“Overnight” May Have Been Better Than Ever This Year

Director Kris Laguzza (right) watches her cast rehearse.

by Gene Marrano

Perhaps it was Todd Ristau’s edict beforehand or just the right mix of writers, but the six short plays created and presented within a 24 hour period last Saturday during Overnight Sensations seemed snappier and in many cases funnier than ever. Ristau, who heads up the playwriting program at Hollins University, implored the writers and directors the night before to adhere to the ten minute long guideline for the play’s length.

In some cases previously they had stretched to 15 or even 20 minutes long, with meandering plot lines as well. This time out, Overnight Sensations – billed as “pulling an all-nighter for art’s sake,” stuck close to the 10-minute rule. The event, created six years ago as a way to highlight live theater in the Roanoke area, featured local playwrights and several from out of town.

“The perfect expression of everything I love about theater,” said Ristau, after the last of the six short plays wound up on the stage at Hollins University, where Overnight was moved for this year only since Mill Mountain Theatre’s Trinkle stage is closed for renovations. Ristau noted that the main theater hall at Hollins, built in 1924, was only air-conditioned this year.

That was good news for attendees looking to beat the heat wave for a few hours. “It still looks like 1924, but it’s state of the art,” said Ristau. As part of the Hollins theater renovation (a million dollar grant helped pay for it), dark blackout curtains came down automatically just before the six plays began, covering the tall, distinctive arched windows that harken back to 1924.

The plays, created after the genre, themes and settings were drawn randomly from a hat last Friday night, included comedic bits like The Last Secret of the Titanic – as the captain and first mate choose a singer from among the passengers. What could go wrong in the North Atlantic, in the middle of the night, at the edge of an iceberg field? asks the captain, aptly played by Dan Smith.

The Lonesome Whale featured Gary Reid as a crusty lighthouse keeper, spurning advances from a bevy of female suitors due to his obsession with the sea. Eggwhites & Thumbprint Stains on Canvas with Shadows spoke to, with humor, the pretentiousness of fine art and the way some regard pieces that may be nothing but a pile of junk. Veteran local actor Kris Laguzza directed that one; her husband Ross starred as a cad in another Overnight play, Unhospitable. Both had appeared as actors in an Edward Albee play recently.

Earlier that day, director Miriam Frazier put her cast of seven through its paces as they rehearsed #Ragnarok – as in “hash tag” Ragnarok for the non-Twitter crowd. Set in a newsroom, the employees of a newspaper deal with changing technology like blogs and Twitter as they also encounter Norwegian gods sent down to announce the end of the world – Ragnarok in Norwegian. Cast member Celie Holmes, born in Norway, actually spoke several monologues during the play in Norwegian.

“I can’t believe how much we have done in a couple of hours,” said Frazier as the cast read through their lines and “blocked” where they would come in, stand, etc. At one point she said it was time to do a run-through without help, after everyone had spent time memorizing. “We just need to get to the end of it – no calling for lines,” ordered Frazier, artistic director for the GAMUT troupe that mounts productions at Community High School.

“It’s a ton of fun, it’s a challenge,” said Frazier of the 24-hour Overnight Sensations concept. “You have to work really smart, really fast. Everybody comes here with an attitude to get the work done.” Many of the actors in Overnight Sensations are not actors at all, which is part of the charm.

“People underestimate themselves all the time. They’re able to do whatever they need to do to get it done. As long as they’re willing to take direction there’s very little difference.” Frazier has directed at Overnight Sensations several times; it’s a project of the Hollins Playwright’s Lab.  “It’s really one of the true collaborative events that go on in town.”

Brian O’Sullivan, a semi-retired actor who did theater work in New York and San Francisco, appeared in Frazier’s play (written by Will Coleman) as a Norse God. “I’m just kind of going on the broadness of the play,” said O’Sullivan, who has also directed plays at Studio Roanoke. He likes the Overnight Sensations concept, in part because it brings many players in the local live theater world together.

“You meet a lot of people you normally wouldn’t have contact with,” said O’Sullivan. It was also nice to be on the Hollins campus for a change, drawing that theater world into the fold. “It’s very vibrant,” said O’Sullivan of the local theater scene, “there’s a lot going on here.” He does wish more people would turn out to watch it on a regular basis.

Ristau welcomed everyone back to Overnight Sensations next year, as he urged those in the audience to also support live theater venues in Roanoke. “[And] bring about ten friends with you,” he added.