Take six teams of playwrights, directors and actors – some with scant experience in the limelight – with story lines, genres, mandatory props, etc. drawn from a hat. Give playwrights one night to create a 10-minute play and actors/directors about six hours to learn their lines and refine stage moves. Then call it Overnight Sensations, and produce it at Mill Mountain Theatre.
That’s what happened last Friday/Saturday, when for the third time live theatre was celebrated at a venue that has been largely dark for the past year plus due to funding issues. Hollins University creative writing program director Todd Ristau (who originated Overnight Sensations) called it more “friend raising” then fundraising for Mill Mountain, a chance to show live theatre patrons that supporting the art form in Roanoke has its benefits.
On Friday night playwrights were matched with directors after drawing names from a hat, as were play themes, genres (comedy, drama, farce, melodrama, soap opera, crime/noir) and other conditions. Then teams of actors were assigned and before the playwrights headed off to Hollins to write until midnight they met the acting troupe for the first time, “so they can get a good look at you,” as Ristau put it.
Brandon DuMonde, a student in Ristau’s summer Masters of Fine Arts program for creative writing, is actually a teacher from Maryland. She worked on her play, set at a pawnshop, until 7:30am Saturday – the last few hours on a laptop at the campground where she is staying for six weeks. DuMonde eschewed Hollins dormitories or an apartment for the great outdoors she loves.
Beginning at noon on Saturday, DuMonde, director Kate Bredeson (a Portland, OR-based professor teaching at Hollins this summer) and six actors met at the Mill Mountain atelier (a dorm for visiting actors/directors) to learn their lines and rehearse “Pawn Quixote,” which combined elements of tragedy, drama and even some light comedy to tell the story of a business on its last legs.
“Fast, fierce, totally great,” said Bredeson in an e-mail to cast members afterwards. “Thanks for your great work and for going on such a delightful whirlwind journey with me.”
Other mini-plays presented Saturday night to an almost-packed house at Mill Mountain had titles like “Dick Piston, Hotel Detective in Prosthesis: Murder; The Old and Restful: A Soap Opera; and Little Debbie & Coke. Ristau told playwrights on Friday that there wasn’t to be any “nudity [or] gratuitous profanity. Don’t push the boundaries.”
DuMonde, a second year MFA student at Hollins, had never done “a 24-hour kind of play thing before.” It took DuMonde about an hour and a half before she turned on her computer to begin writing. “[At first] I thought no way, especially when we got the list of all of the props we had to [use].” Those props included a fake severed leg. “Somehow in the wee hours of the morning I found a way.”
DuMonde took several naps on Saturday to catch up on the sleep she missed Friday night. As for Overnight Sensations: “I thought it was very exciting. It was great to see the community get excited about it.”
Before the six plays were presented on Saturday, Mill Mountain Theatre’s lone paid employee, Ginger Poole, came on stage to talk about the acting classes and other events going on there, even as the board of directors looks for funding and a vision for the future.
Actor Sarah Elizabeth Timmons, a Smith Mountain Lake resident, is more focused these days on the film “Lake Effects” that she is in the process of producing, but she found time to be the gum-chewing, very sassy character “Sally” in Pawn Quixote. Veteran Roanoke actor Ross Laguzza was her wise-guy boyfriend Rusty.
“It was an amazing experience for me, an opportunity to get back to what I love to do,” said Timmons at the cast party afterwards, “my first love [acting] without making a major time commitment.” Timmons heads to Los Angeles next month to do principal casting for her movie; she hopes to shoot some scenes in Roanoke.
Ristau came on stage at the end of the exhausting and exhilarating 24 hour period, urging people to support live theater at venues like Studio Roanoke, Hollins, Mill Mountain, etc. He also asked for financial support when possible. “Adrenaline always helps,” said Timmons of the process and fast pace behind Overnight Sensations.
(Note: Roanoke Star-Sentinel news editor Gene Marrano portrayed “Papa” in Pawn Quixote, his first acting gig since about the 8th grade.)By Gene Marrano [email protected]