Rachel Dratch portrays FrannyCakes, a makeup vlogger who fights with an old lady over a bottle of Purell in a Costco. Marylouise Burke is Penny, a lovely suburban matron who wonders where her husband went and why her dog is dead. T.R. Knight is an angel who behaves like a helpful social worker explaining to an old woman what her imminent death and immediate afterlife will be like.
These three monologues were all written within the last few weeks by David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Rabbit Hole, author of Good People, book writer for Shrek the Musical – and all three plays were performed on Instagram. They are part of 24 Hour Plays’ new online series Viral Monologues. Twenty plays were presented on Instagram on March 17th, two days after all theaters were shut down in New York, pairing a playwright with a performer.
Exactly a week later, there were another 24, in “round two,” and 19 a week after that. So does this mean Viral Monologues are going to be a weekly series?
The producers can’t say.
But even if it stops here, it already feels like a significant undertaking.
“In years to come I would assume we are going to see many plays about this moment but those will take years to develop,” says Coleman Ray Clark, Deputy Director of 24 Hour Plays. “If we can be at the forefront of offering conversation around how people are feeling right now, that is what we’ve been doing since 1995.
“Just like any of our shows, after 9/11, after Hurricane Sandy, after the 2016 election, some of the plays end up being about the moment and some are just coming out of the moment.”
For Lindsay-Abaire, the only playwright who has written a play for each of the three rounds, “the monologues seem to be charting my own inner journey through the pandemic.”
How did you get involved with Viral Monologues?
I’ve been doing the “24 Hour Plays on Broadway” event almost every year since 2003, so I’ve known and admired the 24 Hour folks forever and knew what I was getting into. I was scheduled to write for the first episode of their new 24 Hour Plays podcast last month. When the [debut of the new] podcast was canceled, like everything else, [24 Hour Plays artistic director] Mark Armstrong reached out to say, “Okay, Plan B: Viral Monologues,” And I of course jumped at the idea.
Can you walk me step by step through the process?
The process was pretty simple. At 7pm on Monday [March 16] I got sent a video of Rachel Dratch, who’s actually been in most of my 24 Hour Plays. Like all the actors, Rachel offered up a prop (a 3-pound hand weight) and costume (a ratty blonde wig) as possible inspiration for the monologue, and a list of possible locations she could shoot in (her apartment or the park across the street). With that, I had until 9am the next morning to write the monologue. Though I didn’t end up using the weight or wig in the monologue, I did take inspiration from Rachel’s wobbly camera work and extreme close-ups as she tried to talk while holding her iPhone at arm’s length, and immediately I started writing for a vlogger with very low production values. I liked the idea of Rachel playing someone who usually does makeup tutorials but because of the quarantine has to change her focus. So I worked on that for a couple hours, then got up early the next morning, finished it up and emailed it off to the 24 Hour folks, and they sent it to Rachel around 10am. She called me on the phone with a couple of questions, just to make sure we were on the same page, and she got to work. She had until 5pm to memorize it and get it filmed on her phone, and it was uploaded an hour later.
Side note: During the annual The 24 Hour Plays Broadway event, we actually don’t start writing until 11pm, then we stay up all night and hand the plays in around 6am. I like the monologues because I get to sleep in the middle of the writing process if I want to. It feels downright luxurious compared to the insane high-speed, sleep-deprived overnight playwriting sessions for the Broadway event.
So, besides being able to sleep a bit, how was the process different this time around (if it is) because it was all online instead of in person? And how has the reaction been different?
There are a few differences. The obvious one is you’re writing for one person instead of a cast of four or five. So there’s less pressure to create something that has the semblance and shape of a (very short) play that has to service several characters. At the same time, there’s a different challenge in trying to write something that can sustain itself with just one actor and still have an arc.
But craft stuff aside, the real difference is how hermetically sealed this process is compared to past 24 Hour events. With this, we’re all hunkered down in our own homes doing our part and then passing the baton to the next person in the relay who does their part and then passes it on again. So I write the monologue and email it to Madelyn at The 24 Hour Plays who looks it over, then emails it to Rachel Dratch who memorizes it and films it then emails it to Mark Armstrong who sends it to someone else who uploads the file to Instagram so someone at home can click on it to watch. It’s so strange that theater, which I think of as being so live and communal by definition, is being created in this series of vacuums.
By comparison, the Broadway event starts with a huge meet and greet where all the actors, directors, writers and staff gather in a room and go around in a circle to introduce themselves and hold up their props and costumes and make jokes. Even when most everyone else leaves, the playwrights are still hanging out together as they write overnight. Sure, people are in their own little corner of the Roundabout lounge with their laptop, but I can still stretch my legs at 2am and wander over to Christopher Oscar Peña to ask how it’s going. Or I can mutter out loud at 4am, “Why did I ever agree to do this?” and get an immediate response from Rachel Axler, “That’s what I was just wondering!” So even though we’re all writing our own plays, it still feels like an arty sleepover.
And that difference extends to the “performance” of the plays as well. For the Broadway event you’re in the cavernous American Airlines theater and it’s filled with people and the response to the plays is raucous and generous and joyful. And for the monologues, it’s hard to know HOW anyone is responding. The people watching are sitting at home alone, the same as I was when I wrote it. They click the little arrow, and who knows if they like it or not, or whether they even watch the whole monologue. They might get bored two minutes in and decide to click on Hugh Dancy instead. Who knows?
That said, sure, we’re all hunkered down in our own rooms, mostly alone except for maybe a partner or our kids or a pet, but there is something amazing about looking at the 24 Hour Plays Instagram page and seeing ALL of those monologues, and ALL of those actors, and ALL of the view counts, and ALL of the COMMENTS. And even though they were written and performed and even watched in a kind of vacuum, it’s moving to step back and look at that expanse on the screen and to realize that there’s still a community of artists coming together to respond in real time to what’s going on in the world, and a huge audience who wants to hear what they have to say.
Has your experience shopping, or trying to get Purell, in any way resemble that of FrannyCakes?
Thankfully no. I mean, the desperation has felt the same, but there haven’t been any physical altercations yet. That said, we’ve stopped going to Costco so who knows what’s going on out there.
You’ve written a play for all three rounds. I was struck by how different they are. The first, “A Story of Survival,” is humorous, the second, Digging to China, is haunting and kind of terrifying; the third, Transition, feels resigned to the inevitability of death so looking for the silver lining. What accounts for the differences? Do they together describe the arc of your own mood as the lockdown progresses (regresses?)
Oh, for sure the monologues seem to be charting my own inner journey through the pandemic. What’s most alarming to me is how QUICKLY my perspective is shifting from week to week. So yeah, the first monologue I wrote is mostly comedic and fueled by how absurd everything felt. A week later, it was very difficult to find the comedy in the situation, even with Marylouise Burke, who is hands-down one of the funniest actors I know, and so her monologue tapped into my anxiety and fear of the unknown. And then a week later, after several straight-forward press conferences by our governor, I felt more clear-eyed but the situation seemed much more dire than we maybe initially thought, and so it makes sense that Transition I wrote for T.R. Knight was about trying to find some comfort in the face of death. I mean, I didn’t go into this thinking I’d be dramatizing my emotional temperature once a week but it has been an interesting exercise as a playwright to respond in real time like this.
You mention Marylouise Burke and T.R. Knight. Were they, like Rachel Dratch, veterans of this process? And, just curious, did their props and places inspire you?
No, neither Marylouise nor T.R. had done anything with the 24 Hour Plays before, so I think they were both a little shell-shocked by the fast turnaround.
And no, I didn’t use their props or costumes. (That’s consistent from the Broadway event as well – I hardly ever use the props the actors bring in. It’s hard ENOUGH just writing a play overnight.) But I did imagine their locations while writing. Pretty much everyone is trapped inside, so I’ve been using that.
Looking at the Viral Monologues, and some of the other suddenly sprouted online theater, it feels as if there’s a quickly emerging pandemic aesthetic, if that’s not too hoity toity a way of putting it. Do you see this? If so, how would you describe it? And do you think the way theater is being done now during this lockdown will influence theater going forward?
What’s interesting to me is that it’s advanced technology that’s making all of this online theater possible, and yet by and large what’s being shared is mostly low-tech and homespun in a way that harkens back to the most primitive around-the-campfire storytelling. You strip away fancy sets and costumes and giant chorus numbers and you’re left with one person in their home telling you a story. What doesn’t change, what has never changed, is that need to connect through story and song. And if we can’t go to the theater, fine, we can still sit at home and watch Todd Buonopane pull his shower curtain aside to perform a scene from Steel Magnolias in his bathtub [17 installments of “Bathtub Theater” on his Facebook page], or Lea Salonga sing West Side Story in her living room [on the twice-daily series #StarsintheHouse], or Andre Royo do a brand new Stephen Adly Guirgis monologue in the front seat of his car [in Viral Monologues.]
I don’t know if this pandemic theater will have an effect on what we do on the other side of all this or not. I suspect we’ll all crave being together and rush out to fill theater spaces just to be with each other and breathe the same air again. At the same time, it’s buoying to know that whatever happens, we always keep moving forward and persevere to do what we’ve always done as theater artists. Whether we’re together physically or not, we congregate and share stories that prove we’re connected, no matter what.
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