Written by
Videography by Matt Banderas '04

One Friday in late September, Leo Hernandez Hernandez '17 went to bed at 4:30 a.m. He had been anticipating the late night, telling his friends, "I'm going to try and sleep, but that's probably not going to happen."

Hernandez was one of 14 student playwrights who took part in Whitman's ninth annual Instant Play Festival, in which Whitman students, faculty and staff members wrote, produced and staged 14 plays in just 48 hours.

The festival works like this: On Friday night, seven student playwrights receive three prompts and have until the following morning to incorporate them into 10-minute plays. Friday's prompts this year: a list, a secret and someone eating on stage.

The next morning, at 7 a.m., seven directors and a host of actors receive freshly printed scripts and have until 8 p.m. to transform them into stage productions. On Saturday night, the process repeats with different prompts, as well as different writers, directors and actors. The festival closes with a performance of the plays, almost always to a full house.

Hernandez and his fellow writers were well prepared for the festival. Each year, the 14 student playwrights meet for two hours a day for the first three weeks of the school year, honing their writing skills with the help of three visiting playwrights.

This year, that lineup included Scot Auguston, a writer and puppeteer; Aimee Suzara, a Filipina-American poet, playwright and performer; and Gregory S. Moss, a professor of theatre and dance at the University of New Mexico. In addition to leading workshops, the visiting playwrights staged readings of their own work, which were open to the whole campus.

In Suzara's workshop, "Bodies in Motion," the students met on the main stage and practiced embodying the characters they had written into existence.

"Aimee put us in a very fruitful headspace," said Tara McCulloch '17. "I was doing a lot of writing on my own [that week] because of that headspace."

Associate Professor of Theatre Christopher Petit brought the Instant Play Festival to Whitman in 2008, modeling it after 14/48, a Seattle theatre organization that has produced 14 short plays within 48 hours annually since 1997.

"I wanted to create something that was really community-oriented and would put the theatre at the center of the campus," said Petit.

Each year, the Instant Play Festival sets nerves on end across campus, but that's part of what makes it so exciting.

"What's so great about that event is that everybody's terrified," said Petit. "Terrified in a good way, in a constructive way. People barely know their lines. There's a kind of vitality and dynamic that's instantly created in the audience."

McCulloch tapped into that energy on Saturday night by bringing audience members into her play.

Shitstorm Ladder in the Soup Can features a self-proclaimed "post-punk" band of the same name that faces difficulties with their funding, and instead fills the time with an awkward Q&A session. Throughout the play, the band's lead singer encourages the audience to chant and clap as if they were concert attendees.

"I wrote the weirdest thing I've ever written," McCulloch said. "There's going to be a person named Charlie, and they're going to use a hotdog as a microphone, and they want to have a gerbil-themed amusement park. And then I thought, well, this is either going to go well or just fail miserably, and that's fine because it's only 10 minutes.

McCulloch feels that the format of the festival allowed her the space to conceive and write such an absurd play.

"The time constraints it gave me a lot of freedom to fail if I wanted or needed to," she said. "I think the medium of IPF is really useful for taking risks as a writer."

Watch the video above to hear more from McCulloch and Petit about the process of the Instant Play Festival.