Fast Company

For a festival that spotlights random artistic collisions and short attention spans, 14/48 sure has staying power. The "World's Quickest Theater Festival" was founded in 1997 by Michael Neff and Jody-Paul Wooster, and has grown from a bare-bones, once-a-year fringe production into two weekends twice a year that routinely sell out the midsized Capitol Hill Arts Center. The basic concept is this: On Thursday night, seven playwrights each receive a theme; each writes a 10-minute play overnight, and the next morning a randomly chosen director and randomly chosen cast begin rehearsing for that evening's performance. At Friday's show, the audience chooses a new theme, the playwrights again head home, and Saturday morning the whole thing begins again. As a past participant, both as director and writer, I can say it's exhilarating to work at a maniacal fast-forward. There are still artistic squabbles, misinterpreted texts, technical nightmares, and other routine problems, but they take minutes, not hours, to resolve, and so feel refreshingly uncomplicated. Like all live performance the results are unpredictable, but while some of the plays are so bad they embarrass both artists and their audiences, others are truly transcendent. At the closing-night party of the January edition a couple of weeks ago, Wooster and co-producer Shawn Belyea both admitted the crazed tempo of the event has begun to wear on them a bit. "While we're doing it we're fine, but at 2 a.m. when all the twentysomethings are ready to party, I just want to get home," laughs Wooster, his raspy voice testament to what 48 hours of rehearsal can do to an actor. Fortunately for the festival, while a lot of the original crew are still around (many are now on the steering committee), they've had no trouble finding younger artists for whom the frantic pace is more exhilarating than debilitating. In this way, at least, 14/48's done an admirable job of fostering community, which both Belyea and Wooster say was the principle idea behind its creation. There are grumblings among some artists that instead of 14/48 cutting across the many cliques in Seattle's theater community, it's just created its own, but Wooster passionately disputes this. He points out that there's always an influx of 25 percent new artists to each festival. And Belyea says that the festival is somewhat self-selecting in terms of who ends up being invited back. Not every artist is an easy fit for a scene that is unapologetically boozy, with an ever-full keg available throughout the weekend and occasional bottles of harder stuff passed around as well. "We do like the Dionysian, bacchanalian aspect of theater," Belyea says, and some artists are uncomfortable with this, while others have problems handling the freedom of excess. "We can't police anybody. We'd hate to limit anyone because someone's out of control, so unfortunately we've had to not ask back a couple of people." I've always enjoyed the backstage drinking, but I'll admit the boozy cheer of 14/48's audiences can be annoying. The CHAC has a full and lively bar, and this year's audience seemed drunker than ever—on my second evening, the couple seated next to me downed four pints each during the course of the show. The crowd's collective beer goggles led them to cheer the evening's bombs almost as lustily as the beatific, and the hoots and hollers that greeted every reference to sex or genitalia slowed the pace of all the shows considerably. Writers respond to this by writing smuttier and frankly less interesting pieces—a temptation that I'll admit to having given in to in the past. Belyea and Wooster say that it's hard to know how exactly to expand their success. Getting the show up more frequently is unimaginable, even with all the extra volunteers. Wooster is excited about an idea for "Kamikaze 14/48," where a group of actor/writer/musicians would get together and throw all their names into a hat, with artistic disciplines being assigned randomly as well. (I've yet to meet one of the extraordinary hyphenates Wooster imagines for this project—though I've seen some abysmal plays written by actors, as well as some writers destroy their own pieces by trying to direct!) Belyea believes that spin-offs like their upcoming Valentine's Day show, Relentless Heartache, which features several 14/48 scripts about love and a company of 14/48 veterans, are the best way to reach out to new audiences. But both men, along with co-creator Neff (who now lives in New York), believe that randomness is the secret to the festival. "You just have to have a pool of actors good enough that if the role is a 90-year-old Asian woman and you're a twentysomething white guy, you can play that role," says Neff. "The randomness is the key," says Belyea. "And the young artists I talk to want to be part of this. I feel like we're in the middle of the second or even third wave of 14/48ers. These people have the same feeling about what we're doing that I do."

 
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