Jessie Raymond: Pop-up play puts on the pressure

Last Friday night, instead of wasting my time sleeping, I chose to stay up writing a play for the Town Hall Theater’s second annual “Pop-Up Plays” event, in which six new 10-minute plays were conceived, written and performed within a 24-hour period.
I know what you’re thinking: “But, Jessie, you aren’t a playwright.”
You make an excellent point.
By the strict definition, where “playwright” means “someone who has been trained to write plays, who has written multiple plays and who wears black turtlenecks,” no, I am not exactly a playwright. But I did write a pop-up play last year, and lived to tell about it. That has to count for something.
Here’s how it worked: Friday night at 7:30, five actual playwrights and I gathered at the theater with organizer Haley Rice. By random draw, we each picked three actors and a few complicating elements — such as a foreign accent or a bad joke — that we agreed to work into our scripts, because Haley seemed to think just cranking out a play overnight would be far too easy.
We were to go home, write the plays and email the finished scripts to her by 7 the next morning. Actors and directors would rehearse all day and then, that evening, our plays would go on in front of what I hoped would be a polite and easily entertained audience.
It’s one thing to sit among a group of likeminded strangers and agree to stay up all night writing a play. In the moment, it seems kooky and fun, like bungee jumping. It’s another thing to sit down at your kitchen table, when your bedtime is fast approaching, and realize you have no idea what to write about and a limited number of hours to come up with something. (Also: People have died bungee jumping.)
So I started off the easy way: I stared at a blank screen for an hour while holding back sobs and accepting that I was going to fail.
Fortunately, as anyone who has ever worked against a deadline knows, time pressure can have an uncanny way of unleashing your creativity. Suddenly and inexplicably, I knew what the play would be about. I wrote furiously for several hours, stopping only to scarf down a bowl of buttered popcorn around midnight.
Unfortunately, while deadline-driven writing can rapidly generate quantity, quality is not guaranteed. By 3 in the morning, I couldn’t tell if what I had written was a stroke of genius or the ramblings of a madwoman. Around this time I also started seeing shadows that looked like gnomes sprinting around the kitchen island. (I may have been a little overtired.)
For a woman who doesn’t stay up past 10 even on New Year’s Eve (I sign off at 10:01, muttering, “It’s midnight somewhere”), it’s not surprising that at this hour I had forgotten basic rules, such as that in English, words generally require vowels. I had work left to do, but my brain would not comply.
So at 3:30 I went to bed, where I lay awake, noting that in 16 hours my production could very well be getting booed off the stage. I abandoned the sleep thing around 5:30 a.m., when I returned to the computer to see if I could maybe write a whole new script in the 90 minutes I had left.
Um, no.
That meant, for better or worse, I was done.
Having lost all objectivity around the time the gnomes had started frolicking, I had no idea whether the play made sense or whether Haley would email back simply, “You’re joking, right?” I hit “send,” and hoped for the best.
For the second year in a row, to my amazement, “the best” happened: The director and actors came through, the show — less than 24 hours after its conception — went on, and the polite and easily entertained audience clapped. And after, not a single person said to me, “You really aren’t a playwright, are you?”
What a rush.
The pop-up play gave me — in addition to a sleepless night from which I am still recovering — everything I count on when I write: anxiety that I will not come up with a good idea (or, in fact, any idea at all), doubt that what I am writing is compelling or even coherent, conviction that I will not meet the deadline, and afterward, relief that, good or bad, at least it’s over with.
Sign me up for next year.

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