“Here, there are no divas,” says Colorado Academy Middle School and Upper School theater instructor James Meehan late on a Friday afternoon in September. “This is an ego-free zone. You’re here to find out about yourselves—and have fun.”
In CA’s Leach Center for the Performing Arts, Meehan is welcoming two dozen Ninth through Twelfth Graders to the sixth edition of the 24-Hour Play Project, a unique opportunity for CA students to write, direct, act, and crew at any level, with absolutely no barriers to entry.
“Bring your thang,” Meehan urges the students. “Whatever your thang is, this is the time to show it. And once you get on this train, remember that you don’t get off until the end.”
Then the students break into small groups that will present four student-authored short plays on the Leach Main Stage in about 24 hours’ time. Spread out in various rehearsal and performance spaces, they rush to choose their roles, brainstorm costume and prop ideas, and parse through scripts on their phones.
It is the first time they are seeing the works, which were created by their peers just the week before.
One of the authors, Sophomore Zoe Roberts, says, “This is super-exciting. Last year, I was an actor, but I really like writing, and I thought it would be fun. So far, it has proved to be more than fun. I love seeing how the cast members interpret my characters. It’s a lot of work to do this all in 24 hours, but it makes it all the more worth it.”
Ninth Grader Rory Goldstein, an actor and first-time participant, says, “Performing is my absolute favorite thing. And so when I heard about what the 24-Hour Play Project is, I knew I had to be a part of it.”
Healthy pressure, endless support
“It’s fundamentally low pressure—well, maybe there is a bit of pressure,” admits Senior Avery Goldstein, Rory’s older sister, who wrote two of the plays and was directing another. “But you put it in perspective. You get to experience all the different parts of what it means to be in the theater.”
According to Meehan, the 24-Hour Play Project is, indeed, designed to create pressure—but a “healthy pressure,” he says. “We want students to discover how they can push themselves, to experience rigor, all while knowing that they have endless support from their peers to fall back on, a refuge of sorts. This is a welcoming environment for all, including those Ninth Graders who are new to the process and maybe new to theater.”
Director J.T. Timmers, a Senior veteran of the 24-Hour Play Project, says that mentoring the younger students is a huge bonus. “It’s a really great introduction for them into the theater program and a really great way for us to build the connections that we have in the CA theater community.”
“The dynamic here is intoxicating,” says Braden Fitzpatrick ’22, who returned home from his first year at Colorado School of Mines to join the tech crew for the weekend. “Everyone is so fun to be around, and there’s an amazing vibe in this community.”
The real work begins
After the kickoff with Meehan in the theater, the students head home to memorize, knowing that they have to be “off-book” by the morning, when they begin designing their sets, blocking, rehearsing, and refining their performances in earnest.
“Sure, there’s a little bit of panic and a little bit of nerves,” explains Meehan, “but it’s also constructive and rewarding. It really is about the students going through this demanding process and having that outlet of the performance in the evening.”
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, camped out in the Leach Center with snacks and water bottles to carry them through the long day, the actors are putting the finishing touches on their lines and assembling costumes, the tech crew members are “spiking” set pieces on the stage, and the directors are trying to keep everything moving, as the four performance groups rotate through their rehearsal sessions on the Main Stage.
According to Ninth Grader Tatum Kreitler, an actor in the play created by Zoe Roberts, Little Shop of Flowers, “I’m doing this because it’s an amazing experience to harness the spontaneity of theater. It’s important to hold on to that, because not everything can go right in the theater. You need to know how to work with whatever happens, on the fly.”
Roberts’ play is about a flower shop that earns the attention of a private detective when she discovers that its owner is an alien. The other works include Inside the Rose, by Junior author Bela Chaudhuri, about researchers who encounter an artist from an elusive culture hidden away in a walled desert city; The Omniscient and the Naive, by Avery Goldstein, about extraterrestrial beings who are responsible for overseeing humans on Earth; and Stupid Inbreds Killed the Cat, also by Goldstein, about the first female President of the United States and her downfall at the hands of the press and the public.
The final push
After a lunch break, the students move into tech run-throughs, when they walk through their plays on the Main Stage, determine lighting, music, and sound-effect cues, and work out any last-minute staging kinks.
Of course, not everything is perfect, and not everything can be polished. The atmosphere remains an “in-process” one, making it clear to the audience that this is truly a one-day endeavor.
“There are going to be holes; there are going to be mistakes,” Meehan says. “I want the mistakes. It’s about building confidence.”
“It’s certainly been a little stressful,” says Senior Clare Henry, an actor. “We’ve had a couple of moments where everyone’s kind of been freaking out. But listen, it’s a one-way ticket, and you just have to figure out how you’re going to deal with it. I like pressure, and I like a challenge, so for me, this is fun.”
According to Junior tech crew member Grant Kenny, “The great thing about the 24-Hour Play Project is that it really lets the students take the lead, rather than teachers. You get a lot of experience with things that you might never do in a normal production.”
J.T. Timmers, in his first year as a director, agrees, “It’s eye-opening to see things the way teachers get to, and to figure out the logistical issues that they have to go through.”
Fueled by a hasty dinner of pizza, the participants gather on stage for a pep talk before the house opens.
Despite the fact that an audience of friends and family members will begin arriving in just a few minutes, Meehan tells the students, “Remember: this is for you. Whatever it is, that’s what it is. It’s incredible to see what you’ve done since nine o’clock this morning. Enjoy all your hard work, and don’t forget: you have an audience who love you. So if you mess up, you mess up. We’re not machines. Have some fun. Every year, I’m absolutely bowled over by how much you guys achieve in a few short hours. I’m just in awe.”
When guests begin arriving, they fill seats that have been arranged right on the stage, just feet away from the performance space. It is another nod to the immediacy and rigor Meehan tries to impart to this unique event.
The intimacy seems to inspire the students, who deliver performances that mostly feel as if they have been refined over the course of weeks, rather than a single day. The audience laughs in all the right places; music and sound effects play without a hitch; lighting and scenery changes flow almost seamlessly, creating new worlds and moods at every turn.
Reflecting on the experience after the evening is over, director J.T. Timmers says, “The 24-Hour Play Project is a tradition at CA, and if you’re in the theater, you’re going to do it at least once. I’m really happy it worked out for me this year, especially because the play I directed was written by my classmate Avery Goldstein, someone I’ve been friends with for years. It is so cool to see her writing something and having it up on stage.”
Participating in the project for a third year, actor Sofie Henry ’23, Clare Henry’s sister, observes, “There’s nothing else like it; every other show you do you’re given a lot of time. The 24-Hour Play Project forces you to get along with everyone, and forces you to get stuff done. It’s just such a fun, whirlwind process. You show up, and you put it together in one day. All these people—with me—helped me get this together, and now we’ve done it. It’s so rewarding: you work hard, and then you get to play hard. Afterwards, you just feel the energy in the room.”