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How to make a play in a day: creativity, community and caffeine

The cast and crew of the Breadcrumbs Productions' 24 Hour Play Festival take a bow on Sunday, January 15.
Ava Pukatch
The cast and crew of the Breadcrumbs Productions' 24 Hour Play Festival take a bow on Sunday, January 15.

Typically plays have weeks of rehearsal before an audience sees a performance. But one Syracuse-area theatre company wrote, rehearsed and performed a new play in just 24 hours.

On a Sunday afternoon, Tanner Efinger watches an audience clap as actors in “The Secret Life of Clare", a play he wrote, take a bow.

"It's about a relationship between a caretaker and an elderly woman who she cares for," Efinger explains. "During a regular routine visit, some memories become unearthed that Clare had thought forgotten."

The play didn’t exist 24 hours ago.

The day prior, playwrights, directors and actors met with a shared mission: create a new play in one day. Breadcrumbs Productions, a professional theatre company aimed at supporting local artists, hosted the 24-Hour Play Festival.

The event kicks off at 2 p.m. as Emily Elizabeth, a producer, explains to the teams standing in a circle of the black box theater that there aren't many rules. But, every play needs to have a moment of betrayal.

"You can make it a comedy," Elizabeth said. "You can make it a drama, a tragedy, but there must be a moment of betrayal in your piece."

So, where do you start?

One group begins with a few improv scenes in a rehearsal hall upstairs. Another playwright hunkers down in an empty dressing room. Efinger's team starts with a discussion about second chances and what betrayal means to them.

They sit on couches in the lobby of Wunderbar, a bar in downtown Syracuse which Efinger owns that also houses the theater where Breadcrumbs Productions performs. He pulls out his laptop, typing out details he’ll later incorporate into the text.

Efinger, who is also the founding artistic director of Breadcrumbs Productions, shares a story he's been thinking about between an elderly woman, Clare, and her caretaker, Maya.

"I like the idea that maybe it starts and she's jiggling the keys and she's kind of like rushing in because she hears the whistle of the teapot," Efinger says as he types out the beginning of a script.

He puts headphones on, sits at a high-top table and writes. Thirty minutes later, the cast reads aloud the first two pages of the script.

The play then goes through several rounds of reading, writing and revision as the team starts to stage the piece. By 8:00 p.m. Efinger hands everyone a printed copy of the completed script. They read the full piece for the first time huddled together in his third-floor office.

"I think it's good guys," he says at the conclusion of the first readthrough. "I actually really enjoyed your reading of it. I'm pretty happy with it."

Around 10:30 p.m., the team descends to the basement. Director Cosette Myrick holds a handwritten list of props the team needs for the performance the next day, marking who's responsible for what.

"We got a decanter," Myrick notes. "We need some whiskey cups. We have someone bringing a tea kettle. We also need a tea cup."

Blair Dawson and Binaifer Dabu perform "The Secret Life of Clare"
Ava Pukatch
Blair Dawson and Binaifer Dabu perform "The Secret Life of Clare"

Throughout the evening, some artists trickle out of the building, heading home to sleep in their own beds before reconvening early in the next morning. Binaifer Dabu, the actress playing Clare, plans to run her lines on the treadmill in her apartment's gym.

"I want these papers out of my hand," Dabu said. "I literally want to be off book before I go to bed, like it's a mission."

Other artists stay through the night, bringing blankets and pillows in from their cars to sleep on the floor of the theater. Returning actors and directors reconvene around 8 a.m. the next morning. Fueled by coffee, tea and adrenaline, they put the finishing touches on the performance before a one-hour tech and dress rehearsal starts at noon.

At 1:30 pm, Actors head backstage as an audience begins to fill the theater. And at 2 p.m., exactly 24 hours from the start of the festival, Efinger’s script makes its debut performance.

While it's not his first time seeing a play he's written, he said it's exciting to see it brought to life.

"It's such a quick turnaround that it's maybe a little bit hard to capture, but I think it really encapsulates what live theatre is about," Efinger said. "These moments that exist and then disappear."

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.