The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine is very clear — “adults should sleep seven or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health.” Despite several Google searches and a certain amount of vain hope, I simply can’t find any way around it. I suppose I had really suspected as much before I started looking, but I’m of the age when my actions are guided by an optimistic naïveté which often leads to severe overestimation of my personal abilities, though once in a while, it may lead to a fundamental challenge to the concept of impossibility (except, of course — as in this case — when confronted with the impenetrable wall of hard data and empirical reality that is science). Personally, I don’t imagine that I’ve slept for seven consecutive hours more than once in the past week, and I suspect that many among the Daily’s readership (and a majority of its editorial staff) could probably say the same. But such is life.
With all that in mind, and in order to spare the reader (and my editors) too much undue distress, I’ll just skim over the adverse effects of sleep deprivation. To name a few: decreased focus, decreased alertness, decreased working memory, decreased practical reasoning, decreased autoimmune ability and (in extreme cases) hallucinations — there, done. Try not to think about it too much. The point is, some really interesting things start to happen.
“It was a whirlwind, to speak euphemistically,” said Music, Theatre & Dance senior Barry Riggins, artistic director of the student organization Basement Arts, about an annual Basement Arts event known as 24 Hour Theatre.
24 Hour Theatre is a project in which several plays are written, rehearsed and performed all within the span of a single planetary rotation, one evening to the next. The British composer Benjamin Britten once famously remarked, “The old idea of a composer suddenly having a terrific idea and staying up all night to write it is nonsense. Nighttime is for sleeping,” but if you substitute “playwright” for “composer,” 24 Hour Theatre may just furnish the exception that proves the rule.
“The clock is obviously your biggest enemy. You drink as much coffee — or in my case, a 5-Hour Energy poison — as your body will allow, to keep you up,” Riggins said.
“I’m always in a sort of unique position every year, writing the musical and then coming in at 10 a.m. to teach it,” Riggins said. “From a physical health standpoint, I wasn’t doing all that well, but the thrill and excitement of hearing the work get received live for the first time … for it to all happen so quickly is really overwhelming, and when you juxtapose that with being really, really physically tired, it’s really unlike anything else in the world … it’s a very unique thrill.”
24 Hour Theatre allows for people from all sorts of theatre backgrounds to come together to create something fun.
“24 Hour is a festival, if you will, but it’s essentially just a crazy day where a whole bunch of people — mostly from the theatre school, but definitely lots of people from outside as well — get together and write, direct, tech and then perform four shows in 24 hours” said Music, Theatre & Dance senior Leia Squillace, a director for 24 Hour Theatre.
On the day before the performance, writing teams — this year containing four writers each — are compiled and paired with directors. At 11 p.m., the teams are given a few creative constraints, locked in the Walgreen Drama Center and told to have at it. Their task is to compose an original play before 10 a.m., when the directors and actors return to begin rehearsal.
“(Each writing team was) assigned a prop and a line they had to use in every show, as well as a genre,” Squillace said. “This year’s genres were ‘Shitty Rom-Com,’ ‘Horror,’ ‘Dads Doing Dad Things’ and ‘Porn Epic.’ ”
Actors are chosen to participate through a very short audition process, and oftentimes 24 Hour Theatre is a opportunity for new students in the Department of Theatre to become involved.
“For freshmen, they’re not allowed to audition for shows in their first semester here, so this is sort of the one opportunity that they’re given,” Squillace said. “It’s a good way for people to bond … additionally, for me, it’s kind of fun to get to know the freshmen.”
More than just a social event, 24 Hour Theatre serves an artistic and creative function, allowing for an exploration of approaches that can yield fruitful results.
“It’s a stretch of your creative limits,” Squillace said. “One of our professors always says that limitations foster creativity, that when you have less you’re asked to do more, and I think that is the definition of 24 Hour Theatre; you have no budget, you have no time — you don’t always even have a fully functional script sometimes.”
The writing process of 24 Hour Theatre is generally an intense and exhausting experience, with writers wearing out as the night goes on.
“I sort of oversee 24 Hour, and it’s sort of fascinating,” said Emma Jo Boyden, the executive director of Basement Arts. “I check in on the writers, and in every room it starts out so hopeful, and there’s brainstorming on all the chalkboards … and then suddenly it hits 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and you go into the room and sometimes the script readings are incoherent … and the scripts just get weirder and weirder and weirder as the night goes on. And suddenly it’s 6:30 in the morning and we’re doing a final read of a script, and it’s actually pretty good.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) its ramshackle nature, 24 Hour Theatre is an extraordinarily popular event, and draws a significant number of people. At one point during the day of rehearsal, I heard the potential audience size described as “a fuck-ton of people.”
(At the risk of pedantry, it’s probably valuable at this point to discuss in what ways a fuck-ton is quantifiably different from other related metrics. It seems obvious from the etymology of the word that it is a unit of weight. One might initially be inclined to dismiss a comparison with its parent unit, the ton, as excessive, but upon further thought, the similarities might not be so slight. In fact, the fuck-ton might be a unit of far greater magnitude than the ton. According to a 2012 study by BMC Public Health, the average North American adult weighs 177.9 lbs. Given that the performance space of Studio 1 was filled to capacity (with many people sitting in the aisles or standing by the doors), that the Facebook event from 2015 event indicates there were 125 confirmed attendees and that it was widely suspected turnout this year would exceed that of the past, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to claim about 150 people probably viewed the show. Doing some rudimentary calculations, one could estimate that there were about 26,685 pounds in attendance, or 13.34 tons. It’s quite a large unit, then. Compared to other units in colloquial use, such as “shit-ton” and “shit-load,” it is likely far in excess, though by how much, it is difficult to say. Regardless, I’m certain I would not have had a seat if it had not kindly been marked with a sign reading “MICHIGAN DAILY.”)
24 Hour Theatre is, of course, not the only part of Basement Arts, a student-run organization within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
“We’ve been around for … a very long time,” Boyden said. “Basement Arts has had a lot of different incarnations and a lot of different names so it’s sort of a hard history to track.”
Basement Arts produces student work at the Walgreen Drama Center, presenting a wide variety of work throughout their season. However, to organize all this, Basement Arts requires complex organization.
“We have an executive board, and then a more general board, that consists all of students,” Boyden said. “We cover marketing, finance, lots of different things — we have people who work on the website, we have people who will help you find grants, we have people who actually manage the money we get from the department and the money we’ve raised through various projects, all to help produce plays.”
The organization aims to produces works as a facilitator, with works that are produced by students on campus.
“We go through a proposal process where anyone who is interested on campus can propose to the board a play that they want to produce — that they think is well fit for Basement Arts,” Boyden said. “We then discuss as a board what makes the most sense for Basement to produce that semester and we put together a season. And then we do our best to facilitate shows in a very short amount of time with almost no money.”
The upcoming season of Basement Arts includes a play for three actors — or a “three-hander,” in theatre jargon — called “Boom,” a play called “The Whale” about a father trying to reconnect with his daughter, “Hand to God,” only recently off Broadway, “In the Red and Brown Water” and a workshop-style presentation of a student-written play.
“We really like working with student writers, because it allows us not to spend money on rights but help the production in other ways,” Boyden said. “There’s no rule that we take one student work every semester — we just sort of feel it out, and if the student work feels ready for a full-scale production, and we think that the playwright is ready to step away and let it be a script on its own, then we take it on.”
Basement Arts has been an important aspect of the student theatre scene in Ann Arbor for some time, and in the eyes of people like Riggins, it is a core part of Michigan’s appeal.
“The first time I ever heard about the University of Michigan as an arts entity at all was when I was in seventh or eighth grade when I saw a little thing called ‘A Very Potter Musical’ on YouTube,” Riggins said. “And I was momentarily very engaged with it. It came to my attention that that was created at the University of Michigan and I found out that it was put on by a student organization, all for no money.”
“We take it for granted here … the amount and the passion of student theatre that occurs at U of M is really unparalleled,” Riggins said. “And lo and behold, once I was coming here, the first show I ever did was an original musical in the same space I had seen ‘A Very Potter Musical’ those four or five years previous, and it was absolutely surreal and just as fun as I could have imagined it.”
To Riggins and people like him whose lives have been altered by Basement Arts, the organization is extremely important. In his view, one of the best aspects of Basement Arts is the passion its people bring to their work.
“The thing about Basement Arts is it’s really the only time you’ll find every single person in the room wants to be there … they are there because they want to be and create theatre and tell good stories,” Riggins said. “All my favorite university experiences artistically have occurred through it and I’ve made some of the best friends of my life. I feel very much indebted to the organization.”
Riggins likely wasn't the first, and probably won't be the last person for whom that's true.