Every once in a while I get to work an event that gives me total satisfaction. This past Friday night at Theater J was one of those times.
As you might know from past features, I will always maintain that the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts IS the finest arts in education institution in this area. Founders Deb Gottesman and Buzz Muaro are two of the most generous and caring people I know and their organization runs on that philosophy.
The 4th annual Dramathon is a prime example of this. I don’t know of too many events in town that would attract top notch talent with the show not starting until 10:30 pm. Because of Theatre Lab’s reputation, this year’s crop of professional performers included, Sherri Edelen, Michael Russotto, Rick Foucheux and Holly Twyford. These and other performers from the DC theatre community came together with the students of Theatre Lab to perform eight tenish minute plays written by area playwrights especially for the evening. All of the proceeds went to the Send a Kid to Camp Campaign which this year will award $80,000 in scholarships to kids and teens that would otherwise not be able to attend Theatre Lab’s camp programs.
Before I offer a few thoughts on the night, I was able to do a short Q & A with Deb and Buzz for this feature. I should say this was done after the event because right before this show hits, there is no time to breathe.
How did the idea for Dramathon come about?
Buzz- We used to have an event called the Bardathon, in which students collected pledges for our youth scholarship fund and then stayed up all night doing readings of Shakespeare plays in their pajamas. The idea was to have a fun fundraising event that was a little more accessible than our expensive annual benefit, so that lots of our students could take part. We did that for several years, with big name Washington actors joining us for guest spots, and we even got other local celebrities involved, notably NBC4’s Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler and Fox5’s Sue Palka. Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey even came one year to play Dogberry in Much Ado. But the popularity of the event was never quite enough to justify the toll it took on the staff (‘round about 4:30 in the morning, it got pretty rough), so we decided on a new take. We decided to call on the generosity of our wonderful local playwrights, in addition to that of our wonderful local professional actors, and they were pleased to write new 10-minute plays for a major Washington actor in a principal role, with students and other fundraisers in the rest of the roles. And the Dramathon was born.
Deb- We’ve been blown away not only by the generosity of all the incredible guest artists who participate, but also of our students—some of whom raised over $1,000 for the privilege of reading alongside folks like Rick Foucheux, Jen Mendenhall and Holly Twyford. But mostly they all do it because, like us, they want to make sure that arts education is accessible to everyone. Thanks to their collective efforts, we raised more than $14,000, every penny of which will be used to provide drama camp scholarships to kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to camp. (This year we will give $80,000 in scholarships to more than 90 kids and teens, and this event is a big part of what makes that possible!)
Can you please talk about the process from start to finish of putting the show together?
Buzz- The process begins with choosing a Friday when Theater J is available late at night. I then approach major local actors to see if they will commit to doing a reading that night. Once I have actors, I approach playwrights and ask if they would like to write a 10-minute play that we’ll perform as a reading. Each playwright gets assigned an actor and a prompt (something simple and open like “someone changes their mind”) and they get to choose a 24-hour period in which to write it. (The 24-hour concept keeps it from eating up so much of the playwrights’ time that they might not be inclined to do it.) Meanwhile, fundraisers are gathering pledges for our scholarship fund. At the deadline, a couple weeks before the Dramathon, those who have raised the most money get assigned the best parts, and everybody who has raised at least $100 gets at least one part. Each reading gets an hour and a half of rehearsal with a professional director, sometimes with the lead actor and sometimes without, depending on schedules (the whole thing is a scheduling nightmare.) We try to find a little time on the night of the event to get each reading up on the stage once before the show begins, and then, at 10:30pm, it’s go time.
This year the Dramathon raised about $14,000 (of the over $80,000 in scholarships that we will provide this year for our youth camps) and, as always, everybody had a fantastic time in the process of bringing in those funds. This year we also published all the plays that were written for the first three years of the Dramathon (2011-2013):Plays of the Dramathon: New Shorts from DC Playwrights. The plays are available for performance (and for monologue material!), and the book is also just a great read. It can be purchased here.
Now that you know how this event comes together and a little bit about its history, here are a few thoughts from your friendly neighborhood tech for the event.
First let’s get an exact number of what was raised. Drum roll!!!! The grand total raised was $14,229. That is pretty incredible but there are a few other things about this event that made it stand out.
First I can say from working a number of benefits in NYC that although people are donating their time, they come in demanding some pretty outlandish things. I actually had a singer ask me for good singer vibrato on her mic at one job. There was none of this at Dramathon. Everyone came in ready to give their best for the organization. Rick Foucheux joined us on his night off from tech and previews for Theater J’s production of Freud’s Last Session and Jennifer Mendenhall came straight from a performance of The Admission at Studio Theatre. This gives you an idea of how highly people think of Theatre Lab’s work.
Another thing that struck me was the quality of the scripts that were written in the span of 24hrs. Characters such as a foul mouthed dwarf and a controlling character from a writer’s mind and subjects which included a missing Chuppah (canopy for you gentiles) are a few examples of the range of material. With playwrights like Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin and Gwydian Suilebhan, how can you go wrong? Add to this the powerhouse directing of Bill Largess, Ryan Maxwell and others and the talent level for the night kept rising and rising.
Then there are the students of past and present that were the primary focus. Theatre Lab takes great pride in giving performers of all levels a chance to shine. From the time the rehearsals started every student and professional showed their passion toward each of their pieces.There are too many people to mention and to leave anyone out would be wrong so I will just say that everyone did a superb job and took the notes from each of their directors with the “OK, this will make it better” approach. Even at 12:30am when the last piece hit the stage, the energy never dropped. The fact that alumni such as Tina Ghandchilar and John Stange keep coming back to perform for this event says something.
Lastly I wish to express a few personal things about the satisfaction I got from working on this particular show.
The day started for me at 3:30pm with rehearsals and I did not walk out of Theater J until 1:00am or so. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. The fact that I got to meet Holly Twyford after seeing her in so many productions was an added bonus. The fact that Deb Gottesman was in one of the pieces after an all too long stage absence was a spectacular finish to the night. Everyone including myself donated their services and not one of us regretted doing it.
Lastly the fact that I was able to help my favorite local organization raise $14,000 plus, so others can get a taste of what Theatre Lab does, is something I never have to think twice about.
Everyone should get this kind of experience at least once. I can think of no better group of people to do it for than Deb, Buzz and everyone at Theatre Lab. No vanity, no pretention. My kind of people and my kind of organization.
For more info on all the superb and important work the Theatre Lab School for the Dramatic Arts does, click here.