Five days before Christmas, when I would normally be buying presents, munching mince pies and knocking back mulled wine, I took part in 24- Hour Plays at Hull Truck Theatre. Following in the footsteps of the Old Vic and Theatre Royal Bath, this was Truck’s first 24-hour event, festively entitled The Anti-Panto Plays.
Taking on the challenge of writing a 20 minute, one-act play overnight, I joined three other playwrights, six actors, two directors and two stage management teams to produce an evening of theatre for an audience expecting an antidote to the trappings of the usual festive offerings the very next evening. No pressure then.
Wondering how (or even why) I did it and whether I managed to keep my sanity? Join with me to journey back through the hours of fear, frenzy and forbearance that led to it all – finally – coming to fruition.
8pm – Meet and greet
After a day of adopting manic levels of organisation in an attempt to control the butterflies that had taken up residence in my stomach, I am unsurprisingly one of the first to arrive. Setting up home in Truck’s rehearsal space with the directors and a couple of equally eager but nervous actors, we get the kettle on and wait for everyone else. I’m lucky enough to have worked with a couple of the other playwrights before, so it’s good to see some friendly faces when they arrive. Everyone’s buzzing with a mixture of excitement and nerves as introductions are made and jokes about what’s to come are shared. Something strange happens to me: a calmness that I can only attribute to sheer denial begins to set in.
8.15pm – Pep talks
We’re joined by Hull Truck’s Chief Executive Andrew Smaje, who talks us through the schedule. All of a sudden it’s really starting, as each writer picks an envelope containing the title of their play, all inspired by panto traditions. I fumble about with the paper for a few moments and sustain a paper cut or two before my destiny is finally out in the open:
Terror and panic overwhelm me as I stare at those big black letters. I should be having ideas – now! For the first (and thankfully only) time, all I can do is think: I can’t do this.
Thankfully, there’s not long to dwell on negative thoughts as we split off into two companies. Each team consists of two writers, a director and three actors who will act in both plays. We’re supposed to be discussing ideas and finding out about any special talents the actors have that we might like to use (aka exploit) but given that I’m still mid brain-freeze, I’m not really in any state to chat about my non-existent plans. I feel a huge sense of responsibility though, so I throw myself into conversation, determined not to let on that there’s an aching emptiness in my head. I don’t want the actors to leave, terrified of being helpless in my hands. Besides, there’s still time to replace me with someone who’s actually going to be able to write something. We play question games, and anecdotes fly around the room about best and worst Christmases, Fischer Price kitchens and Glaswegian vs. Edinburgh accents. At my side of the circle, something mercifully magical begins to happen: the tentative trickling of an idea.
The actors and directors leave soon after. Normally I would sit and agonise over whether an idea had legs, but there’s no time for that. Instead of finding your best idea, this is about just finding an idea and making it as near to your best as you can. The writers organically split off into two rooms – girls in one, boys in the other – and it’s game on.
9pm – 11pm
Armed with fruit gums and Diet Coke, two hours pass in a blur of planning and sketching out characters, themes and details. I’ve interpreted BOO! in two different ways, using its association with surprise or shock as well as the derivative phrase and baby game peek-a-boo. The piece is set in the living room of a terraced house in Hull decorated for Christmas and begins with a break-in by kleptomaniac burglar Kelly. On the cusp of making her escape, she is caught by the owner of the house, an older woman playing peek-a-boo with the bundle she cradles, who – to everyone’s surprise - talks to Kelly as if she is her daughter. Is the woman mad? Ill? Suffering from Alzheimer’s? These were the kinds of questions I wanted the audience to ask as they were thrown into a world that looks familiar yet suddenly seems to make very little sense.
I find myself writing with the actors in mind, drawing on their personalities and stories that were mentioned earlier. This is a new way of working for me, but it’s helping to stave off the fear, keeping my mind busy whenever it tries to wander into doubts. Everything about the writing process is put on fast forward and my productivity, usually inhibited by my various methods of procrastination and avoidance, is on pretty good form.
I start actually writing at about 10.30pm. It’s refreshing to move to the laptop after planning with pen and paper. Throughout the night I switch between typing and scribbling – I always keep a notepad handy for things I might want to jot down to remember while writing. Changing medium helps to focus my concentration and means I can transfer snippets of dialogue or plot without taking the script off my screen and breaking the moment. I think you also go through a natural editing process when transferring things in this way, which helps me to redraft as I go along. My habit is to edit as I work rather than bashing out a first draft and going over it later. I’m vaguely aware that I’m not 100% certain about the detail of my ending, but there’s no time to sit and worry about that now. I know I’ll feel better if I get something down on the page.
With the word count plodding on respectably and a plan in mind, I’m surprisingly relaxed about taking a quick break for dinner. It’s good to regroup with the other writers, and everyone seems to be in a similar position, having planned the outline of their script and started actually writing. There’s a huge sense of camaraderie rather than competition; we’re all in this together.
Fellow writer Clare and I decide that chatting through our ideas would be a good way of tackling the struggle of getting back into gear after a break – always difficult, even when the pressure’s on. I often find that talking things through out loud helps to clarify ideas, forcing me to question myself. I realise my plot is quite intricate, and I’m going to have to work hard to make sure enough information is communicated to the audience and at the right time.
Time is slipping past. Every time I look up, another hour has disappeared. Oddly, I feel wide awake, though this may have something to do with the potent combination of tea, Doritos, mince pies and satsumas I have on hand. In terms of quantity, things are going better than I’d imagined as I’m managing to write continually without any major hiccups – so far. Of course, quality is another matter all together, but it’s probably best not to think about that at the moment.
One of the other writers, Dave, pops in to see us and laughs as he finds me sat cross-legged on the floor. I’ve commandeered the area around the radiator, as this is how I always work (usually on my bed, I’ll admit). A creature of habit, I get a bit terrified if I sit at a desk. Too reminiscent of school exams? It feels more like I’m doing it on my terms if I camp out on the floor, papers spread around me in a den of demented creativity. And the ache in my back might just be all that’s keeping me awake.
My repeated affirmation that “I feel so awake!” is starting to sound slightly manic now, and the trips to the kitchen are becoming all the more frequent in my quest for caffeine and calories. The fourth writer, Richard, tells us he’s finished and is heading upstairs for a sleep. I’m vaguely aware that I should feel envious, but I’m on a mission now. I feel like I’m on autopilot, yet high as a kite. And I’ve broken my own record. Having never pulled an all-nighter in my life (I like sleep too much for all that), 4am is the best I’ve blearily managed. I’m focusing determinedly on what I’m doing, but keep intermittently finding myself distracted by bits of fluff on the carpet. Clearly, I am beginning to lose the plot. Let’s just hope my script doesn’t suffer from the same fate.
5am – 6.30am
AKA, the lost hours. Looking back, I have no recollection of what I did or what I wrote between 5 and 6.30. Ironically, this was when I really broke the back of the 18-page script, cemented my ending and redrafted and tweaked some of the details. I remember sketching out character maps at around 6am (a venture born out of desperate desire to ensure I understood my characters), but like a dream, the more I try to grasp at the hazy clouds of my memory, the more they slip away. They’re probably best forgotten. I suspect I ate my body weight in chocolate. I’d rather not know.
All the writers spontaneously gather for a cup of tea. After eight hours typing, it’s a welcome relief to have human conversation again. We all slope off pretty quick though, for an hour of final tweaks and edits before the deadline dawns.
Sharing a phobia of the failings of modern technology, Clare and I both prepare to email our scripts over to the stage management team early. I seem to have gone beyond being capable of that sense of satisfaction that submission usually brings and the world is starting to look a little woozy. Why is it light outside again?
8am – Breakfast
The actors and directors return and suddenly we’re thrown into the confusing chaos of normal civilisation. It all feels a bit much as we slump on sofas. Barely aware of what’s going on around me, I find myself munching crisps while everyone else tucks into breakfast rolls and coffee. Surely it’s lunchtime by now?
9am – Read through
Stage management arrive with the printed scripts and we head into the rehearsal room for the read through. I’m a nervous wreck as we start, barely capable of conversation due to the thumping of my own heart in my head, but I plaster a smile on my face and try to have confidence in what I’ve written. After all, there’s no changing it now.
The actors settle into their parts quickly, but I can’t help over-analysing every word. I’m genuinely impressed at how quickly the actors pick up the characters and at the end, I’m relieved the piece holds together. I am aware however that what I’ve written is pretty heavily reliant on props and sound cues. Perhaps not the easiest of scripts for a speedy rehearsal and staging, but everyone’s up for a challenge and the actors get stuck into rehearsal.
Director Nick invites me to stay, and it seems useful that I’m there to answer queries about character and cuts straight away. There’ll be no time for this later, as everyone will be rehearsing a different play in the afternoon.
12.30pm – Lunch break
There’s not much lunching or breaking to be seen as the actors pore over their scripts, drumming lines and moves into their brains before the next script arrives. I chat with the actors about the characters - their drives, desires, hopes, motives – and Nick and I break the script down into sections, each containing a beat of action. The characters have quite a complex physical journey through the play, so these associations should help them remember where they should be and when.
As soon as the next set of scripts arrive, everyone disappears into the rehearsal room again and I can finally collapse. Naturally, however, I feel wide-awake and desperate for fresh air. The next few hours pass in a haze and after a fraught walk through town and trip to the M&S food hall, I soon find myself wishing I’d slept.
The writers meet at the theatre in time to see the actors arrive for their technical run throughs. The plays are being performed in the studio and tensions are running high amongst the actors and backstage team as final touches are put to costume, sound and lighting. Supposedly, we should be relaxed now knowing things are out of our hands, but as I slope off for a couple of hours with my family, barely able to lift my feet, I’m not quite feeling it.
The show goes up. Mine is due to be performed after the interval, so I anticipate an agonising first half spent of anxious impatience, but I’m soon absorbed in the first two plays and the worry shrinks to a tiny niggle in the back of my mind. I’m so impressed with what they’ve created in such a short time. But as soon as I think that, the fear comes knocking again: will mine live up to the standard?
By the time we take our seats after the interval, I’m a gibbering zombie. I feel sick and I just want to go home. The lights come down and the tinkle of a music box tune begins. I sit on my hands to keep still and try to just watch.
So it’s all over. How did it go? What did I think? To be honest, I’m not sure. Everything is such a blur I can barely believe it happened, and all I can do is tell people, ‘I’ve been awake for 40 hours with a kind of manic pride. What I do know is that the actors and director have done an amazing job. There’s no way I would have wanted to be in there shoes, to be the ones up there on the stage.
And me? Well, I managed to write something. Something I’m actually quite pleased with, now I look back three weeks later. I’m fairly shocked that things I thought were logical at 3am actually did make sense the next day. Through the sea of exhaustion, terror and excitement, I managed to find logic, structure and emotion.
So in essence, I stayed up all night, wrote a 20-minute play and saw it performed the next evening. In reality, the experience of the 24-Hour Plays was much more. It was about proving to myself that I could do it, that I could work in extreme circumstances and finish something stageworthy in time for the deadline. For me - someone who tries to impose as much structure and order on my writing as possible - it was also about experiencing something more instinctual (and terrifying) than my usual way of working. I wouldn’t want to do it every night, but I wouldn’t take back the experience. I don’t regret a single second of that relentless, exhausting rollercoaster. And I managed to throw in a joke about Carpet Right, so things can’t be all that bad.