“At some point, everyone going through this is going to hate it,” Tina Fallon admits with a laugh. “They’re going to feel awful, they’re going to hate everyone. But that passes.”

She’s describing The 24-Hour Plays, a theatrical ordeal as revelatory as it is insane–Fallon brings playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and producers into a theater and gives them one day to create a one-act play festival from scratch.

Fallon dreamed up the event in New York five years ago and has staged it in various venues there. At the 1997 New York International Fringe Festival, she presented The 240-Hour Plays, stretching out the process for ten straight days. This weekend marks the show’s first incarnation in Chicago.

Two weeks ago Fallon and Susan Stahl, a friend in Chicago who’s coproducing the event, started making calls and sending E-mails in search of 50 people to participate. At 10 PM this Saturday, those who’ve signed on will assemble in the Chopin Theatre. Each is supposed to bring a costume piece and a prop. “We ask people to bring both, but they usually forget one or the other,” Fallon says. After everyone is introduced, briefed, and captured on Polaroid, the lid on the pressure cooker slams shut.

The six writers are sequestered at 11 PM; they each have until 6 AM to come up with a ten-minute play. Fallon urges them to start from ground zero, rather than developing ideas they may have brought with them. “One of the reasons we all come together like this is to blow preconceptions out of our minds,” she explains. “If the writer walks in thinking about a scene between a blond bombshell and a 70-year-old man, and there’s no blond bombshell among the actors, he’s going nowhere.

“I would say there have been one or two plays from the hundreds we’ve created that clearly had been researched ahead of time. They lacked all spontaneity. They were no fun at all.”

At six the writers are sent home. “The last thing you need in rehearsal is a playwright who’s been up all night fretting over the fact that an actor hasn’t memorized the lines of a play he’s had for three hours,” says Fallon.

An hour later the directors arrive, read through the scripts, from which the playwrights’ names have been removed, and vote for three they would like to direct. “Usually directors get one of their three choices,” Fallon says, “but sometimes you’re stuck directing a play you hate. It’s the same thing with actors. You may get one line, you may get a three-page monologue. We explain that at the beginning of the event: ‘If it’s important to you to get a good part, then you should go home now.'”

Once they’ve been assigned their scripts, the directors cast their plays using the Polaroids the actors left behind. At 9 AM the actors show up and rehearse until 5. The set, lights, and sound are worked out until 7:30. At 7:45 the doors open to the public, and at 8 the show must go on.

“The plays are never ready during rehearsal, not during tech either,” Fallon says. “Everything happens at the last minute.

“There are always a few crappy plays, but no matter what, the audience is with you. It’s one of the few times that an audience knows exactly what went into the making of theater, so they don’t resent that it’s not Broadway. They’re rooting for you. And there is always one play that is as good as any play you’ve ever read.”

Fallon, who lives in New York, makes her living cobbling together jobs in film and theater, mostly as a producer or production manager. “I take the work that comes,” she says with a sigh. The 24-Hour Plays is a labor of love. “As an activity, it’s my favorite thing to do.” She got the idea after reading about artist Scott McCloud, who writes and illustrates comic books in 24 hours. “It seemed like a great method in the theater,” she says, “a way to break through people’s bullshit and get down to hard work.

“It’s amazing to see people who haven’t even met before give so much of themselves in a real heroic way. There is no ego–people get over themselves pretty quick. It’s the best way I know to bring out the best in people.

“And you know, I go to all these new play festivals at big theaters where everybody tinkers over the plays for six weeks, and usually it’s pretty dull. I say either spend six months and really finish something, or get it done in a day.”

The 24-Hour Plays starts Sunday at 8 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $10. Call 773-278-1500 for reservations.

–Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.