by Gene Marrano
Overnight Sensations returned to Mill Mountain Theatre last weekend for a fifth time. It is a frenetic, 24 hour period when writers, directors and actors – some professional, some amateur, some really not actors at all – assemble and stage 10-15 minute long original plays. The goal as always, said Todd Ristau, head of the Hollins University Master’s of Fine Arts playwriting program, “is to celebrate live theater and to highlight its impact in the Roanoke Valley.”
Once again everybody met on a Friday night. Reaching into an oversized brandy snifter, playwrights drew: themes for each new work, (comedy, drama, crime noir, etc.), the director they would work with, the settings for each play, props that must be used and the names of 6-7 actors. Then they went off to the Hollins campus to begin writing their plays.
On Saturday morning the playwrights met with the directors to fine tune scripts and begin the “blocking process” – where actors should come in, where they should stand, etc. At noon the cast showed up to begin read-throughs, tweak the scripts some more and begin to memorize their lines.
Titles for each play, which also suggested the themes—playwrights took great license with these—included “Special Collections,” “Fundraiser Gone Funky,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Bargain,” “Chuck Wagon All-in-One Finance,” and “Repo Hut.” Locations included an airport lounge, a library and a cocktail lounge.
At 8 p.m. it was show time. Over the next 90 minutes, six plays were presented to a nearly full house at Mill Mountain Theatre’s Trinkle Main Stage, which incidentally will soon go dark (after a festival of student play readings July 22-24) as Center in the Square begins a two year renovation process.
The smaller Waldron “black box” stage is scheduled to be back on line this fall, with productions on the Trinkle stage slated to return in late 2013. It was announced that the nearly completed new Community High School building will also offer a space for live theater, including a new home for GAMUT Theatre productions.
Ristau likes to call Overnight Sensations a “friend raiser, rather than a fundraiser, a free event where members of the community can interact with the people that they are used to watching on stage or that work behind the scenes.” Ristau likes to involve non-actors of some note from the Roanoke area to get involved, with the hope that they will help spread the word about live theater.
Having “grizzled veterans of theater working side by side with absolute beginners,” is one of Ristau’s main objectives, as is having his playwriting students at Hollins get involved as writers or actors.
Ristau assembled a formidable roster of directors and playwrights for this year’s Overnight Sensations, many of whom were connected to the Hollins MFA program as visiting teachers or as students. Samantha Macher, for example (no relation to Spanky), is a playwright-in-residence at the SkyPilot Theatre in Los Angeles, while the director she worked with on Special Collections, Bob Ross, has a theater named for him in New York.
Earlier that day Ross and Macher tweaked the play on read-throughs with the cast. “I don’t think the issue is clean,” Ross remarked about one theme in Special Collections, “we need a help mate.” On a run through at Mill Mountain, director Kenley Smith (founder of Studio Roanoke nearby) reassured his cast that it would come together. “There’s so much going on,” said Smith, also a playwright and graduate of the Hollins program, “we’re just seeing how it flows.”
Ironically, one of the cast members for Special Collections provided a central theme for the play. Bayla Sussman, a retired Equity actor who now runs Baylee’s Chocolates on Rt. 419 in Roanoke County, brought a box full of her confectionery delights last Friday night. Playwright Samantha Macher worked Baylee’s Chocolates into the play, as a way to bring two lovers together, and as a vehicle to help a clueless high school jock learn algebra.
Ross worked with one of the all time greats in American theater, the late Helen Hayes, and assured nervous cast members like Sussman, shortly before the curtain went up Saturday night, that even the legendary actress got butterflies the first few times she performed a new play.
Sussman, who studied acting at Northwestern, had been off the stage for many years after moving to Roanoke in the 90s but appreciated the opportunity to be in the limelight once again. She has been in the chocolate business for about seven years, starting with a home-based company.
Except for a performance at the Addy awards several years ago it had been 16 years since Sussman had acted on stage. “It’s exciting; it’s terrifying – I can’t wait to do it again.” Having her Baylee’s Chocolates become the centerpiece of the play was surprising. “I was stunned. It was like a commercial for my chocolate,” said Sussman, who makes most of her confectionary treats from scratch.
Afterwards Ristau and Scott Treadway, the new producing artistic director for Mill Mountain Theatre, sat onstage and polled the audience on what plays they would like to see produced locally in the next few years. Ristau asked attendees to support local live theater, no matter what the venue. “It was amazing to see how many talented people there are in this city,” added Treadway about Overnight Sensations.
(Note: Star-Sentinel News Editor Gene Marrano returned to the stage in Overnight Sensations for a second time, playing “Bradley’s Dad” in Special Collections. He only flubbed one line.)