Imagine getting an idea for a play at 5:30 one afternoon and then staging it at 5:30 the next day.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that allows 24 hours for a playwright to write a script, actors to rehearse, and directors to make decisions about staging, props, sets and mood.

Sounds like madcap fun.

That’s the premise behind the 24-Hour Portland Theater Project, which puts a fitting finish on the month-long Maine Playwrights Festival tonight at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland.

“A certain zaniness infuses the whole event, because you put it together so quickly,” said Mike Levine, artistic director of Acorn Productions, which organizes the festival.

“When you are doing a play over six or eight weeks, there is a lot of tension and stress. You try to get the cues just right, and you try to find just the right costumes. With this, there is an element of improv that just happens.”

The 24-hour festival is a test of skill, will and audience tolerance.

Expectations are not necessarily low, but audiences tend to forgive actors if they fumble their way along with a script — although some actors do memorize their lines, which ranks somewhere just south of sheer wonder.

Last year, one actress ran into a funny situation when she had what one might call a wardrobe malfunction — the beard she was wearing kept almost falling off, and her dance with the fake facial hair became comical and rose above the play itself.

The idea is to have fun and see what kind of art you can make on short notice, Levine said.

“What we have learned is that you can actually put together something that is decent in a short amount of time. But it is crazy fun, and that’s the idea. It’s fun for everyone,” said Levine.

It works like this: During intermission of Saturday’s run of short plays, a location, prop and line of dialog were revealed. They were: The street, a plunger and “Does this look infected to you?”

At that time, five teams of actors and directors were randomly assigned to five different playwrights. Each team has 24 hours to come up with something that incorporates that common line of dialogue, scene location and prop in their play.

The pressure is on the playwrights first and foremost. They are limited to 10 pages of script, which translates into a 10-minute play, give or take.

Generally, they have their script in place by bedtime Saturday, but some have been known to stay up all night. This morning, actors and directors work on the staging and dialogue. They go live tonight, with performances at 5:30 and 8 p.m.

Each playwright gets a different set of actors and must tailor the script to suit the cast, which could range in size from two to five actors. There is one two-person cast, one three-person cast, two fours and one five.

The actors volunteer, but are randomly grouped. It’s fun for them, because they usually get to work with actors with whom they have not worked before. Similarly, the directors generally work with actors they do not know well or have not worked with before.

The directors represent a variety of theater companies in Portland: Tony Reilly of Irish American Repertory Ensemble; Keith Powell Beyland from Dramatic Repertory; Christine Marshall from Mad Horse Theatre Company; Stephanie Ross from Acorn; and Stacey Koloski of Stages Academy.

This year’s playwrights are Laurie Brassard, Delvyn Case, Lynne Cullen, Rebecca Iren and Jefferson Navicky. All five had other plays in this year’s festival.

No matter the result, tonight will be fun.

“It’s an hour-long evening. It’s pretty quick and light-hearted,” Levine said, encouraging folks to come out.

“It’s not a serious night of theater at all. We do our best to make it feel professional and polished, but there is a spirit about it that lends itself to light-heartedness.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes