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You Must Take The "A" Train

An intrepid band of theater artists rides the rails to create a series of 24-hour plays. logo
This is where it starts:
David Riedy and Craig Pospisil get to work
at the final stop on the "A" train
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
It's hard to say exactly when and where the concept was born, but "24-hour plays" have become all the rage. These projects, in which short plays are conceived, scripted, rehearsed, teched, and performed off-book within a 24-hour period, are beloved of theater artists who love to challenge themselves. Of all such endeavors, theAtrainplays series is unique in that its plays are written as the authors ride the New York City subway system; specifically, they travel along the line that Billy Strayhorn immortalized in song way back in 1941. Oh, and to make things even more difficult, some of theAtrain plays are musicals!

The two most recent programs in the series, performed this past weekend at the Neighborhood Playhouse, each consisted of three mini-plays and three mini-musicals. "The musicals start at 207th Street," says Lawrence Feeney, mastermind of theAtrainplays. "That's where the book writers start writing. Then they take the train to Far Rockaway and that's where the lyricists, the composers, and the writers of the [non-musical] plays get on and join them." According to Feeney, "About 108 people were involved this time." Each program of six short plays involved "three book writers, three playwrights, three lyricist/composer teams or individuals, 22 performers, six directors, six choreographers, a five-member band, a stage manager, an ASM, and assistants on deck."

This weekend's shows marked the sixth set of "A" train plays; Feeney also coordinated a series that was written on the Staten Island Ferry in March 2003. Many participants have returned again and again, such as writers David Riedy and Craig Pospisil. "I've done it every time," says Riedy, "and Craig and I wrote both plays and musicals when we did the ferry." How does writing on a large boat gliding back and forth across the bay compare with scribbling away underground in a noisy subway car? "It was weird," says Pospisil, "because the ferry is a slightly shorter trip -- only by 10 or 15 minutes, but it felt a lot shorter! On the train, I'm never sure exactly how much time I have left; it's a long ride through Brooklyn and Queens. But on the ferry, it's like 'bang,' you're in Staten Island and you know you only have an hour left. Then you're back in Manhattan and it's 'Oh God, I've only got 30 minutes left!' There was much more of a looming clock on that one."

Here, Riedy and Dana Leslie Goldstein choose
the actors who'll appear in their shows by
picking resumes from a bag held by Larry Feeney
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Asked if the much-reviled Metropolitan Transit Authority has any involvement in theAtrainplays -- in terms of funding, for example -- Feeney replies, "No, no, no. The funding is from my family! The MTA has nothing to do with it. It's a guerrilla operation. I don't think that we need any special permission or anything like that. We did try to involve the MTA at one point when they were getting rid of the redbirds; we were going to try to buy some benches and signage and stuff like that. But then we just built our own, so we didn't have to worry about it."

One might guess that this kind of project would only attract unknown and/or fledgling writers and performers, but this is not the case. As Feeney noted last Wednesday afternoon at the start of the latest series, "We have Marci Heisler and Zina Goldrich writing for us. As far as performers, the lovely and talented Jay Rogers [When Pigs Fly] is in the musicals in Series I. Christine Pedi, from Forbidden Broadway and Little Me, is in Series II. We have John Leone from Les Miz, Donovan Patton from Blues Clues. And we have Tracy Thoms from the UPN series As If and the FX series The Shield. She's flying in from Toronto just to do the show. People are having a good time with it and are coming back."

"I've done this three times before," notes the lovely and talented Jay Rogers. "Every time I do it, I think I won't ever do it again, 'cause it terrifies me the worst of everything to have to learn a book and music so quickly. But that's why I do it." Were there any especially scary moments during his past Atrainplay sojourns? "The whole thing is a scary moment!" Rogers replies. "But it's great to throw everything up so quickly and see what you come out with. I love that we don't have a clue as to what we're going to be handed by the writers and directors. It's very frightening. You should try it!"

Darcie Siciliano, Ashley Atkinson, and Jay Rogers in
an "A" train musical with a book by Dana Leslie Goldstein,
music and lyrics by Tim Carless
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Aside from everything else, the ongoing project seems to encourage cross-disciplinary work among the participants. "I was a stage manager for this before, but now I'm acting," Ashley Atkinson told me outside the Kinko's in Columbus Circle on Wednesday as she waited for the A train writers to emerge from the subway and hand out scripts and songs to the performers. Fellow actor Teresa Jusino, asked if mid-performance disasters tend to occur with some frequency in theAtrainplays because of the unbelievably short rehearsal time, answered: "Not really -- aside from the orchestra sometimes playing against what we're singing. That happens sometimes! We started out doing just one night of performances, then we had two. Now we have three, so we get to meld better."

It was quite a scene on Wednesday as the actors milled around in front of Kinko's while the writers copied their scripts and songs inside. "Teresa and I are both in the same musical," said Atkinson. "We're just waiting to find out what the hell that musical might be. Thank God, at least they know that I can't sing very high!" According to Jusino, the energy on the first night of performances is always the best "because the adrenaline kicks in; you've got your lines and you have to get through it." Atkinson noted that "Larry Feeney -- the guy that came up with this whole thing -- is the king of that. You'll see him in the wings, holding his script. Then his cue line comes, he throws the script on the ground, he says 'I don't know any of these,' and he walks out on stage. But it always ends up fine."

Buttonholed outside of Kinko's, novice Atrainplays actor Michael McEachran enthused, "I can't wait to do this! I've known about the project for a while but this is the first time I actually get to participate, and I'm very excited. So far, the energy is amazing. It's kind of what I expected, but to actually experience it is such a jolt. There's a great generosity of spirit. The way I look at it, there's really nothing to fear because we're all in it together. That sort of lets you off the hook. It's kind of like being naked on stage: 'Well, if everybody's gonna do it, what the hell!' There's strength in numbers."

Bill Dyszel and Traci Thoms in an "A" train
musical with a book by Craig Pospisil,
music and lyrics by Joanna Parson
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
One of the project's stalwarts is Andrew Donovan, who says: "I've been around since the beginning, collaborating with Larry on the scenic elements and stuff. He came to me in the beginning with the idea. I heard it, then I kind of shook my head and walked away, not thinking it would work. Larry said, 'All I need on stage is a subway bench. That's all you have to give me!' So I made a little sketch, and then it evolved from a bare-bones thing into a full set." Donovan has also acted in each of the series, giving a memorable performance as a Jesus-type character on one occasion.

The Neighborhood Playhouse acting school is home base for theAtrainplays. "I'm the full-time production manager for the school," says Donovan. "They've been gracious enough to let us do this, and we give them all the proceeds that we make at the door after we recoup our costs. Doing the plays has gotten easier every time; they go up pretty fast now. For this series, we've incorporated some audio-visual stuff. We had a documentary film crew follow us on the train the first time, and we're going to project that film at the beginning of the show so the audience can see what goes on behind the scenes.

"It's a leap of faith," says Donovan of the experience -- and it's doubtful that any of his fellow participants would disagree. "Every aspect of it, from writing to directing to choreographing to acting in the plays in such a short amount of time, is a challenge. We throw these ideas up on stage and we never know how it's gonna go until everybody's in the house and the show starts. That's what makes it interesting!"


[To access the video documentary of theAtrainplays, click here]

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