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April 7, 2016

Theater[24]: A Curator’s Diary

There is a sense of vulnerability in showing people a rough draft, asking for their feedback, and polishing it in front of someone whose opinion matters to you. Theater[24] is that vulnerability incarnate, a quarterly event where, within 24 hours, students write, rehearse, and perform shows  for their peers—peers who have the critical sensibilities to rip their work to shreds.

Every quarter since 2010, University Theater (UT) has produced the Theater[24] Festival, and every quarter since spring of 2014, I have curated it. Theater[24]’s rehearsal period and run are dramatically shorter than most of UT’s work: one day in lieu of five to nine weeks, and one performance instead of the standard four.

For the average participant, [24] starts on Friday night of first week. Actors introduce themselves to the other festival participants in 60 seconds or less, often singing, talking about their day, juggling, or reading erotic fanfiction. Curators like myself live-tweet the whole experience (@thtr24). After they all introduce themselves, writers and directors pair up; they then draw names of actors to write into their shows. Designers are prepped for the next day, and writing teams sneak away to a secret space where they will be crafting plays for the next 12ish hours. Everyone else is told to go to sleep (everyone but the first-timers usually do).

Saturday morning the writers turn in their plays, and the curators, directors, actors, and designers read them for the first time. After the read-through, writers head home and rehearsals begin. As per usual, this quarter the writers came up with some inside jokes that could only make sense to the sleep-deprived members locked in a room; there were running jokes about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer, a very specific recurring sound cue of cows dying in a fire, and many, many references to ​Hamilton.

Writers often add such absurd recurring bits to the center of a [24] show because people are tired and think they’re funny. As a curator, I spent a lot of time during the day musing about what would translate to a non–UT audience and what would feel like an inside joke, and I can’t help but think most of it fell into the latter. But that’s the thing about inside jokes: they develop by accident and shared experience.

Theater[24] often feels like both things rolled into one. As I rehearse with the shows, I feel like dozens of people are winking at me, and it’s nice. It’s nice to read scripts where the playwrights are present and want you to approve of them. 

By the time the show itself arrives, everyone is spent. After warm ups, the house opens and the Theater[24] Dance Party Extravaganza begins—a much beloved and much contested tradition of [24]. Basically, for half an hour, the festival participants dance to a terrible Top 40/’90s Throwback playlist on stage and in the growing audience. In theory, audience members can join in and hop on stage or dance anywhere in the room. More often than not, the people with friends on stage will join in, and the people who don’t will sit awkwardly for a very long time. It can feel exclusive, I get that. It is also my last festival, so in rosy-glasses senior style, I dance and blow bubbles with my friends without worrying about anyone else.

The other other curators and I introduce ourselves to the audience. As we calm our nerves, the festival starts, and I prepare myself for my first role, Leonardo DiCaprio. After five more plays (I play Ted Cruz, a Soviet Space Camp instructor, two girl scouts running through the woods, an unnamed Stage Manager, and Hillary Clinton), the show is suddenly over. I hear the other curators listing the remaining UT season—shows I am not part of—encouraging people to join a [24] listhost for festivals that will continue after I graduate, and suddenly it is my turn. I spit out the after-party location, reminding participants they have to stay to strike the show, and I realize this is it. 

At the end of the day, I think Theater[24] has always been for itself; it’s more about the experience of the day than the experience of watching the show. While its pool often overlaps with UT, there are festival participants who come back every quarter and never work on another UT show. Theater[24] is a self-selecting group that spends its first weekend on something that guarantees low production value, lowbrow humor, laughter, and new acquaintances.

I participated in Theater[24] my first weekend at UChicago and met people I ended up taking classes with, acting in UT mainstages with, and even going on dates with. This year, as a fourth-year, I watched those same connections form in younger classes.

UT often seems to have a four-year-long institutional memory. Something as ever-changing as [24] can feel even shorter. It represents and amplifies everything ephemeral about theater itself. We remember the people but not the shows. We remember each other, but not our Ted Cruz impressions. We forget, but we remember.

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