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Volume 24, Number 9 — September 2017

Creating A Good Theatrical Play ... Overnight

Don LaPlant, an Emory & Henry College theater professor, took part in a fundraiser for a Roanoke theater that involved creating a play overnight. (Photo by Earl Neikirk|Bristol Herald Courier)
Don LaPlant, an Emory & Henry College theater professor, took part in a fundraiser for a Roanoke theater that involved creating a play overnight. (Photo by Earl Neikirk|Bristol Herald Courier)

By STEPHEN WOODWARD | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | September 23, 2008

*** This story was published Sept. 15, 2008, in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

Writing a play is a daunting task that could take most people months or even years to complete. But acclaimed local playwright Don LaPlant had only one night.

LaPlant recently participated in "Overnight Sensations," a fundraiser event for the Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Va. The rules were simple ? playwrights, directors and actors had 24 hours to stage an original play.

When LaPlant arrived in Roanoke at 8 p.m. on a Friday, the Emory & Henry College theater professor had until 9 a.m. Saturday to write the play, which was then performed that evening.

"I was given a group of six actors, whom I'd never met, and shown a rack of costumes and props," said LaPlant, describing the challenge.

The playwrights were also given prompts for the plays, which were drawn from a hat.

"They gave you the first and last line randomly ? so your play had to make sense of that. The genre I drew was drama. Everyone was given different genres. And my setting was a tavern."

LaPlant also said the theme he drew was simply, "You shouldn't put out someone else's candle in order to make yours seem more bright."

So with the information provided, he was ready to pull an all-nighter and write a play by sunrise.

But the experience didn't go quite so smoothly.

"Within 20 minutes of arriving in Roanoke, my car was towed. That took a little writing time away," LaPlant joked.

And the bad luck continued as a fire alarm sounded in the building, causing more delays.

He finally finished his first draft by 5:30 a.m., roughly eight hours after starting, and he still managed to get 45 minutes of sleep. He was, however, able to make a few revisions later in the day after receiving input from the director.

The finished play was called "Other People," a title taken from Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit."

"I decided to write this existentialist, absurdist drama about four people trapped in a tavern," LaPlant said about the storyline. "It's a metaphysical tavern, where the bartender was Jean-Paul Sartre and the bouncer, Samuel Beckett. The four people were trapped in this purgatory because of things they had done previously in their lives."

LaPlant said the play's performance went well that night, and he received positive comments about it.

"Other People" was the first of six plays to be performed, and because of the nature of the "Overnight Sensations" event, LaPlant said the "audience had no idea what they were in for."

When LaPlant is not speed-writing plays, he spends plenty of time revising and perfecting them.

"I do lots and lots of revisions and restructuring once I've finished the first draft [of a play]," he said about his creative process. "Ideas [and writing] are easy for me. It's the re-writing that's a killer. I tell my playwriting students that the commitment to revision is what makes the difference between a good idea and a good play."

This fall, LaPlant is resuming his full-time job of teaching theater history, script analysis, and directing classes at Emory & Henry.

One of his students described how LaPlant challenged her as an actress.

"Dr. LaPlant has really influenced me to take chances and to work outside of my comfort zone," said rising senior and musical theater major Caitlin Morgan, who has starred in many plays on the E&H campus, including ones by LaPlant.

Morgan described her experience working with LaPlant when he was simultaneously the director and playwright of a production.

"It was definitely a unique experience. ... We would have the best time sitting and reading what he had written, discussing changes and possibilities, and then getting on our feet to move on stage with his words. He was energetic and fun in rehearsals, and we were all learning and trying new things together. He made rehearsals and the whole experience really exciting."

LaPlant's success as a playwright continues to escalate. His Barter Theatre play, called "Appalachian Reality," recently finished its limited run.

And last year, for his acclaimed play "Body Problems," LaPlant picked up two national awards, including the prestigious Charles M. Getchell New Play Award, and was a finalist for another one. There are also productions of his plays running in venues like Baltimore and Colorado.

And when classes recently began at Emory & Henry, his writing continued.

"I'm determined to finish a play before the first day of classes," he said, talking about a play in-the-works. "Well, and then I'll revise it again ? and again."
He clarified his statement.

"Finished is a relative term for a playwright."