UWC Theatre Instructor Tim Crofton handed me a wrapped fortune cookie last Saturday night. I pierced the cellophane with my teeth, let the cookie tumble into one hand. Sixty pairs of nervous eyes watched as I cracked the brittle treat and read the message out loud.
“Look at the moon. Show only your bright side to the world.”
I handed the slip of paper to second-year UWC student and budding playwright Holly Jones. She raised her eyebrows above black rimmed glasses. The room echoed with the laughter of writers, directors, and actors as each fortune was read. In twenty-four hours eleven cookies would grow into eleven original written and staged performances. I would direct Jones’ play exactly twenty-four hours after meeting her, twelve hours after being handed her brand-new script.
Some say God swept His hand through the void, creating firmament and fire. He had seven days, though, 168 leisurely hours to mold something from abject nothing. Crofton’s writers had but twelve overnight hours and one cryptic Chinese phrase. Writers know what it is to gather expelled breath, knit it into a hope-spiked scarf. To do this under pressure, in twelve hours better spent in study, in dream, is quite another thing.
Cookie crumbs gathered under a growing disarray of gray folding chairs. A forgotten brown blazer rested on scarred wooden floorboards near the velvet curtains. Some playwrights retired to their dorm rooms. Some found cozy corners in the UWC campus and hunkered down with tall shot cans of Starbucks espresso. Jones made her way to familiar quarters, my fortune in the pocket of her plaid pajama pants. I watched her saunter out the double door, her blonde bob swinging in a declaration of bravado.
Twelve hours later, red-eyed writers filed into Kluge Auditorium. I sat with the two youngest actors in the event, my son Louis Jencka, 13, and his friend Max Robertson, 12. Jones arrived early. She handed me her script - two filled sides of one paper with the enigmatic title “Don’t Look at My Finger; Look at the Moon.”
I quickly read both sides of the page. I read it again, slowly, tried to make sense of the Kafka-esque storyline. A woman sits in confession with her priest. He is bug-like - literally bug-like - with antenna and a penchant for scurrying across the floor on all fours. The woman has an affair with her student. Her husband finds out, calls the police. A wandering angel in white steps onto stage, spouting words not-quite-from-the-bible. The woman is silenced by the Hand of God, the angel standing above her lifeless body. At least I thought that was the sequence of events. Told in flashback from the confessional, the dialogue only hinted at what transpired. I glanced at Jones, wondering what midnight terrors fell from our combined fortune. She smiled.
“Directors! Cast your plays!”
Crofton’s voice boomed across the hall. More than once exhausted writer winced. I consulted with Jones, and cast UWC students Madeline Noteware as the fallen teacher, Eldar Undheim as the priest, Carlos Grandet as the student, Anirudh Baveja as the mysterious angel, and my own young, yet incredibly tall, son as the husband. We were off and running!
Two hours into rehearsal, my team realized that Jones’ script was simply too unusual. Off came the priest’s antennae. We erased his floor-scuttling behavior and replaced it with a traditional cleric’s collar and the sign of the cross. Young Max Robertson passed us in the hall as we rummaged for props and costumes.
“I’m the Radiation Kid. I think it’s a science fiction play. It’s weird,” he explained.
“You don’t know weird.” Louis muttered his response, his mind clearly challenged by our racy, avant-garde dialogue.
I struggled with the role of Director, with whether to play it serious or camp. Noteware pointed out that if we delivered our lines without irony, it would probably be funnier. She borrowed clothes to dress her part - a button-down sweater and a librarian’s skirt. Baveja added one special low-tech effect - a flaming cross meant to represent the swift justice of the Lord.
During technical check, we watched the ten other five-minute plays. It became obvious that ours was the most unusual, the most controversial, the one play that might offend and bewilder the audience. We continued to rehearse, refining line and movement, until our play became a synchronized swim of confession and flashback.
“Maybe this isn’t so bad,” I giggled, after one particularly good run through the script. “At least our actors are pretty good.”
“Mom, I still don’t get the play.” Louis raised eyebrows in perfect mimic of our playwright.
At 8 p.m. Sunday, exactly 24 hours after opening the cookies, the auditorium was packed with UWC students and a few people from outside campus. It felt like a week since we first met, since we first read Jones’ play. We waited in the wings, pushed our makeshift confessional onto Stage Left when it was our turn. Undheim responded to his sinner with expertly acted furtive glances, with a quick thumb through his bible. Noteware fluttered mooning eyes at Grandet. The audience giggled. Baveja stood backstage with me, waiting his cue to take the floor with his winged majesty, his glowing cross. As he strode to Center Stage, one hand lifted in flaming splendor, the audience held a collective breath.
The curtain fell on our strange morality lesson. I wandered to the audience with my actors. I caught Jones’ face in profile as I found my seat. She smiled, the same knowing look she gave me when I first read her work, and I realized she discovered what it meant to swipe one’s hand through the void, to collect the light from the moon.