A final whirlwind Mayfly Playhouse 24 for David Foulkes

David Foulkes gives some last-minute instructions to his crew before the house opens for Mayfly's 2013 event.
David Foulkes gives some last-minute instructions to his crew before the house opens for Mayfly's 2013 event.

An anniversary is inevitably a cause for a let's-up-the-ante celebration. When it's a landmark anniversary like the 30th, that's especially true. So when the Hygienic art show was gearing up for its 30th in 2009, organizers wanted to expand not only the festival's time frame but also its offerings.

David Foulkes had an idea.

"At the time I was (Hygienic) gallery manager and, with my background in theater, I figured, 'Well, if I'm going to contribute anything, it's going to be theater,'" he recalls. "I didn't think up 24-hour theater - it had been around for 10, 12 years - but I had never heard of it done around here, so I thought, 'Let's try it.'"

After getting the okay from the Hygienic honchos, he forged ahead. He sought feedback from people who had participated in other 24-hour play festivals around the country, asking to hear what they felt did and didn't work.

Then, he created Mayfly Playhouse 24. (The explanation of the name: the adult mayfly has such a short life span, it's called "one-day fly" in some languages.)

The quick-moving Mayfly Playhouse 24 schedule goes like this:

At 8 p.m. Friday, seven dramatists gather together and are assigned a director and actors. (A call goes out long before that day to find interested directors and actors; playwrights from the previous year get first dibs if they want to participate again, with writers on a call list filling any vacant spots.)

They're told certain elements they must include in their scripts: a theme, a prop, a line of dialogue.

Then, off they go to write. They have until 6 a.m. Saturday. At 8 a.m., everyone gathers at one spot and then each group heads off to a different location to rehearse.

At 5 p.m., the groups all meet at the Crocker House Ballroom for a technical rehearsal.

At 8 p.m., they perform for the public.

During the first year, Foulkes says, "It was a tremendous success, it was a surprise, and I learned an awful lot about what not to do."

For instance: instead of having each actor do a 30-second monologue so the dramatists could see them on-stage, the playwrights preferred to do without that - and to use that hour or so to write instead.

Foulkes originally figured the 24-hour play project would be a one-time thing, but Hygienic organizers asked him to stage it again. It became a popular part of the annual festival.

And while Mayfly Playhouse will carry on, this year will be Foulkes' last heading it up. He's decided to step down, and playwright Kato McNickle will take over.

"I felt like, 'Okay, time to move on,'" says Foulkes, who is an actor. "I'll still obviously be able to enjoy it and maybe even be in it, which I've never had the opportunity to do - because the part of the day that's dedicated to that, I'm doing a million other things on the production level."

With all the behind-the-scenes responsibilities in Mayfly, he certainly didn't have time to act in it.

McNickle says, "People see that evening performance, and it's a lot of fun and that whole (Crocker House) ballroom is full of people, and it's great energy. There are, like, 200 or 300 people there. We've got those plays, and the actors have been working all day, so there's this really hyped-up, fun energy."

But, she says, people don't see all that Foulkes does in advance. It's not just organizing things ahead of time - lining up directors and writers and actors - but there's plenty to do during the actual 24 hours of Mayfly. Until he gets the scripts, for instance, Foulkes doesn't know how the show will look. So he spends a good portion of Saturday morning reading the scripts before he determines the run order and then prints up the programs. He has to be ready to handle surprises, too; one year, a rehearsal space ended up not having heat that Saturday, so Foulkes had to find an alternative location.

McNickle is working with Foulkes this year on the managerial aspects, but she had already become quite familiar with the creative side of Mayfly, having been a playwright in the festival for the past three years.

She has learned a lot about the process on the artistic side - for instance, "how to open my mind to whatever comes, to write for it. Just let it happen."

She has discovered that she should go with her first instinct on what to write about, too. In earlier Mayflys, even if she spent an additional hour thinking of things, she'd inevitably return to her initial image or idea. She realized she could cut out an additional hour or two contemplating other choices and just go with her first notion.

McNickle, whose second Mayfly play was picked up for a directors festival at the Kennedy Center, says of Mayfly, "It's fun to write with that kind of intense deadline and see other people perform it the next day ... and they've solved all those crazy problems you set out for them. They get excited about that prospect also."

Playwright Anna Maria Trusky, who has been with Mayfly from its first year, has similar sentiments. She says she loves the whole process where the gauntlet is thrown down on Friday night and it all culminates in "a fantastic Saturday-night celebration of creativity, ingenuity, and real courage on the parts of everyone involved."

As for Foulkes, Trusky says, he "has been an amazing leader and we all owe him so much. Through some sort of magic, he has managed to pull together a talented group of writers, directors, and actors from around the region every year and pull off this little theatrical miracle for six years in a row."

She notes that, while Mayfly was the first 24-hour play project like this in Connecticut, there are at least three others now. Foulkes, she says, "was the pioneer; he had the guts to bring it here first. He always manages to be organized and no-nonsense about things while remaining kind to us, even when the heat is on."

She's thankful that McNickle - whom she knows and has worked with - will be at the helm next year. Foulkes is thankful, too. As he was thinking of stepping down from Mayfly, McNickle coincidentally approached him about being part of the production team, as opposed to a writer.

"The energies of the universe seem to coincide so neatly. ... I feel really good about it," he says.

JUST FOULKES

Mayfly Playhouse 24 founder David Foulkes is a theater regular around here. In addition to creating the Intentional Theatre, which is on hiatus, he acts. His recent performances included those in Groton Regional Theatre's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Gustave in Chelsea Players' "Heroes." He's in rehearsals for GRT's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Foulkes, who is the office manager for Mystic Whaler Cruises, started in the theater when he was 13 years old. He joined a friend at an audition for a "1984" adaptation - they were heading to a party afterward - and the director persuaded Foulkes to try out.

"With no idea what I was doing, and a bit amused by the idea that I was even there, I simply read the words in an effort to entertain and get a laugh or two, nothing more," he says. "I was successful, eliciting chuckles from those present with my interpretation. ... The director must have noticed something lurking and gave me the lead role. After weeks of rehearsal and memorization of lines and blocking, opening night came. The enthusiastic response of the audience gave me quite a thrill, and I knew I was on to something."

IF YOU GO

What: Mayfly Playhouse 24

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Crocker House Ballroom, 35 Union St., New London

Cost: $10 suggested donation

For more details: hygienic.org

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