by Gene Marrano
Overnight Sensations, a celebration of local live theater that founder Todd Ristau terms a “friend raiser,” returns on July 7. This time, however, the night of short, impromptu plays will not be held on the Trinkle Main Stage at Mill Mountain Theatre as in the past.
That’s impossible, of course, since Center in the Square is undergoing major renovations that will end early next year. Instead the main stage theater at Hollins University will host Overnight Sensations on the 7th; the curtain is at 8pm and there is no charge. “We hope we’ll get as many out to campus as we have down at Mill Mountain Theatre,” said Ristau.
The hope said Ristau, who heads up the university’s graduate program in playwriting, is that the event will develop more live theater fans and perhaps encourage donations to live theatre institutions or troupes. “Overnight” is a unique concept – the night before (July 6) six directors will be paired with six playwrights and about six actors – all the names are pulled out a hat. The play genres and props that must be used are also drawn randomly.
The playwrights – some of whom have gone through the MFA playwriting curriculum at Hollins – are whisked away to the school’s library where they will endeavor to write ten minute plays for all of the actors they’ve just met at an opening reception. The playwright and director tweak things the next morning, the actors come in around noon to start learning their lines and by 8pm that night they’ll be on stage at Hollins in front of an audience. It’s a hectic, frenzied and fun exercise; one Ristau debuted at Mill Mountain Theatre in 2006 while working there.
The graduate program for playwrights at Hollins is a summer-intensive, six-week program that takes most students 4-5 years to complete, according to Ristau. A recent Hollins graduate, playwright and Los Angeles resident Samantha Macher, took part in Overnight Sensations last year and has a play running now at Studio Roanoke, To The New Girl, through this weekend. She was paired last summer with Broadway veteran Bob Moss at Sensations.
Ristau has tried to pull in the occasional notable director from out of town when he can, drawing on a long list of contacts. “The [acting] cast has a nice balance of experienced local actors, some local celebrities and people that are influential in the arts community,” said Ristau, who also created the all-comers No Shame Theatre that will be housed at Hollins this summer, on Friday nights, as well.
No Shame has moved temporarily from Mill Mountain’s smaller Waldron Stage – which has been renovated but has no air conditioning since its system is tied to the one at Center in the Square. As for Overnight Sensations, Ristau calls the exercise “A great way to find out what goes into making a play and why it’s so exciting. Even a ten minute play can be a really interesting conversation between the artist and the community.” Overnight plays usually run the gamut from comedy to drama to crime noir. (Beware: Roanoke Star News Editor Gene Marrano has been asked to take part as an Overnight Sensations actor for a third time.)
“There’s a lot of community support [beyond buying a ticket] that’s required for a theater to continue,” noted Ristau. “This is a great way for people to get right in the middle of it and be reminded why theater is so important – the experience of audiences and artists coming together.”
Ristau will also point out at the end of the night how the various live theater institutions around town are also a cultural and economic development driver worthy of support. “We do bring all these people in …they go to restaurants, etc.” Ristau points out. See the Overnight Sensations Facebook page or call 556-5396 for more information. The doors open at 7pm and the plays begin at 8pm. “We want to help educate our local audiences – why new plays can be really exciting,” said Ristau.