A Play in a Day

The DayTrippers specialize in writing, rehearsing, and performing their Fringe Festival productions in 24 hours

"Welcome to DayTrippers IV!" shouts Bradford Cooreman, the 6-foot, 6-inch artistic director of the Rough Theater Company whose slightly limp suit and tie barely hint at the 24 hours of sweat, tension, and nonstop hustle that have led to this moment.

"This is how it works: At 11 o'clock last night, we gave out a theme to three writers who went back to their houses and stayed up all night writing a play!" Cooreman shouts to the sold-out, late-night crowd gathered at the Exit Theater on Taylor.

"At 8:30, 8:45, 9 o'clock this morning," continues Cooreman in a flurry of words, "the writers handed over their scripts and the actors and directors read them for the first time! They started rehearsing. We gathered props, music, and costumes. We printed a program. Now we're here, less than 24 hours later, to perform for you!" By the end of his introduction, Cooreman is nearly rabid, and the audience, which includes three additional rows of people crammed together on the floor, is audibly impressed.

Melissa Culross, James Thomas Ware, and Adam Venker in 
Threepenny Grimm.
Paul Trapani
Melissa Culross, James Thomas Ware, and Adam Venker in Threepenny Grimm.
Melissa Culross, James Thomas Ware, and Adam Venker in 
Threepenny Grimm.
Paul Trapani
Melissa Culross, James Thomas Ware, and Adam Venker in Threepenny Grimm.
Melissa Culross, James Thomas Ware, and Adam Venker in 
Threepenny Grimm.
Paul Trapani
Melissa Culross, James Thomas Ware, and Adam Venker in Threepenny Grimm.

But they have no idea.

10:27 p.m. the night before:In the cozy confines of the Exit Theater Cafe, a group of thespians gathers on the barstools around the perimeter of the room, sipping wine and talking among themselves. The nervous excitement is palpable. Enter Jennifer Garagliano, executive director of Rough Theater, carrying several clipboards and wearing pragmatic blue overalls, which are to become her trademark. Garagliano has been cooking food all day, in preparation for the four consecutive play-in-a-day marathons scheduled for this year's San Francisco Fringe Festival. A few of tonight's DayTrippers wave a greeting.

Jeffrey Hartgraves, who recently appeared in Ronnie Larsen's A Few Gay Men, is among them. He is quick-witted, squat, and instantly likable.

Hartgraves: "This is my first time. It's by invitation only, you know, but it's difficult to tell if they invite you because they really like you or because they really want to torture you. I'll be acting as a director for Saturday's show and as a writer for Monday's show (Sunday is my birthday). I've only heard of one person doing the trifecta -- writing, acting, and directing. It wasn't a friend of mine; all my friends are sane."

DayTripper alum and 30-year theatrical veteran Felicia Faulknersits nearby. For DayTripper IV, she will be directing and acting. She has dark, ferine hair and crimson lips.

Faulkner: "This time I understand the need to pace myself. During my first DayTripper experience, there was so much adrenaline pumping through my body ... I wasted a lot of energy. Now I know: No matter what happens, this thing somehow, miraculously comes off. It seems inconceivable at first. Tonight I'm going home to get a good night's sleep. I've got plenty of water and vitamin C packs. I've got fruit cut up in the fridge. At 8 o'clock tomorrow, I'll walk out the door, ready to go."

10:48 p.m.: Cooreman decides to reveal tonight's theme 12 minutes early. He passes out the three envelopes to the three writers.

Cooreman: "We decided to go with a simple object this time."

The writers open their envelopes to reveal a large black word: MONEY.

Reed Kirk Rahlmann: "It's more of a concept, really."

Cooreman: "You're the writer; you tell us."

By day, Rahlmann produces trade shows and corporate events with his company Another Brain Productions. Seven of his plays have been produced for theater in San Francisco and Los Angeles, "eight if you count DayTrippers III." He has thick-rimmed black eyeglasses and wears an elegant sport coat and vest. He looks writerly, but with an understated hipster edge.

10:50 p.m.:The DayTrippers gather to discuss the theme in small groups assigned by Cooreman, comprised of one writer, one director, and three actors.

10:57 p.m.:Writer Sarah Emily Nelsonrushes for the exit. Nelson is a young, pale, brooding woman with straight black hair and a stockpile of Red Bull. She has written for radio shows such as Drew Carey's Hi-Fi Club and Rock Onwith Ray Manzarekand is responsible for the longest piece ever produced by DayTrippers, a 35-minute opus that had the actors in a memorizing panic during DayTrippers III.

Nelson: "I've got to get out of here. I've got to go home. I don't like to know the actors, or the director. I like to do this in the most pure way possible."

10:59 p.m.:Rahlmann asks his cast members to name their favorite directors and ideal roles, while, nearby, Carl Thelin, a sizable man with wire-rimmed glasses and unsettled hair, asks his own cast for personal anecdotes about money.

Thelin, looking over his notes a few minutes later: "I'm thinking about sales. I've got someone kicking off his shoes in the sand. I might have someone moon the audience. I might not use any of it. But it's nice if I can write something the actors can immediately identify with."

11:03 p.m.:The DayTrippers have left the cafe.

11:50 p.m.:Thelin is in his studio apartment over the Rhinoceros Theater, taking a sip of what will be the first of many Dr Peppers. Piles of video equipment have been pushed to the side of the computer desk, which sits in front of a window looking into the hallway of a residential hotel. A sandwich lies on the floor, along with a bag of chips and a couple of PowerBars.

Thelin: "It might be set on a beach."

Midnight:Rahlmann sits in his Richmond bedroom/office with the window shades pulled down tight. Three lines of text blink on the computer screen and a steaming mug of Thera-Flu rests nearby.

Rahlmann: "The initial thought is still there. I wanted to see what people are willing to do for money, which is the nature of work -- and money -- to begin with. I've got a couple, in a restaurant, who are having an affair. Maybe there's a wealthy guy ... someone who's written three wills and is willing to give his money to the person willing to give up his or her most devastating secret. ... There's a tumor inside his head the size of a melon. He's dying. It's completely farcical. He's made his money off land mines and prosthetic limbs."

12:07 a.m.:Nelson is kneeling on her friend's bed in the Western Addition, where she is staying temporarily (she is moving to Los Angeles), staring at her laptop. She's cagey and guarded about her premise.

Nelson: "I'm narrowing it down. My cast is a tough one, with two mature actors and a much younger one. There are obvious things that lends itself to, but I'm trying not to be too obvious."

2:35 a.m.:Rahlmann: "I've got the bulk of the play down. I'm at the point where the characters must reveal their secrets, and trying to figure out what will happen next. I'm pretty happy with it so far."

2:46 a.m.:Thelin: "Doing OK. ... I had three pages of one script and then I abandoned it -- the one with the couple having a philosophical discussion on the beach. Now I'm looking at a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. ... I've really got to get back to it."

2:58 a.m.:Nelson: "It's going terrible. I'm nowhere. I'm on Page 2 and I'm having a really, really hard time. The idea I had, I completely scrapped it and started over. This one is much harder to write. But it's always hard. Always. I think I'll be OK."

3:30 a.m.:Thelin is asleep in his chair under computer glow, dreaming that he is still writing. He thinks it's going very well, indeed.

5:30 a.m.:Rahlmann finishes his script and crawls into bed, only to arise 2 1/2 hours later to run off copies.

7 a.m.:Thelin finally finishes his script in real life.

8:30 a.m.: Nelson finishes her script and rushes to the International High School theater of the French American International School, where Bradford Cooreman teaches drama classes to grade-school children, and where the DayTrippers will rehearse for the next 12 hours.

Nelson: "This is the most insecure I've felt about a script. I think [the actors are] very talented and they'll do a good job with it -- it'll probably even be funny -- but if I were an actor I'd be disappointed. It's like a Saturday Night Live sketch. It sucks. The theme was difficult for me. Money is a complete downer, and I don't think this is the right forum to go into that. I don't really feel comfortable writing anything except a comedy for this project, so every time an idea came into my head I had to flush it down the toilet."

10:15 a.m.:Nelson's cast, led by cool, levelheaded British director Martha Close, finishes reading Money for Dummies. They look dour. Blocking and rehearsals begin in a stuffy music room down the hall. Thelin's Threepenny Grimm, a triptych of three fairy tales,takes over the main theater. Rahlmann's Accountingmakes itself at home in a sea-foam green classroom.

Noon: Jennifer Garagliano serves lunch. No small task when one is feeding actors who, inevitably, have to avoid meat, dairy, and sugar -- for the voice, of course. Already there are rumblings about the poor, poor Dummies.

1:45 p.m.: Catherine Woodman, a professional financial planner and barely "recovering actor" who is playing the money-grubbing ingénue in Accounting, has already memorized her 2-1/3-page monologue and developed hideously funny voices for her fictional mother and the family's pet Chihuahua. With grim determination, the cast of Dummieshas tried every achievable seating combination for its "talk show" and Close has added movement to every line in a valiant attempt to bring the words off the page. Cooreman sits in to offer suggestions. The cast members of Threepenny Grimmare as happy as June bugs. Melissa Culross, between playing Little Red Riding Hood, the Mirror in Snow White, and Rapunzel: "We have the best play. I haven't seen the others, but we have the best play." Hartgraves, stapling paper wolf-ears to a fur hat: "Yep, we really lucked out. We got to cast Snow White as a black man. There are some really funny bits. We're just trying to keep it in cartoon mode, really over the top." 2:30 p.m.:The cast of Dummiestries to fight off the afternoon energy drop by playing hug tag, all except actor Hans Summers, who hangs out of the classroom window, smoking cigarettes. Other casts in other rooms bounce up and down to get their blood flowing. 3:15 p.m.:Most of the actors, except those in Dummies,are off book. Garagliano is in a van, rushing toward Hillsborough to get a locker key for the Burlingame Community Theater, where she works when she's not doing time at a national brokerage firm. She needs a skirt for Threepenny, as well as a couple of tiaras, a housecoat, a cigar, a yo-yo, champagne glasses, a straw hat, flip-flops, mirrored sunglasses, and Rapunzel hair. Of course, none of the costumes is accessible, and, after climbing over several sets and tearing apart a few boxes, Garagliano comes up empty-handed. Garagliano: "Here's where I wonder why I put myself through this. We'll have to figure something else out. I have to go print the programs." 6:30 p.m.:Dinner break ends and rehearsal commences. Hartgraves: "This is nothing short of self-flagellation. You know it's going to be really painful, but you volunteer. It's sick." 7:15 p.m.:Actor Alan Quismorio, who is playing the sadistic millionaire dying from a tumor the size of a Chicken McNugget in Accounting, finally remembers all his lines and gives the most humorous, demented performance of the day. It's like watching muscle grow over a skeleton of words. Threepennyskips and laughs through a dress rehearsal with actors James Thomas Wareand Adam Venkerflouncing their fairy tails. The cast of Dummies, professional to the end, is still trying different emotional approaches to the lines, hunting for the magic, but the thespians look haggard. 8:30 p.m.:The casts are dismissed for an hour. At 9:45 p.m. in the Exit lobby, I come face to face with Ann Marie Donahueand Martha Stookey, both from the cast of Dummies, and I'm startled to see the unmistakable stage sparkle in their eyes. "You're like an old friend," says Stookey, embracing me, the stress on her face dissolving under stage makeup and a warm, welcoming smile. "Break a leg," I say as I'm hustled into the theater with the rest of the standing-room-only crowd. "We did it all in 24 hours!" shouts Cooreman, and the lights dim. Rahlmann's Accountinggoes up first. The actors look professional, well rehearsed, relaxed, like any other theater company. But only a few minutes in, Quismorio loses his lines, and despite Faulkner's offstage coaching, he can't get back. In the audience, Rahlmann covers his mouth with his program and waits. I hold my breath. It's agonizing, but the crowd loves it -- the suspense, the panic. Actor Eric Schneiwind, who seemed lackluster during rehearsal, comes to the rescue, carefully guiding Quismorio back to his lines and thereafter maintaining the firm-footed charisma of a screen idol. Money for Dummiesgoes off without a hitch and people laugh out loud. A lot. A testament to the exceptional talent of the cast and Close. And, of course, Threepenny Grimmis beloved -- bright, effervescent, and seemingly flawless. But it's not over. Just as the actors take their bows and the writers and directors let go of their breath at last, Cooreman flies onstage waving envelopes in the air. "We're going to do it all over again!" he shouts demonically, calling several people -- tonight's writers -- down from the audience. "The theme is Munch's The Scream!" I watch as some of tonight's participants gather around their new writers and, just for a moment, I'm tempted to follow the madness again.

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