A 24-Hour Play Festival Fundraiser

By Jessica Harms posted 08-06-2016 09:35


What do you think of when you hear the word “fundraising”?  Unbidden, your mind probably conjures images of car washes, selling chocolates, wrapping paper, or babysitting, and to be honest, you start feeling some kind of fear or dread.  For these mentioned fundraisers, we are lucky to make $1000, and it’s hard to be doing these types of fundraisers because they are the same fundraisers run by every other school program.  From your cheerleaders to the academic decathlon, we all need a little more funding.  But we’ve got a secret weapon that no one else has—our skills as theatre artists.

Consider running a 24-hour play festival.  A 24-hour play festival costs you nothing to run, and therefore all ticket sales are pure profit.  At $10 a ticket with 200 audience members, you bring in a profit of $2,000.  It lasts only 2-3 days (depending on it you spend the night), and you can add an intermission with concessions for a bonus.  Now, this is just the financial gain, but perhaps more important is the educational gain from running a 24-hour play festival.  With only 24 hours, students have to learn essential skills like time management, focus, teamwork, and decision-making skills, and on the theatrical spectrum, allows kids to gain skills in playwriting and directing, which are not typical options in our mainstage season. My favorite part is that everyone who wants to participate in the play festival can.  Every person who wants to act gets to act, as the writers must write a part for all of the actors!

There are many ways to structure a 24-hour play festival, and for us, we break our program into the four classes: freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.  Each class will create their own show from start to finish, giving our festival 4 shows.  Because each grade makes their own show, each grade also has to fill the leadership and design positions, helping foster our future designers and leaders. We have a large program, so this is doable for us.  If your program is smaller, consider asking another school to combine with you, having all the freshmen make up a team, all the sophomores, etc. Breaking into separate classes allows for incredible class bonding, underclassmen to be able to take on leadership roles they might not normally be able to experience, and an objective way of dividing the students (so no one can say one group was given the A-team).  

Before the festival even begins, we send out a Google form with sign-ups for each class's leadership team.  The leadership team can consist of: director, assistant director, stage manager, head writer, head dramaturg, costume designer, set designer, sound designer, lighting designer, hair and make-up designer, and props master.  We treat the leadership team sign-ups like a job application (more transferable learning!) and include a few interview style questions: “Why are you interested in this position?” “What makes you a strong candidate for this position?”  If the application is not submitted by the clearly published due date, the application will not be considered.  

Using the language “the application will not be considered” versus “you will not be considered” rejects the student’s ability to be on a leadership team for this show, but not the entire student.  Take an extra moment to help the student learn from this experience by asking, “What do you think you can do to make sure you get the application in on time next time?” Finish the conversation with some good old encouragement, as we want the student to stay involved in our program.

Once all leadership team applications have been submitted, the artistic staff read through each application carefully and choose the best applicants for each position.  Occasionally there are no applications for a position and that position will remain unassigned. The leadership team for each class is announced early the week of the show, allowing for any sad feelings to dissipate if they did not get their desired position.  As our festival is held the first weekend of January, we also provide an alumni advisor for each class and this is also announced at the same time.

The role of the alumni advisor is someone who can serve as a resource throughout the process.  For many of our students, this is their first time directing or doing a lighting design.  The alumni advisor should be someone who has some general knowledge of most areas, and can help guide students through the process.  Involving alumni is a great way to let students who have moved on from your program stay connected through their college years.  They will also help your bring in audiences as they ask their peers to attend. 

The next part of the festival's structure is based on the fact that this is a fundraiser and we want to maximize audience attendance.  Being in a school system, our audience base is our school family.  To tap into that audience base, guidelines are set-up to ensure all shows are family-friendly so elementary audiences may attend, and then we begin to reach out to other teachers in two ways.  

First, we ask three teachers to serve as guest adjudicators for the final performance. If you are brave, ask administrators as it is a great way for them to see your work, and for your community to see the administrators supporting the arts!  It is best to invite teachers from other schools in the district, as they will hopefully spread the word about the event in their own community.  Armed with a list of categories like the Tony’s (outstanding show, an outstanding actor, outstanding ensemble, outstanding sound design, etc.), the three adjudicators are responsible for picking the winner of each category.  It is helpful to give the adjudicators this list on a clipboard so they can take notes during each show.  The slight “competition” also drives audience attendance, as each class will rally for audience support their peers. 

Second, we invite one history and English teacher to work with each class in creating their show.  These teachers donate only one hour of their time, and we thank them by providing free tickets for their families to see the final shows.  We’ll get into what these teachers actually do in a moment.

Now that you’ve got the pre-production structure, let’s get into the festival itself.  On Thursday, all student participants must meet together for a meeting.  During this meeting, we go over the festival guidelines and important information like scheduling.  Once you’ve finished imparting wisdom, allow each class to break off and give them 15 minutes to decide who is doing what.  

Wait—didn’t we already decide on the leadership team?  Yes, we decided the leaders, but each leader can have a crew.  For example, the head writer does not have to write alone but can have a team of writers.  This is the time where each class also decides who will fill an unassigned leadership role.  Typically someone steps up to the plate or someone does double-duty in two roles. Each class also needs to write down their list of actors, as the writers will have to include a part for every actor on the team. 

Once each class was finished, gather everyone back together.  In your hand are 8 sealed envelopes, each containing a theme.  Example themes include “don’t judge a book by its cover, “family,” “silence,” whatever you can think of!  Each head writer chooses an envelope and reads the theme out loud for everyone to hear.  Once each class has selected an envelope, let them know that they can keep their theme or choose a new envelope.  If they choose a new envelope, they give up their old theme and have to go with the new theme they choose.  This adds a flair of drama that ultimately gives students a sense of ownership over the theme.  For an extra challenge, you can do the same thing with a line or prop they must include.

Now, the final twist of the evening: each show must be based on something in history.  Basing the shows on history provides clear interdisciplinary learning, but also encourages the history teachers to advertise the event.  Many of our history teachers go so far as providing extra credit to students who attend our class plays.  

Each class is given ten minutes to brainstorm together with the head writer running the discussion, after those ten minutes the bell rings and everyone must split up into three groups.  The directors take the actors to do community-building games and acting exercises.  The techies stay for a how-to workshop with our volunteer alumni or senior leaders (how to sound design, light design, etc.).  The writers and dramaturgs leave to work with their assigned history teacher.

The history teacher is a resource for each team for only one hour, and it is up to each team to use the time wisely.  After one hour has passed, the history teacher is no longer allowed to assist the team, and it’s time for the English teacher.  The English teacher also has only one hour to assist the team in the writing process.   It is important to let the teachers know that they are there not to run the event but as resources, consultants, and guides for each team.  Having teachers be a part of the formation process also ensures that our family-friendly rules are minded.

At the end of the English teacher’s time, writers are given an hour and a half to finish a script.  This makes our Thursday schedule look like this: 2:30-3:30 event meeting, 3:30-4:30 history, 4:30-5:30 English, 5:30-7:00 script writing. Collect a script from each team and send them home for well-deserved rest.

Completing the bulk of the writing process on Thursday gives you and your administration time to read the scripts during school on Friday.  This allows you to make any necessary edits and get an idea of what each team will need.

Now it’s time for the big day: Friday.  Each team gathers for a script reading--no one but the writers have seen the script until this moment.  Can’t you feel the excitement?!  After the script read, the directors must complete the casting process.  

During the casting process, each technician begins to make their lists and form their ideas.  Once the casting process is finished, the actors begin familiarizing and memorizing their part, while the director holds a production meeting with the designers.  After the production meeting, rehearsals begin and the technicians are off.  We work until a hard stop at 11:00pm, then everyone must go home!

Sleepily we gather in the theater Saturday morning at 9:00am, and the work continues.  Each team is given time in the theater for tech, starting with the seniors and ending with the freshmen.  Writers can make adjustments to the scripts throughout the process, but you must approve them all.

After the day of work, the shows begin at 7:00pm.  We perform with freshmen first, seniors last, intermission after the sophomores.  Each director comes out to introduce their show, as we have no programs.  We film each performance and sell DVDs as an additional income source.  After the senior's performance, the adjudicators leave to deliberate, and we invite our audience to stay for the awards.  Many families leave at this point to put kids to bed, but our improv team entertains our remaining audience while each class goes to clean up their space.  The adjudicators come back and we all gather in the theater to hear the honors. 

Wow!  Now you are done and feel like you can sleep forever.  If you are like me, you value your beauty sleep, and that was the basis for this format. On Thursday, we give 4.5 hours.  Friday is 8.5 hours.  Saturday is 9 hours of rehearsal and 2 hours for the performance.  All together we get 24 hours!

As always, it is important that you customize the experience for your community.  For your festival, you may choose not to use the history and English teachers. Many professional theaters run 24-hour play festivals.  See if a there is a local festival near you.  Other formats have you working for the 24-hours straight.  Check out Lindsay Price’s straight 24-hour format here:

How does your school host a play festival?  What unique fundraisers have you found success with?