Express theater at Pitt

Red eyes, sleepless nights — ah, the life of a playwright. All that was especially true last weekend, during the University of Pittsburgh’s Redeye Theatre Project (RTP), when teams of theater enthusiasts got together to write, rehearse, and perform eight original one-act plays, all in 24 hours. Unlike more time-consuming theater endeavors, RTP offers a casual, short-term, and generally experimental experience for both participants and audience members.

“Theater in general is a pretty big time commitment,” said RTP writer and student Mary Heyne, commenting on the refreshing quality of the project’s short time span.

RTP is populated mostly by Pitt undergraduates, although the project is open to everyone; in past years, participants have included students from Point Park, Chatham, and Temple, in addition to Pitt alumni, according to Cory Tamler, president of RTP.

In fact, RTP is pretty welcoming in general, providing a supportive venue for students to explore all aspects of theater. Joanna Drummond, who served as the sound designer for all eight of last weekend’s plays, participated in her first RTP show earlier this year without any sound design experience. Drummond has used the experience she gained from RTP to get more involved with more formal theater productions at Pitt; she’s going to be doing sound design for a Pitt Repertory Theatre show this fall.

“All of a sudden I’m doing sound design for a main-stage [show], which is awesome,” she said.

“There are people who get involved in the theater department because of RTP,” Tamler said, adding that some students even wind up changing their majors after the experience.
Each round of RTP has a theme that unites the eight plays. Once, each play had to correspond to a specific section of a newspaper, like the obituaries or the classifieds; another time, each play had to revolve around a seemingly random phrase given at the beginning of the project’s 24 hours. This round’s theme challenged the writers to emulate famous authors, playwrights, and filmmakers, from Harold Pinter to Stephen King to Quentin Tarantino. The theme was actually recycled from last year; “We’re repeating it because it went really well,” Tamler said.

Each of the RTP writers or groups of writers receives specific, typed prompts at the beginning of the project to ensure that nobody gets a head start on writing. Last weekend, RTP participants read their prompts on Friday evening. The prompts discouraged parodying the given author’s works, instead encouraging writers to dig deeper and truly emulate their given authors’ styles.

Depending on the theme of the project, RTP casting either occurs before or after writers receive their prompts. As the emulation theme is particularly challenging and calls for rather specific casting choices, writers this year were given the opportunity to cast their plays after reading their prompts. RTP auditions are laid-back, Tamler explained, as everyone who is accepted to participate in the program as an actor is guaranteed a part.

Once the writers know their prompts and their actors, the eyes start turning red as the writing process begins. Writing in the style of eerie playwright Harold Pinter, Heyne finished an outline for her script at 11:30 p.m., hoping to complete a first draft by 2 or 3 a.m. Also writing, Tamler acknowledged that she is the type to work on her script for as long as possible. At 11 p.m., she was cozily writing on the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning, attempting to emulate playwright Bertolt Brecht.
After the script is finished, it is far from set in stone. Actors and directors often have to truncate lines — a person can only memorize so much in 24 hours — or rework them during rehearsals. However, Heyne assured that RTP was not the place for writers-turned-divas.

“[Rewriting is] just something that’s accepted,” she said. “Most people that write for RTP have experience acting or directing,” she added, so they can relate to the problems that can lead to changes in the script.

RTP began three years ago under the wing of Tamler, who has served as president of the organization ever since. Last weekend’s RTP was the project’s fourth and final show of the season, although there will be a smaller version of the project over the summer. The project has expanded since its beginning, and the initial 45 participants have grown to 80. Saturday night’s packed Studio Theatre in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning also served to illustrate RTP’s success.

RTP’s first performance three years ago was even more of a time crunch than usual, Tamler explained — so much so that the last of the eight plays did not have time for a tech rehearsal before the performance. To accommodate, the first play, which was inspired by Hurricane Katrina, was performed in the Cathedral of Learning’s loading dock, which left the stage open for the other play to finish its dress rehearsal. “It really fit the play, which is nice,” Tamler said, adding that the impromptu nature of the loading-dock performance was also representative of RTP as a whole.

This time, things went much more smoothly. The plays ran the gambit from artsy to comical, upbeat to tense. One highlight was Ring Finger, a play by Nathan Lederach and Christopher Maxwell in the style of playwright Sam Shepard and screenwriter Greg Daniels. The writers captured Shepard’s classically mysterious, family-centric drama, while also including Daniels’ perfectly timed lines that audience members are used to seeing on The Office. Another impressive play was called The Prince of East-Cabum, emulating filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman). Written by Tory Abbott and Lily Junker, the play offered all the disturbing comedy inherent in a Tarantino flick, plus some shocking special effects that would have taken most people at least 48 hours to dream up.

Written to emulate the rather challenging prompt of “the great silent film screenwriters,” Jailhouse Jamboree was definitely an audience favorite. The play, created by a group of writers headed by Brenden Gallagher, followed a bumbling brother-sister duo trying to escape from prison over a cacophony of old-style piano music. The twist came when the head prison guard (gasp) spoke, revealing that the play was not really silent — instead, the main characters were mute.

On Saturday evening, as all the writers, actors, directors, and crew members of the production retired to sleep (or celebrate), it seemed all those red eyes were worth it, as last weekend’s RTP produced some truly impressive shows.