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Writing a play in 24 hours

By in Culture
Writing a play in 24 hours was more fun than I thought.

The Saskatchewan Playwrights’ Centre hosted their annual 24-hour playwriting competition in Saskatoon this year. Although I’ve never written a play before, I decided to sign up, and kept track of the adventure by the hour.

3:30 p.m. Friday
I arrive at the competition, held in a 24-hour computer lab in the basement of the University of Saskatchewan Arts Building. After signing up, I head to the lounge room down the hall. Friends and those who know each other from past competitions chat while waiting for the event to begin. At 3:45 p.m., local actor and organizer Alan Long says a few words about the SPC and the competition, and Saskatoon councillor Pat Lorje cuts the ribbon.

4 p.m.
The sound of keyboards typing is constant in the background. Everyone is hard at work. I hesitate in the face of the monumental task I’m about to begin and take a nervous moment to glance at the formatting example they gave us. Finally, I begin.

5 p.m.
I finished my first scene. I’m still not sure I’m doing this right, but at least I’m doing something. In the lounge, only about five people are snacking and chatting. Originally thinking we couldn’t leave until we were done our play, I found out we’re allowed go home to sleep. That’s a relief.

6 p.m.
Everyone is still studiously working away. Some people haven’t left their computers at all yet. I expected there to be a lot more visiting. I’m already itching for another breather. It’s hard work pounding away at the keyboard.

8 p.m.
Our pizza supper came at about 7:45 p.m. and the computer room cleared out as competitors grabbed some grub. During supper, talk included how people end their scenes (someone exits, the lights fade to black or they end on a funny line) and how many pages everyone had written (most people I talked to had about eight or nine by this point). One competitor says her favourite part about the competition is simply clearing her schedule for a day so her only task is to write.

9 p.m.
I’m totally stuck. I’ve written 10 pages, and I think I’ve got the format down, but I only planned six scenes and two acts beforehand. My drug-addicted main character has gone to her first Narcotics Anonymous meeting, but what now? Does she start doing drugs again? Find God? Die? I foolishly thought the ending would come to me as I wrote. I go to the lounge to complain to my fellow competitors. “Bring someone back from the dead,” suggests Jeremy Warren, StarPhoenix reporter and former Sheaf editor.

10 p.m.
I didn’t bring a character back from the dead, but I did end up writing a monologue where the main character talks to her friend’s grave. A discussion in the break room revealed to me that a one-hour play is about 30 or 40 pages long. I only have12 pages right now and I’m nearing the end of my play. In the lounge, one competitor asked, “What’s a funny way for someone to get an MRI scan?” The answer: “Snowboarding down a waterslide.”

11 p.m.
I’d like to get the first draft done before I go to sleep tonight. I think I’m about one scene from the end but I’m at a loss for how to end it. Right now, my character has replaced drugs with NA and religion. Should she break down and go back to drugs? Should she turn her life around, becoming an NA sponsor? Overheard in the lounge: “I checked for ‘penis’ but nothing came up. ‘Dick’ just came up with ‘private eye.’ ”

12 a.m.
I finished my first draft! I ended up trying two endings and liked the depressing one more. I’m kind of disappointed I’ll be missing the insanity that’s sure to ensue during the wee hours of the morning, but this is a competition after all and I will do better if I get some sleep.

10 a.m. Saturday
Back at work. The computer room looks just about the same as it did when I left, minus a few people who have finished.

11 a.m.
Visiting in the lounge, everyone has a printed first draft in hand. Conversations centre around formatting, endings, stage direction, how many people died in our plays, and what tactics were used writing past plays. I add to the conversation as much as I can, but this being my first play, I mostly listen. U of S student and playwright Nathan Howe points out there’s only five hours left, spurring me into action once again.

12 p.m.
I found a quiet corner to read the play out loud. I probably looked a little crazy to some of the passers-by, but I’m probably not the first person they’ve seen mumbling to themselves in a corner today. Now I’m busy editing and fiddling with the format.

1 p.m.
The pressure is on, and so is the soup. Alan cooked up a big pot of delicious hamburger soup and distracted some of us with food, simultaneously reminding us that we only have three hours left. After a quick bite and a cup of coffee, I’m running off to read the play out loud one more time.

2 p.m.
Our numbers are thinning out as we finish our plays. Momentarily, I will be one of the people who have finished. I’m not entirely confident about what I’ve written. Are there too many scene changes? Are the scenes too short? Do I have the format right? To feel entirely happy with the play, I think I’d have to rewrite it completely, a feat I’m not going to try to attempt with only two hours left. Still, as I hand in my 5,000-word play, I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

The results of the competition were announced at a brunch on Sunday at Alexanders. The top four winning plays in both the open and student categories had a scene from their play read by professional local actors ”• Leon Willey, Matthew Burgess, Clare Middleton and Angela Christie — and the playwrights received great prizes, with the top prize in each category a $500 cheque.

Student Category
1st Prize Saving Eva Braun by Anthony MacMahon (Saskatoon)
2nd Prize The Eternity Project by Shawn Erker (Saskatoon)
3rd Prize In the Public Eye by Charlie Peters (Saskatoon)
Honourable Mention Three Short Plays About Death by Jared Berry (Saskatoon)

Open Category
1st Prize Secular by Neil Oliver (Lloydminster)
2nd Prize Life Owes You Nothing by Dave W. Ouellette (Saskatoon)
3rd Prize The Prodigal Son by Ken Wilson (Regina)
Honourable Mention Xmas Lights by Stephen Sutherland (Saskatoon)

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