"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
May 28, 2008
The merits of Sudden Theatre
by Orson Scott Card

For the past eight years, we've had an extraordinarily active drama program in our ward and stake. Adults, teenagers, and children have worked hard to put on at least one major play a year, and sometimes we've had three or four.

I've treated the productions I directed as a kind of acting school for the young people who were involved, partly because the schools haven't offered serious training in acting, and partly because educational theatre around here seems bent on being "edgy," which means that teenagers sometimes play parts in plays I wouldn't feel good about letting them watch.

In fact, one of our struggles is finding shows that are good enough to be worth producing, and also appropriate to put on in the meetinghouse. Let's just say that A Lion in Winter, Company, and A Chorus Line will remain forever outside of our repertoire. Don't even think about Rent or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

We've done productions of The Fantasticks, The Importance of Being Earnest, 110 in the Shade, Bye Bye Birdie, Fiddler on the Roof, Brigadoon, Once Upon a Mattress, Romeo and Juliet, and a smattering of original plays and one-acts.

For the adults who take part, the plays have offered an outlet for talents that simply can't be used alone. If you paint or write poetry or play an instrument, you can practice by yourself in whatever spare time you have.

But to put on a play, you have to rehearse with other people, which requires that you all have the same hours free, day after day. Many adults have been able to flex their schedules and make the play practices fit.

Some, though, have come to me at various times and said, "I really wanted to be in that show, but my calling/job/children made it impossible." And there are teenagers with a real talent for drama who have jobs or so much homework that they just can't take part.

Even the twelve-minute roadshows, when we have them -- every second year, usually -- require too many practices for these people.

Sometimes you have to ruefully admit that you can't do everything, and watch other people take advantage of opportunities that you yearn for.

As stake cultural arts director, I felt like there had to be something we could do.

What we came up with was Sudden Theatre.

Everyone who wanted to take part assembled on Thursday night. They were divided into teams, story elements were randomly assigned, and then the designated playwright for each team went home and wrote an eight-minute script that had a good part for every person on the team.

On Friday night, the teams assembled, got their scripts, and had their first rehearsal. Overnight they memorized, then rehearsed again on Saturday during the day. Finally, at seven p.m. on Saturday night, all the shows were put on for an audience.

Forty-eight hours. If you weren't the script writer, you only had to come on Thursday and Friday night, and then practice all day Saturday.

And here's the best part -- I wasn't even in charge of it. My wife and I met with Andy and Debbie Lindsay, the delegatees, several weeks before the event, and together we brainstormed our way through the story elements.

We came up with long lists of famous people (living and dead, real and fictional), objectives (save the whales; destroy the ring), settings (high school gym class, central park, a garage, the moon), and other story elements.

Once we had the lists, my job was over. Andy and Debbie turned the Thursday night meeting into a virtual game show. He began by dividing up the teams (some people chose which team to join; some were assigned).

We ended up with four teams, all of which had people from at least two different wards, so that it was definitely not a competition between wards.

Each team's first assignment was to come up with three possible names for their team -- and then the other teams voted to decide which of the three you were stuck with.

Team members came up and drew or spun or otherwise randomly chose characters, settings, goals, and complications which the script writer was obliged to use.

Then Andy's job was done, apart from scheduling and emceeing -- it was all up to the teams.

On the night of the performances, Andy had a PowerPoint presentation up on a screen beside the stage, so the whole audience could see all the story elements that each team was required to use. So they were in on the game -- and roared with laughter at the clever ways the scripts incorporated the elements.

In addition, the scoreboard clock in the cultural hall (i.e., gym) was set to count down the ten-minute maximum and buzz loudly when the time was up.

To our relief all four plays were very entertaining. In fact, they would have been above average roadshows -- despite the fact that roadshows usually rehearse for weeks!

Because the scriptwriters had all the story elements handed to them, they had spent their time putting it all together like a puzzle instead of having to invent a story out of whole cloth.

And because the audience was in on the game, they especially enjoyed the times when the writers were really straining to work in an element. What would have been a flaw under ordinary circumstances became part of the fun.

Was it great art? Of course not. But it was theatre, the audience loved it, and it was all over in two days. Our plan now is to do Sudden Theatre in the years when we don't do roadshows. Our hope is that even more teams will take part -- and even more people who normally can't take part in drama will find a way to join in for a single weekend.

For the web version of this column, I'm including a complete list of all the story elements we came up with. Feel free to use any of them in your own Sudden Theatre weekend -- or use them as a springboard for your own brainstorming session.

STORY ELEMENTS FOLLOW:


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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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