Theatrical Hackathons and Sleepless Comedy

An under-the-radar theater organization at UC San Diego, Company 157 continues its tradition of a new way to have fun with acting; it uses the fear of pressure and sleep-deprivation to generate creative, fresh and hilarious results.

Company 157’s 24 Hour Playwright Festival is in many ways similar to a hackathon for plays. Siloed off in the difficult-to-find Earl Warren Room in Price Center is a small group of students busy trying to memorize a play written just the night before. Warren College junior and theater/public health double major Jenna Dern grabs her coffee cup and takes a break from the shenanigans to tell The Guardian all about this year’s festival.

The theme for 2017’s festival is commedia dell’arte — that’s Italian — popular in Europe throughout the 16th and 18th centuries.

“It’s a form of physical, highly theatrical comedy,” Dern said. “It is based on stock characters, like Pantalone, and each of these characters has a physical walk. There are these comedic moments that go on between the different characters.”

The Playwright Festival began at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 3. Dern explained how playwrights pick stock comedy situations out of a bag.

“There’s one where one character is yelling for help; he needs help from the partner, who’s… a servant type character. So he might have a box that’s really full, and he’s asking for help to carry it, so when [the servant] comes in, instead of taking the box, he says, ‘Oh did you want more boxes?’ and starts throwing more on top. It’s like these really physical comedic moments.”

Along with comedic situations, playwrights also pick out locations and characters. “One of them is going to be taking place in a high school in the ‘20s… the other one is taking place in a nightclub that’s jungle-themed,” Dern said.

Toward the end of the evening, the actors leave and the playwrights write all through the night. When the actors wake up early in the morning, the playwrights have finished the script. Then comes the grueling work of trying to memorize the lines.

“We were like, they did this overnight?”

“Last year, when we did Shakespeare, it definitely wasn’t fully memorized,” Dern. “You can throw the script in a book… it’s very low stakes. If they have to get help, it’s not a big deal. But the goal is to have it be memorized this year.”

When I walked into the room, they were in the middle of this process, and I was extremely startled by a student with a mask over their head. Commedia dell’arte is in fact characterized by the masks.

“We had a workshop on Thursday with a Ph.D. student who specializes in [commedia dell’arte]. He studied in Italy so he has these beautiful masks that he’s allowing us to use,” Dern explained.

There is a palpable sense of stress as well as playfulness in the air. Sophia Zaragoza, the artistic director, was visibly excited to share her experience of the festival and to get the word out to more people, but she and the other actors were also clearly on a tight schedule to memorize the script.

It all ends at eight in the evening on Saturday, 24 hours later. The festival culminates in a performance at the new UCSD student center, where they enact the scenes they’ve been working on for the past day. Each scene is about 10 to 15 minutes.

This year, there are 12 people working together to make the performance a reality. They have two playwrights, four actors, two directors, a stage manager (Dern), and a number of people from the executive board. “Plus, one of the playwrights is acting,” Dern added.

For Dern, her festival experience and working as managing director at Company 157 has been great. “All of these little events are really fulfilling as a theater major because I really do believe in helping as many people as I can [to] have opportunities. I also firmly believe you can learn so much more sometimes through these student orgs and jumping in and having a million responsibilities. It’s like a sink or swim thing.”

These tight time frames may be too tough, or even off-putting for some, but it helps Company 157 achieve laudable results, just in a different way. “There’s a joint understanding that this isn’t going to be perfect. The constraints on time, I feel like, allow people to be really creative. They’re under some pressure and sleep deprived, but we read the scripts this morning; they were amazing!” Dern gushed excitedly. “We were like, they did this overnight? But yeah, it’s always a fun, rewarding experience when it’s all done.

Compared to UCSD’s well-known annual production, Muir Musical, Company 157’s festival flies under the radar. Furthermore, Muir Musical takes advantage of student resources and funding, while Company 157 has historically not used any. Dern does work at Muir Musical as well, and plays a similar role; she explained that Company 157’s financial constraints can actually produce fresh material.

“Sometimes not having money [means] you have to be creative; you have to make it work. And,” Dern added, “for this type of thing, like a 24 hour play festival, it wouldn’t be realistic to apply for funding.”

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Company 157’s founding. Dern emphasized that the 24-hour Playwright festival, as always, is open for anyone and is all about creating new opportunities for those interested in theater.

At such a STEM-focused university, students interested in the arts often miss out on hidden resources, and possibly on UCSD’s multi-faceted successes. “Not many people know this, but the theater department for [graduate] school is one of the top in the country,” Dern remarked. “Yeah, so it’s amazing because we have really, really talented mentors for us and actually in the past year there’s been a more formal mentor system that’s been set up between us and the Master of Fine Arts students.”

“Sometimes not having money [means] you have to be creative”

Dern explains how this idea is further used to help undergraduates as well. “That’s kind of a tangent. We’re kind of like student producers, we try to let undergrad students have as many theater experiences as they can because… just because there’s so many of us as undergrads; our program actually doubled this year,” Dern said. “Having student resources is really important, just to give people the opportunities to do stuff when they can’t necessarily do it through the department.”

She also mentioned other upcoming performances that will be put on by Company 157 — like annual 24-hour play festivals, and a more full-length play festival that will go up in Week 9 in Galbraith Hall.

Dern points out the academic diversity among the participants. “Some of these people are theater majors. Specifically with commedia, a lot of us have learned about it in our theater history classes. [But] for most of us, this is the first time any of us are practicing this skill. [And] for some people, it’s definitely new. Perhaps they’re not theater majors and this is just a way for them to get involved.”

Company 157 is more than just a group of theater fanatics putting on a performance to spice up their résumés. It’s an uncritical space that welcomes students regardless of their majors, to let go, build their confidence and have an intense, 24-hours of fun.