Literature 6-1-2006

Letters from a Writer: Out of the Mind

Jean Sramek, like so many writers, has a certain relationship with pain. Here's her story.

Jean Sramek

It is the most frightening experience I have ever had as a writer. And I keep coming back for more.

There are variations of it all over the country, and probably all over the world, and it’s called different things—Commando Theatre, or 16 in 48, or Instant Plays. In Duluth, our local version is called Out of the Hat, produced by Renegade Comedy Theatre. Theatre artists write, direct, produce, and perform plays over a very short period of time. The point, if there is one, is to take the already ephemeral nature of live theatre and make it even more so. OOTH works like this:

We have eight writers, eight directors, and a pool of actors. We meet on Thursday evening, put “who,” “what,” and “where” prompts in three hats, and the writers draw prompts, along with their cast makeup—two women, or three men and one woman. The writers go home to write a 10-minute play which uses the prompts. Everyone shows up bright and early Friday morning; the directors draw scripts, then actors, out of a hat. After a brief read-through with the writers, the directors and actors rehearse all day, have dress rehearsal at 4:30, and the eight plays are presented to the public at 7:00 pm. At 9:00 pm, the process begins again for Saturday night’s performance.

Yeah, I know. Sixteen original 10-minute plays in 48 hours. You’d think some of them would suck, and once in a while they do. But the surprising majority of the plays do not suck, and in fact are quite good, frequently inspired. You’d also think that the audience would be wary and judgmental, given the potentially uneven quality of the plays. You’d be wrong about this; you will never see a more appreciative audience. They virtually bounce up and down in their seats, faces shining, waiting for the smallest excuse to laugh or applaud. They touch our sleeves after the show is over and tell us how amazing we all are. We fight back tears of exhaustion and thank them.

I have directed for OOTH a couple of times, and I have had nightmares about being in the acting pool—acting being my least favorite part of doing theatre. Most often, I have been one of the eight writers who show up—scripts in hand, bleary-eyed and sucking on mugs of coffee like newborn calves—on Friday and Saturday mornings.

The writers rub each others’ shoulders and say How’d it go? My play sucks. Naw, mine sucks. I’m sure yours is great. No really—mine sucks. And then in whiny, Philip-Glass unison, What time did you get to sleep? followed by a cacophony of answers. Two. Quarter of three. Four-thirty. Midnight. Midnight? You bastard, I didn’t even get a first draft until five. I hate you. Yeah, but my play sucks. And so on, until Brian, the producer, asks the directors to draw their scripts and actors.

After the read-through on Friday morning, I go home and pretend to nap, then wake up mid-afternoon, shaking, worried about my play. I shower and go down to the theatre about 6:00 pm and pace around with the other writers and wish to Jeebus I smoked cigarettes. After the read-through on Saturday, I don’t even bother to nap; if possible, I go out to breakfast with some other OOTH writers, then work or go for a bike ride or email my imaginary internet friends. After Saturday night’s plays, we all drink somewhere and bond and process. Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, I sleep the deepest and most satisfying sleep of my shallow and unsatisfying life.

Writing a play for OOTH is like all writing: lonely and uncomfortable. I draw my prompts, I go home and move the puzzle pieces around. Sometimes the play writes itself; sometimes the prompts have to be wrestled to the ground and attached to the script with duct tape. Either way, I panic. I feel sick. I giggle uncontrollably at a flash of something which is genius at 2:00 a.m. and which may still be genius 15 hours later, if the actors don’t drop the line and the director gets the reference and I wasn’t hallucinating when I determined that it was genius and should be kept in the script.

As of June 10th, 2006, I will have written a dozen 10-minute plays for OOTH. When I first did this, exactly three years ago, it was terrifying. I fretted over every line in my play, whether it would be interpreted properly, who would be cast, who would direct, whether the lines were funny or poignant, what people would think. It’s still terrifying, but there are other things—good things—mixed in with the terror. I have learned to view OOTH as a writing exercise, a creative jump-start, a legal and therapeutic drug. If I am working on a project and stuck, OOTH gives me a push; if I am busy with life, OOTH is a nice little vacation where (once I get past the lonely and uncomfortable part) everybody understands me and loves me.

Most importantly, I have trained myself to let my play fly and be free once it leaves my computer printer. During the last OOTH, I took a bullet. The actors skipped a page of dialogue and the rest of the play was a train wreck, barely recognizable as the witty, wordy script I had given to them that morning. I sat next to my director in the audience, listening to him whisper Oh shit and Jean I am so sorry. Later, one of the actors apologized and the other one avoided me. I have as tender an ego as the next person in theatre, and if this had been OOTH #1 instead of OOTH #6, I might have had a well-deserved hissy fit. But this time? Naw. I just assured them that it was okay, because it was. I’d already had my fun, after all.

Next week, I’ll spend 48 hours being scared. On purpose. And that should be enough to hold me until Out of the Hat #8.