Of all the skills a playwright must develop to be in full command of their craft - an ear for dialogue, a command of pacing, a knack for character - the most crucial is undoubtedly the ability to sit down and actually write.
We’ll never know if Samuel Beckett or Noel Coward would have been seduced into inaction by Facebook or Buzzfeed’s 25 Funniest Cat Gifs Ever, but it’s safe to say that into their greatest works, and indeed into the works of any great playwright, went a tremendous battle with procrastination.
For any writer, there is always something - reorganizing bookshelves, doing the dishes, finishing one’s taxes - more appealing than the idea that the words on the page might come out wrong, or not at all.
This is the draw of the Nakai Theatre’s 24 Hour Playwriting Challenge, which took place Oct. 5 and 6 at the Edgewater Hotel in Whitehorse. This year’s writing marathon - the 27th annual staging of the event by the Nakai Theatre - saw some 22 participants take up the gauntlet, agreeing to lock themselves in a hotel room and write for as long as was physically and mentally possible. The twist - and what essentially acts as an ironclad contract forcing participants to create - is that they will perform, read, or otherwise stage five minutes of what they’ve created this Saturday night in front of a live audience 24 Hour Playwriting Cabaret.
David Skelton, the artistic director of the Nakai Theatre, was one of this year’s participants, and will present a portion of a play he first began working on in the 2011 challenge.
“For myself, I need to have different ways of writing,” explains Skelton, who declines to describe the work he’ll present on Saturday. “I have periods of writing where I just have a very open-ended time with blue-sky ideas, lines, or images I want to portray, but no real practicalities about dialogue or anything like that. So for me, this time allows me to take that raw material and set a deadline to compile and edit it.”
Dawsonite Mary Fraughton, a recent graduate of Vancouver Island University’s Creative Writing program, had wanted to participate in the 24 hour challenge in previous years, but it always fell during her busy mid-term season at school. This year, she looked up the event (normally staged in November) just a few days before it was due to start and had to scramble to enter.
“It was literally like two or three days before,” says Fraughton. “I had to beg for a ride down to Whitehorse.”
At just 24 years old, Fraughton is one of the younger participants in the challenge, but she’s already got another play, Making Tracks, going into production next spring, to be staged in Nanaimo by the Western Edge Theatre.
Like Making Tracks, Fraughton’s work created in the 24 hour challenge draws on her personal experience growing up in the Yukon bush. It’s a one-person play, and for her five-minute showcase, Fraughton will take on the role of performer.
“I’ve rehearsed for myself, and for my dog, and that’s about it,” she jokes.
However the audience and jury receive her performance, Fraughton is keen to participate in the challenge again.
“It’s great to create a space where there’s nothing to do but write,” she says, noting that she threw a blanket over the television in her hotel room and pretended it wasn’t there. “And there’s a camaraderie that comes out of doing this with 21 other writers. At 11 o’clock they had something called ‘whiskey hour’ where we came down to the lounge for a drink. And I realized that, in the same way too much alcohol lowers your inhibitions, too much writing can do the same thing. I came down to talk with all these other writers and I had like, no filter on.”
Though not every piece created in the 24 hour challenge will be a diamond, or even go on to be a fully-formed play, past year’s efforts have borne some serious fruit. Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather’s 60 Below was born at the 24 hour challenge, as was The River by Skelton, Judith Rudakoff and Joseph Tisiga. Syphilis: A Love Story, by Peter Jickling, came out of the 2009 challenge, and made it to both the Edmonton and Victoria Fringe Festivals.
“Sitting in the hotel room by myself really forced me to get my thoughts in order and hammer out as much of the story as I could,” says Jickling, who participated in 2009, 2010, and 2012. “The final product is very different from what I came up with at the end of 24 hours, but that initial burst of productivity was essential to the process.”
“It really is a lot of fun,” he adds. “It gets a bit stressful when it’s 4 a.m. and you’re trying to write but you can’t think straight because you haven’t slept and you’re a bit drunk, but in retrospect even those moments of panic end up being an important part of the event.”
Ultimately, Skelton says, the Nakai’s performance cabaret is a lot more entertaining than an evening of amateur theatre ought to be. There are prizes, audience participation, and a supportive crowd.
“It’s an opportunity for the playwright to see what audiences think of what they’ve done, and for the audience to get a peek into what’s being created,” he says. “It’s really rough and ready, but it’s a lot of fun.”
The 24 Hour Playwriting Cabaret will take place on Nov. 9 at the Yukon Inn’s Fireside Room, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door. For more information, visit nakaitheatre.com.