Once Upon a Weekend
Each semester, the campus community packs the Black Box for rough-and-ready theatre in which original plays are cast, rehearsed, and performed in just 24 hours.
It’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday night in late October, and every seat in the Black Box at Fir Acres Theatre is filled. Three more rows of students sit on the floor in front of the narrow swath of the room designated as the stage. Even more students crowd the back of the room and the cat-walk above. Finally, with careful planning, shouted ushering, and much cooperation, everyone fits, and the event, miraculously, starts more or less on time.
This is Once Upon a Weekend, Lewis & Clark’s festival of hastily prepared short plays, and it is packed.
The cramped seating is nothing new for the semiannual event, in which student writers are given one week to write 10-minute plays on a supplied theme (this fall it’s “Saboteurs!”). The best of the plays, as determined by the board of (Pause.), the college’s journal of dramatic writing, are cast, rehearsed, and performed in the course of 24 hours by student actors and directors.
The theatre is always filled to bursting with an audience eager to share in the chaotic creative mess, but this year is special. It is, according to Associate Professor of Theatre Stephen Weeks, “as far as anyone can tell, the 10th anniversary” of Once Upon a Weekend, and the theatre department celebrated by inviting alumni to join in the fun.
And join they did. Seven alumni sent in scripts, 11 offered to act or direct (half of whom graduated before the event’s inception), and 65 signed up to attend.
Lights up on the first play of the evening, Night Flower Ninjas, by Sander Gusinow CAS ’10. A pair of assassin sisters in black spandex debate the fitness of their other, younger, spacey sister while mercilessly slitting the throats of a horde of drunken, licentious pirates. They reconcile in a less-than-sisterly embrace, to loud cheering from the audience.
Once Upon a Weekend was brought to Lewis & Clark by Weeks, who got the idea from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel. In the late 1980s, Weeks was working as dramaturg and literary manager for the Los Angeles Theatre Center. “We were producing Paula Vogel, and at that time she was the director of the M.F.A. playwriting program at Brown University,” he says. “She was going to be taking a sabbatical in 1990–91, so she asked me if to fill in for her. I inherited Paula’s students and all of the programs she had started.”
One of those programs was Once Upon a Weekend, a rough-and-ready late-night production of short plays by students. “If what we do sounds similar, it’s because I stole the idea from her,” Weeks says unabashedly. “When I came to Lewis & Clark, there was no playwriting program whatsoever. I taught Introduction to Playwriting for the first time in 1996. I still teach it in alternate years. The second iteration of the class was in 1998, and after that I decided it was time to do Once Upon a Weekend.”
The event was a hit. These days, Once Upon a Weekend is mostly student- produced. “I now have to do very little, because the idea is so well-established,” Weeks says. “It’s pretty much under the control of the (Pause.) board. They come up with the theme, collect the scripts, and sort through them to choose the ones to be produced.”
The second show of the night is A Woeful Tale of a Fallen Balloon, by Katrina Maloney CAS ’11, in which a trio of well-to-do explorers ponder the cause of the hot-air balloon accident that has delayed their pursuit of the Fountain of Youth. An awkward love triangle emerges, along with a nonchalant tiger, and one of the explorers is tragically left behind.
Here’s how it usually works: Students submit their plays, many of which are written just hours before the deadline, to the (Pause.) board. The students on the board, in turn, distribute scripts to directors just before a Friday afternoon casting session. The directors fight over which actors they want, are assigned two-hour rehearsal blocks on Saturday, and get the whole shebang finished by that evening. Lines are half-memorized, costumes are pulled from the closets of sartorially inclined friends, and sets are assembled from piles of black boxes. It is an ecstatic disaster, just as much fun for the participants as for the audience.
Incorporating alumni increased the logistical challenges of the process. “With the addition of alumni this semester, we encountered some added pressure to make it a good show,” says Brad Jonas CAS ’10, co-organizer and emcee of the event. “There was more faculty involvement because of that, I think, to take off some of the pressure.”
This year, Weeks—along with Stepan Simek, associate professor of theatre— collected and read all the alumni and student scripts. Together, they narrowed the field to six plays. “Then we had another session, a paper casting, where we tried to figure out where the alums would go and how they would match up with students,” says Weeks. “I think we achieved a good degree of integration.”
Next up is Saboteur(s), a bittersweet play written by Laura VanZee Taylor B.A. ’92 and directed by Brian Costello B.A. ’96. A mother of two (Ever Carradine B.A. ’96) is searching for a topic to write about for Once Upon a Weekend. (This is a perennial theme at the event.) She asks her Facebook friends for guidance and, finding them unhelpful, decides to write what she knows—that her children are spoiling her sleep and her love life. As the play unfolds, she ends up ignoring her annoying, oversized children and neglected husband (Brian Gursky B.A. ’96) in favor of chatting online with an old boyfriend.
Mixing current students with alumni meant most directors worked with actors they’d never seen before. For A Woeful Tale of a Fallen Balloon, the last play to rehearse before curtain, this proved to be no inconvenience whatsoever. Director Marianna Hane Wiles B.A. ’06 and Mahria Lebow B.A. ’06 joined the rest of the cast, Jon Wash CAS ’11 and Ro Haan Mehta CAS ’11, in the theatre’s lobby at 7 p.m., meeting for the first time amid a crowd of actors streaming out of the Black Box in dance clothes and zombie makeup.
Wiles and Lebow had already scoured the campus for balloons to use as props (they found two dozen, left over from the homecoming festivities, tied up in front of J.R. Howard Hall), so the cast set about rehearsing straightaway. They assembled in the quarter of the room labeled “STAGE” in white gaffer’s tape, scripts in hand, cramming lines while Wiles spread a green cloth over the purloined balloons and tied their ribbons to a cardboard box. This suggestion of a hot-air balloon was to be the production’s primary prop.
Rehearsal moved quickly, progressing from a flat reading to a modestly robust performance in just three run-throughs. The actors went for big gestures and preposterous accents, blustering through the script while Wiles gave intermittent notes. “Put your foot on the box,” she told Mehta. “Look all explorerly.” With half an hour to go, the group took a break to raid the theatre’s prop closet, returning promptly with a pith helmet, flask, and pistol. One more high-speed run-through and time was up. The cast took off to hunt for costumes as the lobby filled.
By 9:30 p.m., the line of theatre-goers doubled back, stretching out into the night.
The fourth play, Who Stole the Cookies, is a mystery that delves into the fantastic, written by Jill Johnson CAS ’12. A little girl and her outlandishly costumed imaginary friends—a frog, a bear, and a devil— attempt to determine who stole the cookies that were being saved for the after- noon’s tea party. (Spoiler alert: it was the devil.)
Is there an educational purpose to all this madness? Weeks thinks so. “Certainly the intention in the beginning was to establish a playwriting presence on campus, and the impetus behind Once Upon a Weekend was to create opportunities for writing,” he says. “Now, as it turns out it’s also a nice supplement to directing classes and acting classes. So does it fit in with our overall program in terms of giving our students a chance to practice their crafts? Absolutely. I think the fact that some of the plays are going to be on the silly side is inevitable due to the basic nature of the event and the interests of the people who are out there writing, acting, and directing.”
Once Upon a Weekend has certainly encouraged the writing efforts of participants. Both Mahria Lebow and Max Ward B.A. ’06 have continued writing scripts after having plays produced at the event. It is, for many student writers, the first time they’ve ever seen their work performed on stage.
Ward was one of those students, having never written for the stage before taking Weeks’ playwriting class. He is now studying scenic design at the Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London. “Once Upon sort of made writing for stage make sense to me,” he says. “By seeing my work performed for the first time, I was better able to understand the challenges of a play- wright … It provided me with both the incentive and the opportunity to contribute to the campus theatre community within an accessible and collaborative environment.”
Next is Happy Holidays From the Hamiltons, by Nick Lantz B.A. ’03. An unhappy family is prodded by its geeky patriarch to sit through the excruciating process of taking the holiday card photo—an endeavor that each member of the family in turn attempts, hilariously, to derail.
Whether participants go on writing plays or not, Once Upon a Weekend is a treasured memory of many alumni. “Once Upon a Weekend was one of my favorite events in the theatre department when I was at Lewis & Clark, and I was thrilled to be able to come back and take part in an intergenerational Once Upon,” says Abi Kurfman B.A. ’08. “It had all the usual fun of Once Upon a Weekend— the brevity, the intensity, and the inanity of the experience. Allowing alumni to take part was a great way to keep our connection to the college alive and well.”
Lantz, a poet with two books, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (Graywolf Press) and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House (University of Wisconsin Press), due out in 2010, also has fond memories of the event. “Once Upon a Weekend combined what were probably my two main occupations at Lewis & Clark: creative writing and pulling delirious all-nighters,” he says. “I loved the compression of it, the mad dash to write something, to get it cast, rehearsed, and on stage in under a week. It was insane! But what was even more amazing was how good the end product often was.”
We close with France France Revolution, by Tessa Siegel CAS ’12, a 19th-century farce in which Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just are confounded by the citizenry’s objections to the Reign of Terror. They are suddenly interrupted by a horde of zombies led by their English butler, who break down the door, devour the tyrants, and break into a performance of the zombie dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The plot doesn’t quite follow, the cast of 13 don’t have the steps quite down, and the script alludes to obscurities of both French history and contemporary popular culture. It is, in short, a perfect encapsulation of Once Upon a Weekend.
Ben Waterhouse B.A ’06 is the theatre critic for the Portland newspaper Willamette Week, a career choice he attributes in large part to having written and performed in Once Upon a Weekend.