Each fall, The 24 Hour Plays puts playwrights, directors, actors and musicians through the ringer for a night of frenetic theater. Here’s how it works: everyone meets up at 9 PM the day before the curtain call, actors, writers, and directors group off into six different groups and go through props. The actors talk about scenes or roles they’ve always wanted to play. The playwrights stay up all night writing, and the actors and directors return the following morning, rehearse, run tech, and then, finally, perform six short plays to a packed audience. In any normal year, it’s a wild, emotionally charged theater. But this year’s Broadway performance, which landed just six days after the election, was more like a primal scream.
With heavy hitting talent from the theater (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire), television (Transparent’s Gaby Hoffmann, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, SNL’s Rachel Dratch), and film (Patrick Wilson, Justin Bartha), the show serves as an anchor and fundraiser for The 24 Hour Plays: Nationals, where young actors get together, for free, to go through this rigorous process, sharpen their skills, and create and build a lasting community.
This year’s roundup of six short plays included an existential scene questioning the role of entertainment when “the sky is falling,” a party scene gone sour as the election results trickle in (and the coke runs out), and American Pie’s Jason Biggs as a smiling guard of a new, secret detention facility. Each play, in its own way, attempted to deal with the spectre of Trump hanging over the night, and what the scenes lacked in time-worn polish made up for with raw emergency. “It’s of its moment wherever it is,” Mark Armstrong, the Executive Director of 24 Hour Plays, explains to The Creators Project. “We live and make work in New York City, so it tends to respond to local and national events here. Whether that’s September 11th, or Hurricane Sandy, this recent election […] it becomes a sort of temperature-taking of the community.”
The actors preparing for their roles are given strict instructions to only focus on, and worry about, the play within the 24-hour timeframe. “I didn’t think about it. I literally didn’t think about this until today,” Daveed Diggs, who played the role of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda in the original run of Hamilton, tells The Creators Project. “Because in the structure of this it tells you that we are only working on this for 24 hours, and I have plenty of other things to think about, so I was not going to think about it until I showed up.” When asked if he thought any other medium could move and respond to the world around it as quickly as a 24 Hour Play, Diggs replies, “It’s this, and hip-hop diss songs. That’s the only thing that moves this fast. But this is so collaborative and there are so many brilliant, really accomplished artists just trying to focus on this one thing. I looked at my cell phone less in the last 24 hours than I have in a long time. You’re so focused.”
Don’t wait until next year to catch 24 Hour Plays on Broadway, see the traveling national show now.