Last week, I noticed a post on Joel Haber’s screenwriting blog about the 14-Day Screenplay Challenge coming up June 3rd. First run in February 2006, it’s having its second go (under new management) and I decided to dust off any long-dead screenwriting aspirations from my days in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and give it a go. And I decided to be public about it, since that’s the only way for me to know that I will actually show up at the page and write each of the 14 days, like it or not. In doing my own research about the process (described as a NaNoWriMo for screenwriters), I began looking at the time-controlled challenges out there for actors, such as the Sacred Fools’ “Fast & Loose” series and the 48-Hour Film Project.
I’ve always been fascinated by time-controlled challenges for the creatives on our planet (and I wonder if bank tellers wouldn’t be happier, more professionally-inspired people if they had the “under the gun” urgency of a timed-challenge associated with their work — y’know, without an actual robbery going on — from time to time), so I decided to get some tips from the veterans in this arena. Speaking of which, this holiday weekend, I learned that the best people to ask for “column tips” while on a tight deadline are those who’ve participated in time-controlled challenges. In putting together The Actors Voice, I regularly go to sources on a Friday night, asking for tips by Saturday night, so that I can put my articles together on Sunday and get them to the wonderful Showfax Bob for publishing. Typically, I’ll get timely replies from about a third of the folks I reach out to (and on a holiday weekend, I figured I’d do much worse). Well, on this week’s topic, I’m batting a thousand on tips. I now know what group of people I can count on for lightning-fast responses: those who thrive in the time-controlled challenge world!
And just what does it take to thrive? According to Tenaya Cleveland (who has participated in “Fast & Loose,” “Day Players” [“basically a Fast & Loose” spin-off at the Acme Theatre with a little lighter comedy theme,” she described], the 48-Hour Film Challenge, and “No Shame Theatre” [“where the show gets thrown together in an hour”]), “it takes courage and heart. I have found so much great support in the acting community through doing these projects! Ultimately, they are great exercise for whatever capacity you are participating, and they create fast bonds with the people you work with (a great way to network and keep working your art)!”
David LM McIntyre (Literary Manager, Sacred Fools Theatre Company) is a “Fast & Loose” regular who has also acted in an Instant Films project. “‘Fast & Loose’ (based on a similar Paul Plunkett-produced project in Seattle) has become one of the favorite things I get to do,” he began. “The instant gratification of having an audience experience your work within a day of its inspiration is one obvious pay-off. But what I’ve relished most about the experience is the way it allows a person to clear away all distractions. Knowing that you have an audience coming and expecting a show at eight o’clock allows you to focus. Everything but the work just gets put away in a drawer for 24 hours — paying bills, doing laundry, catching up on your reading or television watching, your social life; all that is set aside and you get to just be an actor, writer, or director for that time.”
The “Fast & Loose” model is simply four steps: 1) 8pm: writers get random variables, a cast makeup (gender and number of players only), 12 hours to write a 10-minute play incorporating those elements. 2) 10am: directors randomly choose one of the completed scripts, a randomly-selected cast of actors, and begin the rehearsal process. 3) 4pm: each team gets 15 minutes of on-stage tech time for light and sound cues. 4) 8pm: showtime!
Another “Fast & Loose” regular, Kathi Copeland, had this to say about the experience: “It is always thrilling! There is this amazing energy everywhere. When you mix creativity with chaos and nerves you end up with some amazing theatre. You have to make quick choices and boldly go with them. It’s always good for an actor, director, and writer to take big risks and this is a great way to do it. In the end, I guess I am an adrenaline junky because I love doing it. I think everyone in this business should try time-controlled challenges once. It’s an incredible opportunity for growth.”
“Theatre means so much to me that I’m usually a perfectionist about doing it,” said “Fast & Loose” participant Thia Stephan. “Coming from the LORT mindset to LA waiver theatre, I am always distressed at how so many people out here just ‘throw things together’ and tend to compromise on so many aspects of a show. But when I got the call from Sacred Fools to be part of ‘Fast & Loose’ this past New Year’s Eve, I thought it would be very good for me to go into a piece that was MEANT to be thrown together, and to have no idea what I was getting into–script, director, other actors are all unknown factors that morning when you arrive. As it turns out, my name was pulled for a project with some great people. It was pretty stressful, but everyone was so committed, and throwing themselves into it so wholeheartedly, that it ended up being one of those joyous, exciting and fun evenings that remind us why we got into this in the first place.”
Actors aren’t the only ones who benefit from these time-controlled challenges, of course. Jenelle Riley, a colleague from my Back Stage West days (and one of my favorite local playwrights) shared the following: “Since I started overnight writing about four years ago, my writing has improved tremendously. Being forced to work off nothing but a scene prompt and on such a strict deadline, you have to get out of your own way and put down something — anything — on paper. It also teaches you to trust not only your actors and directors immensely, but to learn to let go of your words and turn things over to the fates.” Jenelle has not only written over 50 overnight pieces with Sacred Fools and Acme, she has also written a few Instant Films (her award-winning Crazy Love is linked here).
“These events use chance as a co-creator,” David added. “With the random assignment of actors to projects, writers have to create more universal characters and actors are often cast into roles that stretch their talents.” Kathi described the decision-making process in participating in “Fast & Loose” as “always one I fret over. It can be the greatest adrenaline roller coaster of a ride or it can be a nightmare part of the day. There are many factors. Is it a good script, with good actors, with a good director, have they done this before, can I memorize my lines and get my costumes and props in time? When you only have about eight hours total, this can seem daunting.” Since Kathi has done “Fast & Loose” and the 48-Hour Film Challenge, she drew some comparisons and mentioned a few distinct differences: “I actually think that doing the 48-Hour Film Challenge was so much easier because I had already participated in ‘Fast & Loose.’ With 48-Hour Films, you have to worry about light, location, technical risks, and dealing with actors sitting around most of the day. It is more an endurance battle to stay awake.”
Julia Flint, who has created her own production company in response to her deep passion for doing 48-Hour Films, provided a great deal of detail about the process. “I’ve been doing 48-Hour Films since June of 2003. I’m an actress and writer, and they used both skills. (Helps when you’re writing your own projects to write yourself a role!) Kick-off time is 7pm on Friday, when you get a genre. The producers of the contest in which I participate are out of Washington, DC. They have local contests (such as the one coming up in June, where the teams are all from Los Angeles) in a variety of cities across the US. In addition, they’re affiliated with the National Film Challenge (which takes place in October and consists of teams all across the country competing the same weekend). There are 11 possible genres for the contest (comedy, romance, musical or western [yep], action/adventure, mockumentary, etc.). Then we get three elements that have to be in the film: a character, a line of dialogue, and a prop. The script is written, production begins, chaos ensues, and you turn in the film by 7pm Sunday.”
Julia continued: “As a writer, I do really well under a deadline. I find myself with unfinished scripts, half-realized ideas, uncompleted thoughts, etc., constantly. I have spiral notebooks, laptop documents, and Post-It Notes full of words, but rarely a completed project. The 48-Hour Film Challenge forces me to complete a script. Yes, it’s limited — by length (for this contest, four minutes minimum, seven minutes maximum) and by topic. (But I love being told what to write about!) As an actor, it has been an unparalleled experience — because you are moving so fast and have a limited crew, you are forced, as an actor, to learn the best possible attitude and method for being on a set. Not only do you learn what the production team is doing — from a gnat’s-eye view — you become aware of things you might not notice on a large set: movements that will make a difference to a DP and editor, continuity issues that will affect the final result, and the reason to hit your mark! You don’t have the luxury of multiple takes. It teaches you how to make instantaneous character choices, fine-tunes the use of your improv skills, and impresses on you the value of total team cooperation.”
Think a short film in 48-hours is “too easy” a goal? Well okay, how about this info from Tenaya? “Last month, a bunch of folks from No Shame Theatre got a group together and wrote, shot, and edited a feature film in 48 hours. I wrote (This was my first screenwriting–I was so nerve-wracked I actually started to hyperventilate at one point!) and acted. They are completing a documentary about it now, which should be very interesting!” Whoa! Now, that’s ambitious!
If you’re chomping at the bit for these opportunities, check out everything I’ve linked in this article as well as looking into a historical overview (and classes) based on Rachel Rosenthal’s Instant Theatre Company work, the LA-only48-Hour Film Festival, New York’s 24-Hour Plays, 168-Hour Film Project (shorts based on Bible verses), and Zombie Joe’s Underground 50-Hour Drive-By. Also check out other cool stuff like the 24-Hour Comics Challenge, the Book-in-a-Week Challenge, and February: Album-Writing Month!
Tips for Success
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of what these challenges might be like, let’s look at some ways to maximize your creative energy and maintain your sanity while participating. (Yes, I will try to remind myself to do these things during the 14-Day Screenwriting Challenge!)
*Prep Your Life for the Challenge
Before the big kick-off, pay your bills, rest up, stock up on coffee, record an outgoing voicemail that explains you’ll be tough to reach for a certain period of time, put up a “Gone Fishin'” sign on your blog, let those who count on you know what’s coming (this last item is also good for getting encouragement and having people help to hold your feet to the fire during the challenge).
*Prep Your Characters
Whether you’re a writer or an actor, spend some time on character development. Work out your improv muscle, visit your idea bank, think about characters you’ve previously tried on (or written) and see if there might be something ready to take out and play with again. If you’re a director, spend this time to prep your locations and equipment (some events will loan out equipment for the duration of the challenge).
*Give Yourself a Safe Place
When you need to zone out during the challenge (and you likely will need to check out of the process for a moment or two at times) or need to see reminders of how to stay motivated during the challenge, have a place set aside where that’s all okay. Use breaks for mind-clearing, perspective, self-encouragement, and a recharging of inspiration.
*Forgive Yourself for Failure
It’s not going to be easy. (And would you want it to be?) So be okay with the occasional slip and allow yourself to quickly recover so that your failure doesn’t turn into a tailspin.
*Reward Yourself for Completing the Challenge
Even if your film is awful, the script you wrote is dreck, no one liked your performance, or the equipment ate everything and there is no evidence of your hard work AT ALL, have a reward in place for having risen to the challenge in the first place.
Parting Words of Wisdom
“I find these kinds of projects to be incredibly invigorating, inspiring, and expansive. I have learned so much as a performer about how to trust (myself, my collaborators, and life in general), and time and again I have pushed through challenges that might have otherwise taken so much longer to get through, simply because THERE ISN’T ENOUGH TIME TO DWELL! If you want the project to work, you make it work. I’ve also learned immense lessons about accepting what has come to pass. Once the performance is over, let it go. When you have so little time, there’s no use beating yourself up over imperfection.” — Tenaya Cleveland
“Nothing tops the feeling you get when a piece gets pulled off. On the other hand, if it doesn’t go so well, at least you haven’t invested more than a night in it.” — Jenelle Riley
“It’s so much fun and there is an inherent trust. The difficulty is staying focused when you are tired. The great part is that you get to see the result so fast. You don’t have to wait a year or more to find out you have been cut out of it. I have gotten great tape from a day of guerrilla film-making.” — Kathi Copeland
“It is a very small time commitment for, in our case, very nice results. I’m able to give DVD copies almost instantaneously to team members, so the fruits of their labor are recognized immediately. And nothing beats the rush of seeing something on the big screen that you created in two days.” — Julia Flint
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000403.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.