bubble up again and again as the artists elaborate on the upcoming creative venture.
The first-ever 24-hour Berkshires/Capital Region Theater Project will kick off tomorrow (Friday) night at the Arts Center of the Capital Region during this month’s Troy Night Out.
Following a format that has been done around the country but never in this area, WAM Theatre, which produces work in both Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and upstate New York, and Schenectady’s Mop & Bucket Company improv troupe have collaborated to draw 50 theater professionals from the two regions together for a 24-hour marathon creativity session, which will culminate in the performance of five new short plays.
Five playwrights, five directors, 21 actors and a handful of designers will craft those plays from empty page to stage in a single day.
Like a theatrical relay race, beginning at 7:30 PM during Friday’s public event, each of the five playwrights will draw a number between three and five. They will then draw the names of that many actors, and in doing so, define their casts.
The five wordsmiths will receive a common “trigger” to inspire their scripts, and the teams of playwrights and actors will break off into groups to meet each other, in many cases for the first time.
“I may learn that one is a coloratura soprano, or one roller skates or another always wanted to play a painter or a clown,” says Kat Koppett, training director of Mop & Bucket Company and one of the project’s organizers and playwrights. “We can’t guarantee that any of that will show up in what we’re doing, of course, but we have the opportunity to really write for those people and let the cast be inspiration, to just sort of delight them.”
Meanwhile, the directors will meet with the designers to assess the playing space and technical options, creating a plan that will function for five yet-unknown plays.
As soon as the rapid-fire introductions are over, the playwrights will dash to their workspaces, brew coffee and write through the night. Their 10-15 minute scripts are due Saturday at 7 AM.
At that point, the baton is passed to the directors, who will read the scripts, formulate a concept and drive to the arts center, where they will meet their casts and begin rehearsing for the evening’s performances, rotating in and out of the theater in the afternoon to incorporate technical elements.
“There’s a challenge and there’s also a real excitement to working like this,” says Corinna May, a member of the Berkshire-based Shakespeare & Company and one of the project’s five directors. “It’s almost as if you get to stay in the honeymoon period. The initial period where everybody’s impulses are firing like crazy and there’s such excitement about the work and the promise of it and the newness of it . . . I think in a way, you get to harvest people’s best work, certainly their best, freshest, uncensored impulses, which are often the most exciting.”
On the surface, the 24-hour Theater Project aims to create a fun, inspired evening of theater, but the project’s underlying mission is much more far-reaching than that.
“There are all these talented people in the Capital Region and there are all these talented people in the Berkshires, but we never seem to do anything together.” says Kristin van Ginhoven, co-Director of WAM Theatre and the driving force behind the 24-hour escapade. “Everyone goes to New York City to find their theater professionals, but we have an amazing community of really talented theater professionals that live in these two regions, and they need to know each other, to build opportunities with each other.”
Koppett came to the region six years ago after working in improv for years in New York and San Francisco. “I came here and I didn’t get it. Why is Troy not Schenectady? That was crazy to me, let alone the Capital Region and the Berkshires.”
“But,” she adds, “there’s a movement starting here in the Capital Region and out to the Berkshires to make us one community and to break down the balkanization . . . “Like anything else, the way that people cross those boundaries is that they work together. They get to know each other.”
Van Ginhoven hopes the project will spark continued collaboration between area theater professionals and bridge the two regions, which she considers one of the missions of her newly established company. “We’re creating a mini process. I will know at the end of that 24 hours which of those 50 people I want to be in a room with again, and I will know who will be the first five people I call when I have a job available. You don’t get that from an audition.”
John Romeo retired from the New York State Theater Institute this year after the state-funded company was disbanded, and now finds himself hunting for freelance opportunities with the area’s professional theater companies.
“I’ve been sort of insulated by NYSTI,” he says. “It’s a whole new world. It’s a little scary, because you don’t have the kind of security we had at NYSTI, but it’s exciting, the choice, the variety of projects, working with different people.”
Ideally, says Romeo, he would like to find work locally, but he worries about dwindling professional opportunities in an economic climate where support for the arts is hard-won.
“It comes down to money,” he says. “There are plenty of artists and creative, talented people in the area, but there doesn’t seem to be enough money to provide them employment. It’s avocational mostly. I’d love to see the ones that we’ve had be able to hire more local talent, so it’s really home-grown.”
Romeo hopes that this project will forge professional connections and provide artists with new opportunities, but also that continued collaboration will strengthen the larger artistic community. “Something like this, which has never been done around here, may bring out new audiences. It’s all we can hope for that it just keeps their appetite whetted for live performance.”
All involved consider fostering a regional network to be a necessity, and a resource that has been lacking for area theater professionals. While May has worked extensively with companies throughout the Berkshires, she says she sees little cross-pollination between companies in the Berkshires and the Capital Region.
“There are so many people with so many good ideas, and they’re sort of operating in little pockets,” say May. “The more we can share ideas and back each other up, the more we can work collectively to finding funding, create umbrella organizations, find spaces, build training, and audiences, anything that solidifies and coheres the community has got to be good for all of us.”
Van Ginhoven has already seen the fruits of those efforts in previous collaborations. She founded WAM Theater a year ago, after reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The company’s mission is twofold. “The first part of our mission is that we produce theatrical events for everyone that focus on women theater artists and or the story of women and girls, while providing work for women theater artists along with men,” she says. “The second part of our mission is that we donate a portion of the proceeds from WAM events to an organization that somehow lifts up the lives of women and girls.”
The 24-hour event is taking place on SWAN Day, a relatively new holiday to “Support Women Artists Now,” which has rapidly grown to include hundreds of events worldwide. Further in line with that mission, when Koppett suggested the 24-hour theater project to van Ginhoven, she agreed, with one stipulation: that all five playwrights be women.
“We’re working to provide more opportunity for female theater artists in general, but particularly playwrights,” she says. “There’s still such and imbalance, it’s vaccilated between 12 and 25 percent in the states, the number of plays produced by women playwrights in a year.”
Last year WAM produced two benefit events, and thanks to van Ginhoven’s philosophy of collaboration, the company is growing, and so in turn is its philanthropy. Last summer, WAM held an improv showdown between MopCo and the Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe at the New Stage Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield.
“We had four small theater companies who could all reach out to their audiences. We sold out the event, it helped my marketing, it helped my audience grow, it helped everyone’s audiences grow. And once we started collaborating, that creative connection continued.”
Participants and organizers are hoping the 24-hour theater event will have a similar effect. “We are building a performing arts program here,” says Jill Rafferty-Weinisch, director of performing arts and outreach at the Arts Center of the Capital Region. “It’s still small at this point, but we have a wonderful, intimate space. We’ve been working to connect with really interesting professional artists. There is an incredible roster of people who are affiliated with this project.”
The Arts Center offered an ideal space for the project’s very unique needs and, in turn, the project was a perfect fit for forwarding the arts center’s mission.
“In addition to being a place where you can buy a ticket or see a gallery show or take a class, the arts center is really about being a home for artists in the community,” says Rafferty-Weinisch. “We are very interested in finding ways that we can connect to artists and connect artists to each other.”
In the process of forging those community and professional connections, the 24-hour theater project promises to be a blast for its participants and audience alike.
“I know it’s going to be fun,” says Koppett enthusiastically, “but I also think it’s going to be a really good evening of theater.”
“Mop & Bucket Company is an improv company, but we have actors and playwrights in our lives,” she says. “One of the things that we’re always trying to bridge is legitimate theater and improv. I love the idea of being able to do a project that is half improv, half theater. As improvisers, we have this huge luxury of eight hours to create a play. And a rehearsal? I get to know what I’m saying before I step onstage? But it also has the kind of danger and the ephemeral quality and magic of creating it on the spot and collaboratively making something happen out of nothing. And the madness of it . . . it’s kind of crazy!”
The process of improv, or of this chaotic overnight creation, says Koppett, extends beyond the stage. “The principles of saying ‘Yes, what’s next?’ Of not resisting obstacles, of supporting your partner, they are principles and ways of living that I believe can create kinder more effective organizations, communities and families.”
And creatively, the bold decisions required of the artists can be invigorating and infectious. “Confusion is the most creative state for the brain to be in, because it has to find solutions, and so it has to build new connections,” says May, preparing for her directorial role tomorrow. “For an artist to be able to uncouple confusion—or not knowing—from anxiety and couple it with excitement or delight, to be thrilled by moving forward, then you open up all kinds of opportunities, and you will become more creative whether you like it or not.”