My scariest moment in show business was stepping into the Irish Arts Center for the first time at 9:15 am on Monday, December 11, 2000. I’d come to light a show that would open the following weekend, but first there was a benefit performance of the musical Merry Go Round, which would play that evening. I’d never done lighting in NYC, I’d never seen the show, I had no idea what equipment the theater had, and I’d just met the director the night before (I’d slept on his couch.) A runner-up moment would be programming cues for a touring production of Annie while the show was being performed.
The fever dreams of people in show business usually have something to do with being completely unprepared in front of an audience (no clothes, no lines, no cues…) The fabulous documentary One Night Stand (available on iTunes for rental and purchase, and not to be confused with the Mike Figgis movie), directed by Trish Dalton and Elisabeth Sperling, concerns a company that transforms those nightmares into some kind of euphoria – you’re left feeling like you’ve witnessed the heart and soul of the creative process itself.
Like another theater documentary, Every Little Step (2008), One Night Stand concerns the mounting of a musical. Every Little Step was about the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. One Night Stand’s distinction is in its title: in this case, the show will be cast, written, rehearsed and performed within a single day. The 24 Hour Plays company (http://www.24hourplays.com) was founded by Tina Fallon in 1995. Every production follows the same model: at 10:00 pm the creative team gathers, and by 8:00 the following night they present an original work (in this case, 4 short musicals) in front of an audience.
Prior to watching this film, my uninformed opinion about The 24 Hour Plays was that it’s a gimmick (I need rehearsal.) It is a gimmick, but it’s a worthy one: Duke Ellington’s famous line “I don’t need time, I need a deadline” has never been illustrated more winningly than it is here. Of course, Dalton and Sperling were lucky in the performers chosen for this go-round (including show-stopper Cheyenne Jackson, Rachel Dratch, Richard Kind and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, among others.) The directors make great use of split screen and graphics to indicate how much time is left before curtain.
We see the team converge at the beginning, and we watch them introduce themselves and their items (each actor brings a costume or prop with them.) Occasionally an actor will speak directly to an interviewer behind the camera, but mostly we observe the process as it unfolds. The early hours are congenial and frenzied, and as the night wears on the writers bear down and in some cases flirt with despair (one vomits). As Fallon tells them, “That’s completely normal.” (The film spends most of its time with the writers and actors, but I would have enjoyed seeing more of Fallon and the technical crew.) The actors return in the morning and have an incredibly short block of time to learn songs, lines, blocking and choreography.
Every stage in the process and every emotion (from “Hey look at me” to “I’m gonna flop”) will be familiar to theater people. The beats turn out to be the same, whether over 24 hours, three weeks or two months. The final product is on wonderful display at the climax – all four pieces are intermingled for the film (which is how we watched them come together.) Some great moments occur because of dropped lines, but the real magic is in the alchemy of writing, directing, choreography and performance: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and far better than we (or they) had realized during creation.
The best part of my day at the Irish Arts Center was the moment the curtain closed and I realized I’d pulled it off. We get to see that moment in One Night Stand – the relief when it’s over, and the longing to do it again. Along the way we laugh and fret and frequently we’re transported. This movie gets at the heart of what show business is all about.