What's a writer to do with a longtime Duluth stage favorite in an Elvis jumpsuit who suddenly, after all these years of starring roles and improv timing, wants to rap for an audience?
If you're Bill Payne, you give the actor the chance to rap.
"I thought, 'He's offered me this Elvis thing," Payne said of his process. "What can I do with that? What Elvis song do I know that can be an inspiration to rap?"
"Killin' A Dove" is a 5-plus-minute monologue the University of Minnesota Duluth theater professor wrote for Jody Kujawa, one of about a dozen pieces created on the fly and posted to Renegade Theater Company's social media on Tuesday night. "The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues Duluth" paired writers and actors who were given a day to create, record on a phone and submit a piece of original theater.
It was billed as the season opener for the theater company that has been shuttered throughout the pandemic, and it was a collaboration with New York City-based group The 24 Hour Plays, whose executive director, Mark Armstrong, is a Duluth native with a fondness for his hometown's creative scene.
Actors and writers were introduced to each other on Monday evening — the former offering a short video with information about where they could record, available props, special skills and requests. The writers had until Tuesday morning to create a 700-word monologue that the actors were to memorize, record and send off so the video would be available for viewing on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
The viewing is free, but there are frequent reminders to donate.
Payne's piece was about a man, maybe the guy next door, who missed his ride to Washington, D.C., and wasn't able to be a part of the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
"I wrote at the top of the monologue, I think this guy is scarier if he's normal, if you don't go too far over the top," Payne said. "These people are our neighbors. They're people who live here. To make them into crazed revolutionaries doesn't hit the truth. The scarier part is that they're regular people."
In this case, the rapping Elvis fan is also convinced that The King still lives on; he's on the run from the mafia; he's holed up with Pres. Donald Trump right now.
Cue "Killin' A Dove," a re-imagined hip-hop take on "Can't Help Falling in Love."
'We always have these shows'
In March 2020, in New York City, The 24 Hour Plays was on the cusp of launching a podcast, a pilot program for the company. What started as wiping down doorknobs and posting their COVID-19 precautions online turned into cancelations.
But the group known for its timely work and quick turnarounds quickly adapted with an online project. It's part of the history of The 24 Hour Plays, Armstrong said.
"We always have these shows after world events," he said.
They were back on Broadway within two weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They were back on stage two weeks after the 2016 presidential election. Ditto with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Armstrong said.
The proposal of an online version drew creatives like actor Rachel Dratch, who plays a YouTube influencer-turned-survival vlogger in a piece written by David Lindsay-Abaire and Andre Royo, an intense man kicked out of a yoga class filled with Bernie fans when he says something nice about Ol' Joe.
In the 3-minute piece by Jesse Eisenberg, Richard Kind makes a public announcement: He's not going to play it safe anymore, he's going to take a risk.
"Hollywood," he says looking into the camera, "I'd like to play a gentile."
Armstrong said he thought it was a one-off special performance for its Instagram following. But now artists have collaborated on more than 350 monologues.
"I've been asked to talk to classes in colleges, and students and academics want to know: 'Is this theater?'" Armstrong said. "I don't know. What's satisfying creatively is people coming together to make things in the most challenging circumstances."
How to make theater in a pandemic
Armstrong grew up in Duluth and studied at the University of Minnesota Duluth. For a while, he worked with Dark Horse Theater and, even after moving to New York City, has returned to Minnesota for other creative projects — including directing the Duluth Playhouse's 2004 production of "Glass Menagerie."
Mary Fox of Renegade Theater Company has been in talks with Armstrong about directing a show at Teatro Zuccone. The pandemic stalled that collaboration. But, while considering how to make theater during this time, his work with The 24 Hour Plays came into the conversation.
The group has assisted other theater companies in creating their own localized take on it, including coaching groups through the production and social media side of the project.
"This just seemed like a lighthearted, fun thing to do," Fox said. "It was the first thing that made sense to me to try to tackle."
Fox sent out an email blast to local writers and actors and found interest in the project.
24 hours in Duluth
Videos went up on Renegade Theater Company's social media in 15-minute increments on Tuesday night, showcasing work from dozens of local creatives.
In "Gimme That Sweet Pinch, Pfizer," written by Andy Frye, Patrick Timmons has a stream-of-consciousness conversation with a friend that includes scarf modeling, the evolution of the face masks drag performer wear, and gossip from Pork and Planks, a theater company about to produce a masked version of "Cats."
Justin Peck's "Nostalgia Vortex" stars Amelia Barr as an accented agent in a jumpsuit who must kick down the door of the vortex, but once inside, gets distracted by the things of yesteryear.
And in "The Show Must Go On," a shiny shirted Christina Stroup Manchester, who has a tour group that takes theater-goers from New Jersey to Broadway, laments the dark stages — often in song.
It was the prop that actor Ellie Martin submitted that ended up serving as writer Lawrence Lee's muse.
"She picked up this interesting thing from the kitchen and started talking about it," Lee said. "And I was entranced. I was, like, 'Oh, dude. I want to know about that.'
"I was done with the first draft within an hour," he added.