Write a scene and pass it on. For this occasion, no playwright has the privilege of determining the fate of his or her characters. Political messages or sappy romances will have to fit within a three-minute time frame - and they might be morphed into something different by the next writer.
Twenty-five playwrights said yes to this proposition, contributing their creative links to a chain called "The Direct Line Play."
The Provincetown Repertory Theater finally has a home of its own at the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and artistic director Lynda Sturner wanted to create something "spectacular" to celebrate its opening. Friday and Saturday, actors from Provincetown and New York will perform a staged reading of the play.
The story line is a secret, but Ms. Sturner will say this much: "It has gay marriage in it. It has a political bent - the Cheneys come to Provincetown.... It's fun, it's kind of wacky and wild...."
The play also honors Provincetown's role in fostering American drama - with appearances by historical figures such as Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. In 1916, O'Neill teamed up with an experimental theater group, the Provincetown Players, for his one-act play "Bound East for Cardiff." Williams, too, wrote a play based on a pivotal summer he spent at the seaside town.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane received about half of the chain play on e-mail when it was his turn. "I got a cover letter, and it said, "Please, no more characters." But someone had put in Tennessee Williams very briefly, so I thought, well, why don't we have Tennessee Williams come back and pull everything together and make it one of his plays."
Although the script did not name the writers, Mr. Beane says he recognized some of their styles. "Some people felt the need to kind of pull everything together," he says, "and some people needed to break everything apart."
For Sturner, the main challenge was to keep the whole project flowing. Every rule she gave the playwrights was broken by someone, she says. A few took a week instead of a day to write their scene. The original cast of eight grew to more than a dozen. "There were playwrights who dropped out who said, 'I don't want to read this whole thing,' " she says with a laugh. In the end, though, a diverse group followed through, including Wendy Wasserstein ("The Heidi Chronicles") and David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly").
The title is borrowed from another playwright in the chain. In Terrence McNally's "Master Class," Maria Callas speaks of singing Medea and feeling "the stones of Epidaurus beneath the wooden floorboards at La Scala.... There was a direct line through me to the composer to Euripedes to Medea herself."
Sturner hopes the new theater will bridge the past and the future by bringing playwrights to Provincetown again. "It's very different today than when [O'Neill and Williams] were working here - it's very expensive to live here. But we can develop new work in the winter time."
Directing "The Direct Line Play" falls to Phyllis Newman, a longtime stage actor in New York who was also seen on the big screen recently in "The Human Stain." "When you have a very short time, the main thing is to tell [the actors] to go with their instincts and not be afraid," she says.
Ms. Newman says her experience as director of an annual vaudeville-style benefit has given her a talent for "taking disparate things and making a show, finding the arc of it."
The one precedent Sturner knows of is "The Chain Play," performed at the National Theatre in London to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2001. Some critics took it to task for drifting into a plot in which the characters turn out to be robots, but Sturner says its dark side reflected the fact that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred as it was being written.
The Provincetown play, too, "has its own natural life," she says. "This is not a play that you're bringing to Broadway as a perfect play. What makes it so interesting is [the range of] voices."