What to do when a theater has a rare dark night? Why, throw together some pop-up plays, of course. That's what Haley Rice figured. The "brand-spankin'-new" operations manager at Middlebury's Town Hall Theater is already putting her reputation on the line by producing this "leap into the unknown," as a recent THT press release puts it. "We had a weekend with an empty Saturday, so I talked Doug [Anderson, executive director] into letting me do this," Rice says in a phone interview. "So I set to work gathering as many wonderful, brilliant people as I could find."
Though Rice is a Georgia native, she knew something of the Vermont theatrical terrain before coming to THT: She lived in Burlington for three years, then returned to Georgia for a seven-year stint in Columbus, where she taught college theater. (She is also an actor, director and writer.) When the opening came up at THT, Rice says, she jumped at the chance to return to the Green Mountain State.
What exactly are "pop-up plays"? Rice's idea is simple: Six writers will show up at her office on Friday, April 11. Actually, seven: Burlington's Marianne DiMascio and Angela Albeck of sketch-comedy group Stealing From Work will be one two-headed team. The other writers are Addison Independent columnist Jessie Raymond, LA-based screenwriter Kevin Commins, novelist Susan Weiss, actor-playwright Chris Caswell and MacArthur Stine, a former comedy writer who now works at Castleton State College. Each playwright will select three objects, each of which represents an actor. "Once they choose the objects, they've chosen their actors," Rice explains. At that point, the writers may get a head shot and a bit of information about their three-person cast, which may or may not influence the story they will spend all night writing in a local donated hotel room.
The result of these labors will be six 10-minute plays, which six directors will receive on Saturday. They include Anderson; Melissa Lourie, actor and artistic director of Middlebury Actors Workshop; actor-director Susan Palmer; Wendi Stein, founder of Theatre Kavanah; actor-director Cyrus Moore; and Lindsay Pontius, THT's education director.
The directors will spend the day rehearsing their actors, who will perform the six plays for the public on Saturday night. "It's a little bit terrifying," Rice concedes.
Albeck agrees. But, she says cheerfully in a phone conversation, "I stayed up all night to write every paper in college — I can totally do this!"
Albeck acknowledges that it will help to have DiMascio as her cowriter. She notes that the pop-up plays don't have to be "fully processed," and describes the whole effort as a showcase for some of the state's theater talent. "Seeing what can be done onstage right in front of you — it's very exciting," she says. "It's not unlike sketch comedy."
And, given the number of funny folks among the writers, this could be a comedic night indeed.
What role will Rice play in the escapade? "Running around, getting food and coffee, making sure everyone has everything they need," she says with a laugh. "Benevolent overlord."