“Overnight” Returns To Mill Mountain Theatre

Todd Ristau (on stage) sets up the ground rules for Overnight Sensations (Photo courtesy Dan Smith.)
Todd Ristau (on stage) sets up the ground rules for Overnight Sensations (Photo courtesy Dan Smith.)

The latest sign of life returning to normal at renovated Center in the Square might have been the return of Overnight Sensations to the Trinkle Main Stage at Mill Mountain Theatre. Overnight Sensations – where six 10 minute long plays are created and staged within a 24-hour period, was designed to promote live theater in the Roanoke Valley. It moved to the Hollins campus last summer when the air conditioning system was being replaced as part of Center’s $30 million dollar makeover.

Pull the names of six directors, six play writers and acting ensembles out of a hat, along with play genres, settings and themes – and you have Overnight Sensations. Everyone involved met Friday night at the Trinkle Main Stage, where the pairings took place. Once the writers had their assignments: a gangster/noir genre, with a nightclub setting and the emptiness of attaining a false dream theme for example, they headed off to the Robertson Library at Hollins to begin crafting a play for five characters.

Some playwrights were up most of the night, before getting up early to meet with their director for tweaking. The casts – local professional actors, “celebrities” and supporters of live theater – showed up for rehearsals at noon. By 8 pm the auditorium was mostly full and the show began.

Todd Ristau, director of the Graduate Program in Playwriting at Hollins University, told the audience afterwards that Overnight Sensations, which has been held every summer (save for a one year hiatus) since 2006, is more about “friend-raising” than fund-raising. That is, it’s all about getting people excited about live theater and supporting it at various venues in the Roanoke Valley.

Other themes for the short plays included a melodrama set in a laundromat (breaking up is hard to do), a screwball comedy set in a funeral home (the absence of fear is folly not bravery) and historical fiction/docudrama set in a barber shop (belief can blind you to reality). Writers and directors often took some liberty with the directives they pulled out of the hat on Friday night.

Peter Ullian, who teaches playwriting these days at Hollins, was given the task of coming up with the gangster/noir play in a nightclub setting, with the emptiness of obtaining a false dream as a premise. On top of that it had to be a musical. Julian has written some lyrics for musicals before but this time it had to be done overnight, with Hollins MFA candidate Scott Ramsburg supplying the music. 

This was no Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration: “I had never met [Scott] until this morning,” noted Ullian on Saturday – the same day he delivered the lyrics to Ramsburg. During the day as actors sung their lines words were deleted and added to fit the melodies better. “I learned a lot … about writing lyrics but this is the first time professionally,” said Ullian, who described the process as “completely chaotic” at times. Within 3-4 hours, before the actors arrived, it started to come together. “It was really wonderful to see that type of collaboration.”

Brian O’Sullivan has acted for Showtimers and at other theatre venues; he was back at Overnight Sensations for a third time, playing a news anchor for “Texas News,” where gay marriage was the hot topic.  “It’s exciting – the time constraints, it’s a new piece and a lot of new people [this year],” said O’Sullivan when it was all over.

Caitlin Coleman played the femme fatale in “The Dreams You Choose,” the first time she had appeared in a musical at Overnight Sensations.  “It was so much fun and kind of crazy. A more intense process – really awesome. It’s amazing that someone can write something like this overnight.” Coleman, who has appeared locally in live theater productions, said it was all about bringing new works to the stage, even 10-15 minute pieces crafted in less than 24 hours.

Ristau was pleased to see Overnight Sensations back at Mill Mountain Theatre. “It’s great to come home and it’s great to have Mill Mountain excited about such an important part of their mission, which has been to promote new works development. It’s a great partnership,” said Ristau, who expects that bond to grow stronger.

Ristau is also appreciative of the link between new play development at Hollins and Mill Mountain Theatre, which used to host the Norfolk Southern Festival of New Works. The smaller Waldron stage has also been home to many smaller, more experimental works. Who knows … maybe one of the 10-minute Overnight Sensations works will turn in to a full-fledged play.

 (Note: Star editor/ writer Gene Marrano tried his hand at singing, appearing in The Dreams You Choose during his fourth Overnight Sensations appearance.)

By Gene Marrano

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