Students staying up late to cram for a test is nothing new.
But after school this Friday, Dec. 8, a select group of student playwrights at Casa Grande High School will gather to pull a decidedly unusual all-nighter. Working in small teams, they will attempt to deliver six completed plays by 7 a.m. the next morning. Then, on Saturday night — 24 hours later — the curtain will rise on those freshly-minted plays.
Welcome to Casa Grande’s third annual 24-Hour Play Festival.
In roughly ten additional hours, the plays will have been cast, rehearsed, staged, costumed, lit and finalized for performance.
How is this possible?
Chalk it up to the energy of youth, plus the guidance of John Rustan, drama teacher at the school since 2008 and the creator of the festival.
“It is lots of fun, for both performers and audience,” said Rustan.
Rustan has been the drama teacher at Casa Grande since 2008. After earning a Master’s degree in theatre arts from Occidental College and a PhD in the same from the University of Oregon, Rustan taught at the University of Oregon, Gonzaga University, Napa Valley College, and Santa Rosa Junior College. He has worked professionally as an actor, playwright, and dialect coach.
To start the 24-Hour Play Festival creative process, the writing teams begin by reading the “actor/character profiles” Rustan has received from students interested in performing in the plays. The actors were asked to describe “a quirk or secret desire” they would like to include in their character. The writers must incorporate those quirks and desires into their scripts.
“One actor wants to be a blind art dealer,” Rustan revealed. “So one of the teams is going to have to include that role in their play.”
Based on the profiles, the writing teams will divvy up the actors. They will then disburse to various homes, hosted by interested parents, for an intense night of playmaking.
The first year of the festival, most of the plays ended with murder or suicide, so Rustan now advises his playwrights to avoid these conclusions. Otherwise, they are given a free hand.
Rustan makes sure each of the writing teams includes someone with previous experience crafting plays, usually gained through his advanced drama class. No single member of a team has authorial rule, so the teams must truly collaborate.
“This takes the pressure off any specific individual, and the team can focus on getting it done.”
Despite the pressure, Rustan said the students enjoy the process of writing quickly.
“There’s no time to procrastinate, so they just jump in and create,” he said.
At dawn, the playwrights will send their scripts to Rustan and six current and former student directors.
By 8 a.m. the directors will have read and divvied up the scripts.
At 8:30 a.m. the actors will arrive at the theater to begin rehearsals.
Despite the time restraints, the actors usually learn their lines without difficulty, Rustan said.
“The plays are short, eight to ten pages, with five or six actors in each, so the line load for each actor is not too burdensome,” he allowed, adding that because his students do lots of improvisational work in class, they are also adept at helping out each other if necessary.
Late in the afternoon, the student technicians will go to work, adjusting lights, set and sound cues for each play.
The hardest task for Rustan, he admitted, is recruiting six student directors.
“The students all want to act in the plays, and we don’t allow a student to both direct and act in the same play,” he said.
Fortunately, several of Rustan’s former student directors are glad to help out.
According to Rustan, twelve seniors with directing experience graduated from Rustan’s program last year, and several of them have volunteered to help out this year.
Rustan initially launched the festival to provide an acting opportunity for students unable to take a drama class.
“I was looking for a project that could be done quickly and require a relatively small investment of time,” he said. “I heard from a friend in Oregon who had done this type of thing, so I picked his brain about what works and how to set it up.”
The plays will be staged in the school’s large new multi-use room, which functions as a fully modern theater, with a large proscenium stage, theater lighting and sound, dressing rooms and shop. The modern light board is one of the many upgrades the drama program has received from fundraising efforts of the school’s booster organization.
The playwrights, directors, actors and technicians all benefit from the experience.
“They must rise to the challenge of a really strong deadline,” Rustan said. “By going through this, they find out what it means to work efficiently, and they see how creative they can be. They get very excited about what they can produce in such a short period of time.”
As for the audience, says Rustan, “They will see something fresh and immediate, in which the writers, directors and actors have all made strong choices.”