DULUTH — 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, Jan. 12. "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 the night before — the former offering a short video with information about where they could record, available props, special skills and requests. The writers had until the next 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 President 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 onstage two weeks after the 2016 presidential election. Ditto with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Armstrong said.
The proposal of an online version drew creatives such as 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."