From 8 p.m. on March 1st, 2019, to 9 p.m. on March 2nd, 2019, I witnessed one of the most incredible theatre experiences in my life. Six actors performed the same one-hour play 24 times for 24 hours straight. These brave souls performed a truly herculean feat, some having as little as ten minutes offstage every hour to eat and use the bathroom.
It all started in the previous semester, when the senior Theater majors who were on the acting track got together with the director of the Acting Capstone and discussed what the capstone would be. Students brought in various plays for consideration. Max Marckel brought in Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, an absurdist play written in 1950. The play is a meditation on language, expression, and communication, based on one of Ionesco’s primers when he was learning English. The play starts and ends with the exact same lines, and as such can be seen as a sort of loop. The director, Alex Torra, mentioned having seen a production in Philadelphia by Brat Productions that went for 24 hours straight, and the actors immediately liked the concept. It took some convincing within the Theater Department, but eventually it was decided that the cast of the Acting Capstone would embark on a similar journey.
I was also involved in this process, not as an actor but as a set designer. I was approached by Swarthmore’s set design professor, Matt Saunders, whose class I had taken the previous spring. I had initially taken the set design class to fulfill the design distribution requirement for the major, so I was honored that he saw something in me and wanted me to cultivate it. This was a great opportunity for my first real life set design experience because I would be working alongside professional designers from whom I would be able to learn a lot. My job began during the beginning of the spring semester, when production meetings began. It was amazing to work alongside professional artists and to know that they all trusted me to create a space in which this piece could be performed.
Meanwhile, my friends who were acting in the production were preparing to act for 24 hours straight. It went way beyond rehearsing; every aspect of their lives was impacted by this production. They had to exercise regularly, have a healthy sleep schedule, and maintain good diets. This was going to be an enormous undertaking, so they had to make sure that their bodies were prepared to be performing for a full day. As I was preparing sketches and floor plans for our blackbox theater, the Frear, rehearsals were happening there for 12+ hours a week, where not only would the relatively short 1-hour play be blocked very specifically and intricately, but there would be regular check-ins to see if anyone on the project had concerns to discuss. From January to March, these six actors ate, slept, and breathed The Bald Soprano. I got glimpses of this process when I came to rehearsals to give set updates, but I didn’t get a full idea of what the show was going to look like until tech week.
We all spent around 30 hours in the Frear during tech week. This is on the lighter side as far as most techs go, but the production team wanted to make sure that everyone was feeling fresh enough before embarking on the 24-hour odyssey. What was difficult was that, although we could make sure that the tech was unassailable and the blocking precise, we could not practice the most daunting aspect of the piece, the day-long part. I saw the actors come to grips with the reality of a full day of performance the closer it got. We were able to do a four-performance run, but even that was only one sixth of the amount of time they would spend onstage. The final piece would not be replicable.
Finally, the day came. The piece would begin at 8pm, a very reasonable hour for a play, but would not end until 9pm the next night. I had lunch with one of the cast members, Shelby, who I could tell was starting to get very nervous about the performance. There wasn’t much I could do to comfort her; after all, I had never done anything like this. We departed, and I went to do some homework while she got in one last nap before it began.
At 8:00, I was sitting in the audience, admiring the physical version of the set that I had designed digitally. I was still rather shocked that the people on this project had trusted me to create the space in which this special performance would be done. I kept thinking, I can’t believe they let me do this. Nevertheless, there it was in all its glory: the performance space itself was a 12’x12′ box that contained a small English living room from the 1930s. Visible on either side of the performance space, however, were makeup stations, dressing areas, and a lounge area. The actors were under observation even offstage. The image that was in my head when I designed this space was a clock whose face is see-through so that you can see the mechanisms underneath. I wanted the audience to see both the final product (the play), but also what went into its creation: the costume changes, the makeup retouches, the food consumed, etc.
And so it began. The chime of a grandfather clock sounded, and the lights came up on the two actors who had been sitting in tableau. They began speaking to each other, though it was a long time before either looked at the other.
Eugène Ionesco calls The Bald Soprano an “anti-play,” and that is not without good reason. It is from the era of absurdism, a genre that explores the search for meaning and purpose in what it views as an inherently meaningless, chaotic universe. Therefore, attempting to explain the play may be a bit confusing. The plot is essentially simple; one middle class English couple has another over for dinner. They converse, and then the fire chief arrives to talk with both couples for some time. The fire chief reunites with the hosting couple’s maid, who, it transpires, was his lover when they were younger. He then leaves, and a complete breakdown ensues. This sounds like an overly simple story, and you would be right to wonder how it takes an hour. However, the humor and entertainment is not found so much in the plot as it is in the language and its nonsensical nature. One of the audience’s favorite lines was always “Take a circle, caress it, and it will turn vicious.” Trying (and failing) to decipher the breakdown of meaning in the play was where the pleasure came from. Seeing it once was enough to get the idea of what it was about, but many stayed for multiple shows for the enjoyment, not to mention the easter eggs.
The easter eggs were mostly for the actors. The four people who spent the most time onstage had no idea what most of the easter eggs were, while Josie, the maid, and John, the Fire Chief, were in charge of putting them into action. They were basically fun little changes that happened during specific performances to keep everyone awake and engaged. The easter eggs ranged from something as simple as Josie blacking out one or two of her teeth to something as wild as Max stripping down to a leopard print thong and playing the saxophone. I could tell that it kept the actors from losing it when new things happened every once in awhile.
The best part of The Bald Soprano, though, was the community’s support for it. People came at every hour. The opening performance, for which I was present, was a full house. I left after that first performance, but when I came back at 1 a.m., ready to stay for the long haul, the audience leaving still seemed to be pretty large. I was there for the rest of the time, and the closest to empty the show got was at 5 a.m., when there were only five or six of us, all of whom had seen most of the prior performances already. Things really started to pick up again around 9 a.m., when some Theater Department faculty and staff prepared a pancake breakfast for those in attendance. From then on, the audience was plenty full. For the last five or six hours, the theater was packed with people, plenty of whom were there for the first time, but many more of whom were there to continue to rally around these six people doing this absolutely incredible feat. For the last performance, the actors got applause for their last entrances and exits, and the audience would even say some of their favorite lines along with the play. It was amazing to see everyone celebrate this insane experiment.
Finally, finally, at 8pm on Saturday, March 4, the performance that had started 24 hours prior came to an end. The actors, delirious from lack of sleep, bowed, and soon went to their dorms. None emerged from their rooms for the next 16 hours. I followed suit. As I climbed into bed, sore from exhaustion, I somehow found myself wanting to live the whole experience all over again.