FOR THE PAST eight years, we've had an extraordinarily active drama program in our ward and stake. Adults, teenagers and children have worked hard to put on at least one major play a year, and sometimes we've had three or four.

I've treated the productions I directed as a kind of acting school for the young people who were involved, partly because the schools haven't offered serious training in acting, and partly because educational theatre around here seems bent on being "edgy," which means that teenagers sometimes play parts in plays I wouldn't feel good about letting them watch.

In fact, one of our struggles is finding shows that are good enough to be worth producing, and also appropriate to put on in the meetinghouse. Let's just say that A Lion in Winter, Company, and A Chorus Line will remain forever outside of our repertoire. Don't even think about Rent or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

We've done productions of The Fantasticks, The Importance of Being Earnest, 110 in the Shade, Bye Bye Birdie, Fiddler on the Roof, Brigadoon, Once Upon a Mattress, Romeo and Juliet, and a smattering of original plays and one-acts.

For the adults who take part, the plays have offered an outlet for talents that simply can't be used alone. If you paint or write poetry or play an instrument, you can practice by yourself in whatever spare time you have.

But to put on a play, you have to rehearse with other people, which requires that you all have the same hours free, day after day. Many adults have been able to flex their schedules and make the play practices fit.

Some, though, have come to me at various times and said, "I really wanted to be in that show, but my calling/job/children made it impossible." And there are teenagers with a real talent for drama who have jobs or so much homework that they just can't take part.

Even the twelve-minute roadshows, when we have them — every second year, usually — require too many practices for these people.

Sometimes you have to ruefully admit that you can't do everything, and watch other people take advantage of opportunities that you yearn for.

As stake cultural arts director, I felt like there had to be something we could do.

What we came up with was Sudden Theatre.

Everyone who wanted to take part assembled on Thursday night. They were divided into teams, story elements were randomly assigned, and then the

designated playwright for each team went home and wrote an eight-minute script that had a good part for every person on the team.

On Friday night, the teams assembled, got their scripts and had their first rehearsal. Overnight they memorized, then rehearsed again on Saturday during the day. Finally, at 7 p.m. on Saturday night, all the shows were put on for an audience.

Forty-eight hours. If you weren't the script writer, you only had to come on Thursday and Friday night, and then practice all day Saturday.

And here's the best part — I wasn't even in charge of it. My wife and I met with Andy and Debbie Lindsay, the delegatees, several weeks before the event, and together we brainstormed our way through the story elements.

We came up with long lists of famous people (living and dead, real and fictional), objectives (save the whales; destroy the ring), settings (high school gym class, central park, a garage, the moon) and other story elements.

Once we had the lists, my job was over. Andy and Debbie turned the Thursday night meeting into a virtual game show. He began by dividing up the teams (some people chose which team to join; some were assigned).

We ended up with four teams, all of which had people from at least two different wards, so that it was definitely not a competition between wards.

Each team's first assignment was to come up with three possible names for their team — and then the other teams voted to decide which of the three you were stuck with.

Team members came up and drew or spun or otherwise randomly chose characters, settings, goals and complications which the script writer was obliged to use.

Then Andy's job was done, apart from scheduling and emceeing — it was all up to the teams.

On the night of the performances, Andy had a PowerPoint presentation up on a screen beside the stage, so the whole audience could see all the story elements that each team was required to use. So they were in on the game — and roared with laughter at the clever ways the scripts incorporated the elements.

In addition, the scoreboard clock in the cultural hall (i.e., gym) was set to count down the 10-minute maximum and buzz loudly when the time was up.

To our relief all four plays were very entertaining. In fact, they would have been above average roadshows — despite the fact that roadshows usually rehearse for weeks!

Because the scriptwriters had all the story elements handed to them, they had spent their time putting it all together like a puzzle instead of having to invent a story out of whole cloth.

And because the audience was in on the game, they especially enjoyed the times when the writers were really straining to work in an element. What would have been a flaw under ordinary circumstances became part of the fun.

Was it great art? Of course not. But it was theater, the audience loved it, and it was all over in two days. Our plan now is to do Sudden Theatre in the years when we don't do roadshows. Our hope is that even more teams will take part — and even more people who normally can't take part in drama will find a way to join in for a single weekend.

For the web version of this column, I'm including a complete list of all the story elements we came up with. Feel free to use any of them in your own Sudden Theatre weekend — or use them as a springboard for your own brainstorming session.

TIME: Elizabethan England, Mars, Napoleonic France, Industrial Revolution England, Dark Ages, Fairyland, Stone Age, Ancient Egypt, the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, Great Depression, Revolutionary War, Ancient Rome, Scotland, Oz, Old American West, American frontier/pioneer times, Gold Rush, Renaissance, Titanic.

SETTINGS: Pet shop/veterinary hospital, bakery/bake sale, dentist office, checkout counter, post office, street corner of big city, farm, ship, blimp, rocket ship, airplane, submarine, train, bus, barbershop/beauty salon, restaurant, garage/car mechanic, high school baseball game, golf tournament/putt-putt, little league, dance class, university dorm, university class, bookstore/library, video store, mall, arcade, dungeon, castle, haunted house, drive-in movie, movie theater, skating rink, gym/gym class, circus, zoo, parade, math class, chess tournament or other games, debate with candidates, baby-sitting, rodeo, archaeological dig, convention or trade show, car lot, airport/depot/station, Laser Tag, phone booth, during dinner, Christmas morning, bowling alley, Halloween, Art gallery, pizza place or delivery, Buckingham Palace, museum, radio/TV station, movie set, crime scene, aquarium, graduation, car wash, yard sale, lemonade stand, Noah's ark, hotel lobby, Times Square, police station, a house on fire, office, deserted island, camp/Scout camp/girls camp, mountain climbing expedition/caving, fishing, rafting, Disney World/amusement park, courtroom, choir practice, Christmas pageant.

CHARACTERS: Dog washer - mobile, ballroom dancer, ventriloquist, puppet, soda jerk, archaeologist, paleontologist, pig farmer, tyrannosaurus rex, potato peeler, dentist/hygienist, veterinarian, dishwasher, chef, housekeeper, window washer, BASE jumper/Bungee jumper, professional video-game player, reporter, underwater photographer, janitor, manicurist/pedicurist, department-store clerk, international spy, butcher, president, waitress, orangutan, dog trainer/lion tamer, insane-asylum escapee, safari guide, plumber, garbage collector/sanitation worker/sewage-plant worker, letter carrier/UPS, actor/actress, musician/rock musician/singer, snail, valley girl, beekeeper, chiropractor, aerobic instruction/personal trainer, school teacher, auctioneer, typist/secretary, lawyer / judge, fiction writer/poet, artist, random old guy, baby sitter, cafeteria worker, mechanic, milkman, butler, lady in waiting, bride/groom/bridesmaid, kindergartner, hotel concierge, munchkin, elf/fairy/leprechaun, unicorn, party planner, fisherman, hunter, shrimp-boat captain, athlete, junkyard dog/poodle, bank teller, actuary/CPA, mathematician, philosopher, prison guard, professor, weatherman, ghost/poltergeist, motorcycle gang member, florist, Ewok, blonde.

PROPS: spatula, pancake turner, silverware, hat, scarf, sunglasses, place mat, baseball gear, hair brush, tire, newspaper, flowers, cup/drinking glass, handkerchief, baby rattle, milk jug, wooden spoon, book, boom box, phone, walkie-talkie, wallet/purse/money, mustache, paper airplane, kite, ball, towel, umbrella, clock, cereal box, avocado, watermelon, pillow, blanket, backpack/fanny pack, punch bowl, stuffed animal, keys, pitcher, tissues, hamburger, crown, trash can, magic wand, broom, Dust Buster, Tabasco sauce, condiments (ketchup, mustard, etc.), bananas, canned food/Spam, guitar, fan, DVD, calendar, stopwatch, Slinky, Hula hoop, jump rope, tape recorder, sweatshirt, basket, salt shaker, tennis shoe, Ipod/mp3 device, glove/mitten, bubble blower, bread.

ATTRIBUTE: depressed, angry, frustrated, clumsy, tired, enthusiastic, zealous, on way to dentist, stressed, curious, hungry, irritable, jealous, picky, loud, whiny, nagging, repulsive, in love, giggly, paranoid, ticklish, brooding, sloppy, terse, illiterate, gabby, lying, lethargic, bouncy, sick, artsy, intellectual, goofy, vain, confident, bored, boring, easily distracted, likes shiny things, no short-term memory, self-centered, agoraphobic, claustrophobic, reclusive, friendly, cries all the time, nauseated, kleptomaniac, cold, sweaty, likes to cook, likes to eat, trustworthy, untrustworthy.

EXTRA STORY ELEMENTS: on way to store, in love with someone, in a rainstorm, tied to railroad track, with toothache, during Sunday dinner, has nose bleed, in-grown toenail, on way to school, last day of school, finds something in street, bad-hair day, while dancing, falsely accused, something stuck on tooth, sunburned, didn't get enough sleep, is really, really sorry, didn't hear it right the first time.

WEATHER SPINNER: windy, snow, sunny, rain, tornado, nighttime, oppressively hot, drought.

STYLE SPINNER: tragedy/drama, musical, slapstick, romantic comedy, action adventure, sci-fi, mystery, horror/fantasy.

GOALS: get married, get rich, rule the world, save the hungry, world peace, get an A/pass a class, invent something, quest/find treasure, revenge, escape, win something, find a friend, avoid commitment, get well, visit grandma, get rid of something, grow up/never grow up, get food, find true love, learn to fly, get job or promotion, get back home, destroy the ring, tell the king, bake the bread, save the cheerleader, save the rain forest, save the whales, pay the mortgage, walk the dog, hack a computer, do the laundry, get three wishes, discover America, defuse a bomb, become a star, become president, go to the moon, dinner and a movie.

FAMOUS PEOPLE: Abe Lincoln, Cleopatra, George Washington, Marie Antoinette, Pikachu, Teddy Roosevelt, Amelia Earhardt, Queen Elizabeth, Walt Disney, Moses, Noah, Mickey Mouse, Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Carrie Underwood, Eleanor Roosevelt, Superman/Supergirl, Batman, Spiderman, Tom Sawyer, the Hulk, Daniel Boone, Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria, Jane Austin, Anne Boleyn, Drew Carey, Pocahontas, Katherine Hepburn, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Nation, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rasputin, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Napoleon, Elvis, any of the Beatles, Cher, Marie Osmond, Golda Meir, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Dorothy of Oz, Wicked Witch of the West, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow (It girl of silent movies), James Bond, Mata Hari, Cyrano de Bergerac, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sabrina the Teenage Witch.


Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. "In the Village" appears Thursdays in the Deseret News. A longer version of this column is available in the Mormon Times section of deseretnews.com.