How to create a play in a day

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Lunatic feats of compression are nothing new to the theatre: the Edinburgh Fringe regularly features such delights as War and Peace in 18 minutes or the history of the world in 12. The Reduced Shakespeare Company specialises in this sort of manic behaviour; they get through all but one of the Bard's works, including Hamlet (right), during the first half of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).

On Monday, however, The Steam Industry will go a stage further, by writing, rehearsing and performing an entire play from scratch in 24 hours. Ali Robertson, the director, explains: "The group meets at 8pm on the Sunday night and by 1am will have the outline of the plot and a number of scenes in mind. We meet again at 9am and spend half an hour per scene working through improvisation to move from the previously decided beginning and end of the scene without too much of a mess in the middle."

But is half an hour enough for each scene? "No it's not, but how much do you expect? By two o'clock we have a working, if shabby, play. Over lunch, the lighting designer does what is necessary, while the set designer throws his hands up in despair and paints the backdrop." It would seem that despite the constraints of time, Robertson is aiming for something more than a black- polo-neck production.

"Absolutely," Robertson insists. "I mean, there's no point in calling it a play in a day if it isn't going to be a proper play, with set, costume, lights and so on. One other feature of the show is that we're going to have it reviewed within those 24 hours as well. At 5pm we sort out costumes from the store and have a final run, which will be seen by critics from What's On and the FT, who then go off to write their reviews in about half an hour or so.

"Those will be photocopied and given out to the audience after the performance. So once we've done the dress run, we'll have an hour and a half left before curtain up, although clearly there will still be about three weeks of rehearsal to do. So we spend that hour and a half doing them. With five minutes remaining, we rush off in panic. The audience, each paying pounds 1, troops into the theatre, the lights go down and theatrical magic occurs and stars are born..."

Robertson is persuasive enough to talk the hind legs of a particularly sceptical donkey into appearing in a cameo role, and if the speed at which he explains his ideas is anything to go by the company should be able to polish off a tripartite historical epic in the given time.

He makes it sound so easy that you wonder why companies bother with all that tiresome rehearsal business at all: surely it can't be as simple as all that?

"No, it isn't," he explains, "but there are things that one can do to make it easier, particularly in the choice of cast members. The five involved should have barely met before, so none of them, I hope, will have any preconceptions of what the play should be about. The people I've picked are all fairly outgoing, with lots of ideas, but they will not be precious about which ideas we use."

Cast member Laura Smith agrees: "You have to avoid massive arguments and personality clashes, or it'll all end up as a bit of a bloodbath. But the actual process is very simple - it's just a case of taking well-defined characters and putting them in situations. Hopefully I'll get to play a bosomy serving wench and say: 'Oooh Zir' a lot! People usually like that sort of thing."

And how does she intend to prepare for the project? "Oh, I'd have thought I'd probably just neck a fairish amount of alcohol."


The Play in a Day takes place at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, London SW10 at 8pm on 4 Dec (0171-373 3842)