Instant Artifacts of a Disconnected Time (and Lots of Hugh Dancy)

The 24 Hour Plays move fast. That’s been their nature since their first production in 1995: short plays written, rehearsed and performed onstage in a scant 24-hour span. And when the pandemic shuttered theaters, the 24 Hour Plays responded with astonishing alacrity.

“That’s what we do,” said Mark Armstrong, the artistic director of the company, whose live shows have gone on in the wake of crises like Hurricane Sandy and the Sept. 11 attacks.

The day after Broadway went dark, the writer Howard Sherman pitched Armstrong the idea for what he was calling “The Virus Monologues.”

Four days later, on March 17, 2020, the first crop of “The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues” rolled out online — replete with boldface-name playwrights and performers, writing and recording mini-plays from home, all within the requisite 24 hours. For the first few months, a new bunch aired on Instagram nearly every Tuesday night.

The project’s ambition broadened over time, some plays breaking the monologue form to include more than one actor from the same household. Not all touch on the crisis, which was never a requirement.

The earliest of them remain online; later works are subject to a four-day, union-mandated limit. Parallel to that, originally the artists were volunteers, but since June they have been offered a small stipend.

By now the videos total more than 400, each an artifact of a disconnected time. In their immediacy and profusion, they tell a cumulative, often comical story of the pandemic, and of theater artists living through it. Hugh Dancy — slated to be among the performers in an anniversary round on March 16, viewable on Instagram and at 24hourplays.com —concedes that the four monologues he did in 2020 are “a kind of document of my, ah, pandemic hair.”

Dancy is one of a dozen artists who spoke recently about the viral monologues, and about their coronavirus year. Here are edited excerpts from those conversations.

Ashlie Atkinson had tested positive for Covid-19 when she performed in the first edition of “The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues,” on March 16, 2020.Credit…via Viral Monologues

Ashlie Atkinson tested positive for Covid-19 on March 16, 2020. Later that day, she agreed to join the first round of viral monologues. On March 17, she performed Hansol Jung’s “Cocktail Class” with brain fog, while on antibiotics for the pneumonia that she also had.

I look insane in that görüntü. Even the way I’m moving. I wish I could say it was a characterization, but you can tell at several points, just getting the words out is tough. I must have done 50 takes. I definitely found myself at one point staring off into space for 20 minutes or so — where you realize that you’re looking at a part of the wall near the ceiling that you’ve never looked at before. And you’re like: “Wow. I am ill.”

Gracie Gardner tapped into the panicky disjointedness of spring 2020 with “Entertaining,” a comic riff on the aspirational-lifestyle genre, performed by Noah Galvin on March 24 and inspired by photos in the Martha Stewart book of the same name, where tables are chicly set but no one is there.

That monologue is the work of someone who has been dropped like a dumpling into some cosmic soup. I was just refreshing websites and watching all these bad numbers go up. I was like, “I can’t go to the bodega to get a sandwich. I can’t go to a friend’s for dinner. I have to make my next meal. And the next one, and the next one. And I have to figure out how to infuse some delight into this process.” Obviously this whole thing is connected to theater. Having people over, the table setting, is the same thing as theater.

Daveed Diggs in the mini-musical “Wild,” by Josh Koenigsberg and Adam Gwon.Credit…via Viral Monologues

Despite the Tony Award he won for “Hamilton,” Daveed Diggs calls himself “not really a musical theater guy.” Still, April 21 found him playing an unhinged ex in Josh Koenigsberg and Adam Gwon’s micro-musical “Wild” — Diggs’s second monologue last spring.

I think Los Angeles was in a pretty strict stay-at-home moment. I was trying to get this “Blindspotting” TV show on the air. I was writing a lot and in a lot of meetings that were pretty stressful. Then this thing came along. It was like, “Well, I know it’s over in 24 hours, so how bad could it be, really?” The ability to finish a piece of arka, in collaboration? I mean, it’s priceless.

The married performers Brandon J. Dirden, left, and Crystal Dickinson worked around their young son for Mfoniso Udofia’s “New Math.”Credit…via The 24 Hour Plays

For the April 28 show, Mfoniso Udofia was matched with the actors Crystal Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden, who gave her what Dickinson called “a distinct challenge”: Because their young son would be attending school from home while they shot the görüntü, Udofia’s play would need to include that, without requiring the child’s active participation. She responded with a comedy, “New Math.”

I am mostly known for my cycle plays: huge, sprawling, epic. What people don’t know, though, is that I write a lot of short plays. And it was fun for me because I know so many parents who are at home with their kids going, “How do I manage my life, my kid’s life and the fact that I no longer know how to add a simple equation?” It was quite a moment of joy.

Adrienne Campbell-Holt and her husband, Brian Wiles, were staying with family on Long Island when she directed him in Elizabeth Irwin’s “a baby is like a bathrobe” for the May 19 edition of the show. His monologue is largely in voice-over, with Campbell-Holt placing the visual focus on their 11-month-old, Esme.

At first, actually, we shot it as my husband upstairs just kind of speaking, and I wasn’t even going to use my daughter much in it. And then I was like, this feels less poetic than I would like it to be. I think I saw her crawling toward the door and I was like, let me just sinema this and see if it’s long enough and see how it sort of plays with the tone of the audio recording. And I put them together. So it was a total accident.

On June 9, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations sweeping the nation, Monique A. Robinson wrote “Twan’s Sister Or On the konuta of Harika Woman’s Retirement.” Performed by Kara Young, it channeled Robinson’s anger and exhaustion at the erasure of Black women’s humanity and the expectation of their heroism.

I felt like a kettle — but not the electric type, the old-school one. And then that kettle kind of all came to a head. My heart was just completely broken with Breonna Taylor. Being a woman, number one, and then being a Black woman, she was already marginalized. I thought about her, and then I thought about my own experience. I was just like, OK, what if this is a reimagining of Breonna?

Raúl Esparza is desperate for a family recipe in Matt Barbot’s “Frijoles.”Credit…via Viral Monologues

On June 16, in Matt Barbot’s “Frijoles,” Raúl Esparza played a man grieving for his mother, longing to taste beans the way she made them and using görüntü messages — one delivered from his bathtub — to try to coax the recipe from his sister.

The reward of doing the monologue is an emotional sharing of something that is coming out of a great deal of loneliness and — not fear, but wonder about what the future holds. And any little bit of Cuban-ness that I can share onscreen is good; the one thing I never get asked to do is be me.

Larry Owens had already acted in two viral monologues before he performed “Holding Out,” Preston Max Allen’s song about an artist determined to make it in the theater, in the show’s June 30 collaboration with Pride Plays. Since then, he has said yes twice more.

I think that I kept returning because I wanted to get better. Actors are always, you know, we’re finishing the sınır. So every time I go, I’m trying to best the form, but I end up getting kicked in my bum by time. I will never, ever let down an audience, but sometimes I can let down my computer camera.

Initially, Jonathan Marc Shermanworried that making theater virtually would only underline his sense of isolation. But by the time he wrote “Sup With Your Pup” for his friends Nina Hellman and Jeremy Shamos to perform, with their dogs, on Sept. 15, he was midway through what would be a total of 10 shows for the year.

It reminds me of summer camp or the school play, and the importance of that feeling in my life — that my life went in the direction it did because that felt so good.

To Hugh Dancy, the viral monologues get closer than any other digital performance to replicating live theater’s enticing sense “that it could all go horribly wrong.”

The first one I did was written by Chris Peña, who’s a friend of mine, who I met when I last did the 24 Hour Plays onstage. Much as I love Chris, I think it’s fair for me to point out that it was a 10-minute bloody monologue, so you have to just kind of get over the total panic that that induces. And then the process of just learning it, of just internalizing or like shoving it down, really, that’s how you figure it out. Look, in the big scheme of the world that we’re in right now, the stakes are low. Maybe that’s part of the pleasure as well: that it’s adrenalizing without being completely terrifying.

Marcia Gay Harden made her viral monologue debut last June, taping in a single spot, in a single costume. On Feb. 2, with the help of her assistant, Mollie Biskar, she ratcheted things up for Anya Richkind’s “A Compendium of Useless Information,” shooting brief scenes in multiple locations, donning a series of head coverings and applying makeup to play a woman with cancer.

My assistant comes to my house three times a week, and we both get tested and we sit at opposite ends of a long table. When I first saw this monologue, I thought: “Oh, this will be easy. Small little sections. I don’t have to memorize the whole thing all at evvel.” I said: “Mollie, I don’t really need you. Let me just go shoot this first one. It’ll be fine.” Cut to: “Mollie, get out here right now. I can’t remember a thing! This is really hard.”

After writing “A Story of Survival,” which Rachel Dratch performed in the first round, David Lindsay-Abaire contributed 14 more pieces over the year.

Where I am emotionally, psychologically, has changed from week to week, which for me has been the most interesting part, because I don’t keep a diary. That very first monologue is totally manic and absurd and unfocused in a way that I think many of us were when the pandemic started. You could go through each of my monologues like, “Oh, here’s where the terror slips in and here’s where he gets angry and here’s some confusion. And now he’s dealing with loss.” Honestly, just to spoil it, I’m excited to write a new one, because I’m starting to feel hope for the first time in a while.

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