SLAM Theatre
By Ken Valenti






You want to see actors think on their feet?
I’m not talking about improv, I’m talking about handing a script to a couple of actors and watching them
perform a small piece of it with just seconds to get ready.
If you want to see what it’s like, come to SLAM Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen on Sunday evening.
And bring your script.
SLAM is a competition hosted by The Tank, a theater organization based at the 45th Street Theatre, 354
W. 45th Street, just east of 9th Avenue. The next round starts this Sunday, Jan. 3, at 7 p.m.
“Rowdy, raw, impromtu,” is how SLAM Theatre’s Facebook page describes it. To be honest, rowdy might be
a bit of a stretch. But it’s spontaneous and it’s got heart. It sometimes feels like writing as sport. And it’s
a great opportunity for writers to see their work literally come alive.
You can go if you’re a writer or an actor, or if you simply want to watch (though they may try to press you
into service as a judge.)
The concept is almost irresistible. You throw in a script, actors’ names are pulled out of a hat (actually it’s a plastic
beach pail) and you get 30 seconds to explain your scene before the performers act out two minutes of it right there.
No rehearsing, no preparation. You set it up and they go.
That’s the first round. With a little luck and skill, your play can advance to the second round of the night, and even
to the finals at the end of the month. In those rounds, you get to present longer segments of your play, and you get
to choose the actors you want in it, or even bring your own.
But it’s that first round that makes SLAM unique.
Many of the actors jump into varied rolls with a wealth of talent, verve and creativity. A woman who just played an
unfaithful wife could now become a 12-year-old girl, then a sinister mayor. A man could play a sheriff, a hit man or,
in one case, a sunflower. One actor once played a small girl, the girl’s mother, a kidnap suspect and a cop all in the
same piece.
In one scene, a man wakes up each morning with amnesia only to be reminded that the woman who says she’s his
wife was actually someone he raped in college 11 years earlier. In another, a couple contends with a solar system
growing in their none-too-spacious apartment. In a third, a 20-something Manhattanite with a fatal disease requests
that his friends have him stuffed when he dies.
SLAM is a great opportunity not just for budding playwrights, but also for writers of fiction, like me. When I first
tried it about two years ago I did not write plays. I took a scene from a short story I’d written, stretched out the
dialogue, transformed it to play format and brought it to SLAM for a test run. It received a rather modest score, as
have many of the scenes I’ve brought since, but it gave me a chance to see characters who existed solely in my
head suddenly moving and speaking before me, in the flesh.
Often, the scene on stage comes out differently from what the writer imagined.
“Seeing how someone else interprets it can give you a whole new perspective,” said Marley Magaziner, one of the
main producers of SLAM.
Before you bring a script, it pays to think through your strategy.
“There’s sort of an art to picking the section or perhaps even editing a section of the play that will perform well,”
said Daniel McCoy, who wrote November’s winning piece, a spoof on film noir called “Wicked City.”
The scenes McCoy staged were among the funniest I’ve seen in a while anywhere, not just at SLAM. He said he
doesn’t write anything specifically for SLAM, but thinks about what he wants to present in the first round versus
what he’ll show in later rounds.
“Say you’ve got a really volatile and exciting couple of pages,” he said. “It’s going to snap people to attention. It’s
got something in there. That’s your two-minute section.”
For the second round, and the finals, if you make it, you can stage scenes that build a little more, or add more depth.
The plays are scored by three judges picked from the audience. During the first round, they give only a numerical
score from 1 to 10. In the second round their asked to comment on each piece. Other audience members then add
their thoughts.
The rules say the judges should assess the play based on the writing without regard to how well or not so well the
actors take to the roles. But it’s pretty obvious that when an actor really sells the lines, it pushes the score higher.
And that’s where the element of chance comes in. A writer once brought a scene in which Pres. George W. Bush is
visited by Jesus, who has a bone to pick about the way Bush is presenting His views. The scene won for the night,
as I remember, but it was clearly helped by the lucky coincidence that one of the two actors chosen in the first
round could do a killer, hilarious Bush impersonation.
From each of the first three nights in a cycle, one winner is chosen to come back for the finals. On the fourth night,
a fourth “wildcard” finalist is chosen in a flash round that is run like the first round of any other night – actors’
names from the pail, two minutes staged. Then comes the final round, in which each writer gets 15 minutes. He or
she can take up to 5 minutes to explain the scene and set it up.
The highest scorer in that round is the ultimate winner for the month. The prize is a night free in the theater to do
what you want – stage the show that just won, invite your friends to a sing-along, whatever. If you decide to hold a
performance, you have the Tank’s marketing power at your side. Some people do more than others to promote their
work, Magaziner said.
“Sometimes it’s intimate night in front of the writer’s friends,” she said. “Other times, it’s a packed house.”
To be honest, not all the play scenes presented in SLAM are good. I don’t mind saying that because mine have been
among the low-scorers more than once. But no matter what happens, the interaction and the element of never
knowing what to expect makes it much more entertaining than sitting home watching Desperate Housewives.
What’s more, when you watch TV, you don’t get to go out drinking with the actors and other writers afterward.
The SLAM crew goes to a bar called Rudy’s a block away after finishing for the night. Everyone is invited. Free
pizza and hot dogs with the drinks. And more free advice on your writing if you want it.
Or you can just drink and enjoy the company.


SIDEBAR.

To learn more about SLAM Theatre, visit http://www.thetanknyc.org. Scroll down to find SLAM information on the
right side of the screen.
Or find SLAM Theatre’s page on Facebook.
Meanwhile, if you’re thinking of bringing a play to SLAM (and please do if you have one), here are some tips on
how to make it work:
1 On any of the first three nights in the cycle, you’ll need at five minutes’ worth of a play scene in case you make it
to the second round. Figure 7 or 8 pages in play format. The second time around, you can present the same scene
you showed in the first round, but let it continue for more time, or you can stage a different scene from the same
play. If you’re coming on finals night, you’ll need 15 minutes’ worth. Say 18 to 20 pages.
2 Bring at least one copy of the script for each actor. If you want someone to read stage directions aloud to the
audience, bring another copy. You can read stage directions yourself or ask for another actor to be chosen for the
task.
3 It’s a good idea to highlight the lines for one character in each script with a yellow highlighter.
4 Make it count. Remember, in the first round, the audience sees just two minutes. This is not the time to showcase
a scene that gradually builds to an emotional crescendo. Get to the action.
5 Also remember that the actors won’t have time to learn the part, especially in the first round. You won’t be able to
give them long explanations of the characters’ backgrounds and their relationship to each other. Think in advance
about what you want to say.
6 Don’t be intimidated. True, the comments from judges and others sometimes come with precious little sugar
coating. But they’re never mean, and they’re meant to help. In the end, everyone is there for the fun of it.

Welcome... | The Tank
www.thetanknyc.org
The Tank is pleased to announce that we have moved to the 45th Street Theatre in Hell's Kitchen. Please
join us at 354 W. 45th Street between 8th and 9th.
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