At two o’clock on the afternoon of Friday August 17, a small group of artists gathered outside the Richard J. Daley Civic Center, ready to have their voices heard. It was hot in the city of Chicago. Sweat moistened their hands and their shoulders drooped. They were tired even though their endeavor was just beginning.
At three o’clock they began their five-mile march. It would take them four hours to reach their destination, Angel Island Theater, the home of Mary Arrchie Theatre Company. It was a test of endurance, one of the first of many they would face this weekend.
“Come one, come all!” Rich Cotovsky, the leader, shouted into his electronic bullhorn. “Witness the theater revolution! Three days of non-stop plays! Fifty-six straight hours of performance! Comedy! Drama! Plays! Monologues! Video! Live Music! Improv! You name it; we’ve got it! All at the thirteenth annual Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins Theater Festival!”
Started in 1989, the Abbie Hoffman Fest takes place every summer to commemorate the spirit of the original Woodstock. Cotovsky, artistic director for Mary Arrchie Theater, organizes the festival each year and instills in the participants the idea of cooperation, rather than competition. This year, over a hundred artists from all over the country were involved with the marathon event.
Starting on Friday with the march from downtown that helps maintain the festival’s counter-culture roots, the performances officially begin at seven o’clock. Every year the opening ceremonies are presented by Cotovsky, channeling the spirit of activist and author Hoffman. With the words, “My name is Abbie,” the marathon begins. Sunday at midnight, “Gas Mask 101”, the final play and cornerstone of the festival is performed. By that time, most of the participants are exhausted. Several of them are drunk. All of them are content, knowing they’ve just shared an almost spiritual bond with fellow performers and audience members that’s lacking in most theatrical endeavors.
I started doing the Abbie Hoffman Fest in 1996. Whether I’m reading a short story aloud or watching one of my plays performed, I love seeing a crowd react. The festival is a great way to find out what works and what doesn’t work, a great way to develop whatever piece I’m working on, a great way to watch a crowd.
Another benefit of this particular festival is the forced restrictions. Each year the event takes place on a standard set, usually leftover from the last production to occupy the Angel Island space. A couple of years ago, I was doing a play about a brother and sister that wanted to run to Mexico after a failed subway hold-up. It took place in their apartment. Something about the script wasn’t working. I tinkered and tampered with it, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then I realized that the set for the festival was going to be a train station. Why not place the action there? I did a quick re-write and faster than you can say “Jesse James”, it worked. Changing the location from the apartment to the train depot gave the play the sense of urgency it was lacking.
I’ve seen companies do full productions with over a dozen cast members and multiple settings. Given the non-stop show after show after show nature of the proceedings, I prefer to keep things simple. Every year I write a short, uncomplicated play: one or two characters, a couple of chairs and a problem to solve. After that, I find actors to perform and I sit down in the director’s chair. We rehearse. I watch for spots where the actors consistently stumble over their lines. I look for inconsistencies. I trace the pace and rhythm of the beats. I re-write. We rehearse. I re-write. I print fifty postcards with the dates, times and prices of performances. Then it’s time, do it all in front of an audience. One year my play was performed nine o’clock at night, another year it was done at three o’clock in the morning. As amazing as it may seem, there’s always an audience. Every audience I’ve observed watching my plays has given me something in return. After scrutinizing the patrons, I re-write the play yet again. Then it’s done. It’s ready to be sent out into the world, submitted to whatever theaters will look at it.
My play this year was called “Foul Play with Waterfowl”, a ten-minute piece about a hit-woman, a missing husband and ducks. Other horror oriented plays featured on this year’s schedule included “Blob Love”, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, “The Curious Sofa”, a pornographic puppet show adapted from a novelette by Edward Gorey, and scenes from “The Devil Vet”, a play about a Transylvanian veterinarian who tries to teach dogs how to talk with terrible consequences.
I’m happy to say that five of the scripts I’ve written for past Abbie Hoffman Festivals have gone one to bigger and brighter productions at other theaters. None of those other productions, however, have been as rewarding as the ones done in a tight over-heated theater for a crowd enveloped in the spirit of a by-gone anarchist and the music festival that branded his era.
Originally published in the Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association,
November 2001, Volume 12, Issue 19.