Editor's note: The trademarked name and concept is The 24 Hour Plays and The 24 Hour Musicals, which works with theatre companies around the world.
Consider The 24 Hour Musicals as the Ironman for the theater set. It’s a marvel of creativity, stamina and courage. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
On Monday, Aug. 19, the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres presents The 24 Hour Musicals, as a fundraiser for the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s theater scholarship program.
Here’s the drill. Gather a group of playwrights, lyricists, musicians, a choreographer and 24 actors, and create six original musicals and then, that evening, perform them, live, in front of an audience.
Another version, The 24 Hour Plays project, was performed at the Pantages Theatre in 2017 and 2018. But the Twin Cities premiere of The 24 Hour Musicals version takes place at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. With music and dancing.
The 24-hour concept is a little crazy. It’s a little chaotic. But it’s all for a good cause — raising scholarship money for aspiring music theater students in the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s musical theater program, and Spotlight Education, the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s flagship education program. In 2012, the CDT and UMD created the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and UMD Department of Theatre Educational and Professional Alliance, providing UMD music theater students a professional training program.
Chanhassen resident and Twin Cities actor Michelle Brindisi swore she’d never do it again.
“We’re all so innocent in the beginning,” Barber recalled wryly. “You’re thinking, ‘this so great and so artistic.’ Then you show up at 8:30 in the morning, after the writers have been up all night, learn lines and rehearse with a director you don’t know, and actors, some of whom you do know.”
Within hours actors learn their lines, rehearse, and then present the play. It’s a nerve-wracking experience. Barber described the 24 Hour play she appeared in at the Pantages two years ago. The other actors included her husband Michael Brindisi, CDT’s artistic director.
“Michael had a long speech, and he nailed it...I’m thinking, ‘Great! Good job!’” Barber remembered. “Then it was the other actor’s turn to speak, he spoke his last line! He had jumped a page and a half of the script...we had to pick it up and keep going. By the end, you know what flop sweat is.”
But Barber is doing it again, “roped in,” she laughed, by her daughter Cat Brindisi, who is helping organize talent for CDT's The 24 Hour Musicals night. Brindisi and her husband David Darrow are actors currently based in New York City. Both are UMD alumni.
a good time’
Among the other actors who’ve signed on is Sally Wingert, well-known for her performances throughout Twin Cities theaters. Darrow knew Wingert from working together in “Sweeney Todd.”
“To be honest with you, I’m the least likely person to be doing this,” Wingert confessed. “I’m not a musical performer. I said, ‘I’m a baritone and I’m not a musicals person.’”
“Really?” Darrow replied. He signed her up. “You’ll have fun and have a good time.”
“The UMD program is such a good cause,” Wingert said, “and I’ll be hanging out with a bunch of fun people for a day. Performers have the skill of thinking on their feet; we meet quickly and part quickly. It’s the nature of shows. So you need to be kind of instantly available to each. Besides,” she laughed. “This is not Chekhov or Sondheim.”
Cat Brindisi has performed in two previous The 24 Hour Plays projects. In addition to wrangling participants from the Twin Cities theater community, she will perform in one of the musicals. “It’s terrifying and awesome,” Brindisi said. “It’s very rewarding, but one of the scariest things. Most actors hate improv. I’m such a perfectionist.
“We were afraid everyone (we’d ask) would say no, because it’s so scary,” Brindisi added. “But the thing I love about this is, no one gets paid, it’s all about fundraising. So we gave our, ‘Come on guys, pitch in. Take your one Monday and let’s make something happen.’”
The 24 Hour Plays began in 1995 as a way for theater people to make work, explained Mark Armstrong, executive director of The 24 Hour Plays and The 24 Hour Musicals. Instead of waiting for someone to hire them, a group of actors, writers and directors decided to put themselves to work and create their own plays, and later musicals. They’d take advantage of off-Broadway theaters being closed on Mondays, using the space for their own production, created in 24 hours. What started as a lark, grew into a phenomenon among theater companies. Today, The 24-Hour Plays is a nonprofit that organizes plays and musicals on and off Broadway and around the world.
Bringing The 24 Hour Musicals project to the Twin Cities and the CDT is especially meaningful to Armstrong, a former Minnesota resident and a graduate of the UMD theater program. He’d brought The 24 Hour Plays project to the Pantages Theatre in 2017 and 2018; the CDT show is The 24 Hour Musicals’ Minnesota premier.
Bill Payne, a theater professor at UMD, will be one of the six directors. He’s directed for the past two renditions of The 24 Hour Plays Minneapolis.
“It is scary, but ultimately really fun,” Payne said. “You don’t have time to be terrified honestly, because you only have about eight hours to put together a performance of a show you just read for the first time at 8 a.m. that day. What I have taken away from this experience is wonderful new friends in the business and the sense that we can create a mini-company in a single day and create some really fantastic theater.”
Payne has also played an integral role in the alliance between UMD and the CDT.
“It has been amazing for our students,” Payne said by email. “The annual visits by members of the CDT staff, including Michael Brindisi, give our students real-world feedback on their work. When Michael directed one of our main stage musicals, students had a chance to work with a professional director/producer and someone that lives and works in one of the major markets they eventually head toward the Twin Cities.
“We have other students, not actors, that have taken positions at CDT in tech/design and marketing as well. The students get some additional training, some up-to-the-minute advice from people in the profession, and CDT gets to know our students before they hit the market as freelance performers and theater artists. This often leads to the students first professional job or internship. CDT has been a great stepping stone for so many of our students as they venture out into the marketplace,” he added.
Payne said the theater student scholarship fund is so worthwhile in light of the cost of public higher education. Every scholarship given means fewer work hours at a regular job away from school, which most students have to do to sustain themselves while studying. They give out one Chanhassen Musical Theatre scholarship a year at this point, but will give more as the endowment grows and produces more revenue each year.
“All students can apply but this scholarship is specifically for musical theater students and is based on talent and potential for a future professional career. Our current scholarship recipient, Janessa Iverson, will be performing in The 24 Hour Musicals on Aug. 19. Students fill out an application for all of our scholarships and then the entire faculty review the applicants and vote on who is awarded each scholarship. We never have enough scholarship dollars so these are really tough decisions. Our students are wonderful, talented, and hard working,” Payne said.