Homecoming Voices series brings PAD alums back to WU through four one-act plays

| Managing Editor

Writing plays to be performed during a pandemic is a difficult task; restrictions are uncertain and may be subject to change. But despite the circumstances, the four Homecoming Voices playwrights primarily expressed excitement.

After more than a decade away from the college, Washington University playwriting alumni return virtually with specially commissioned one-act plays, which will go live on the Performing Arts Department website on April 9. 

They have had to adapt—meaning Zoom rehearsals, limited cast members and strict distancing requirements. But ultimately, those restrictions spurred creativity. “It was almost fun to imagine something that was flexible. I had to think about and ended up writing about people who were really physically limited because of the restrictions there, and that just added some great boundaries to the writing,” said playwright Liza Birkenmeier, a graduate of the class of 2008.

“I sometimes think if you put parameters on things it makes it more interesting,” agreed playwright Chauncey Thomas, a graduate of the class of 2006. “It’s like I have 8000 ideas and 7000 of them aren’t going to work, so this limits what I need to put my attention on.”

Though Thomas does write plays, he described himself as primarily an actor. “Carter [Lewis, Wash. U. playwright in residence] fondly referred to me as ‘the playwright who got away,’” he laughed.

Thomas’s play, “The Nicest White People That America Has Ever Produced,” isn’t something he describes as complete. That’s for two reasons: One, there are still changes to be made, which he has been implementing during Zoom rehearsals, at one point even completely changing the ending to the play. And two, this isn’t the whole play.

“I actually don’t have one-act ideas. I’ve never had a one-act idea in my life,” Thomas said. “And so this scene, for me it’s actually part of a longer play.”

That longer play was sparked by the events of the past year, especially the interactions he had with white friends in the wake of George Floyd’s killing last May. Those interactions along with a series of social media posts eventually turned into the play, which he describes as being about “the dynamic that I feel like I see between Black people and progressive white liberals.” He continued, “…I wrote a play about friendship, but racism is the set piece.” 

Though he said he feels he has the ability to explain racial issues without, in his words, “triggering white fragility,” he emphasizes that “this play is not my TED Talk. My TED Talk would be peaceful. This is a play—it’s gotta be conflict. It’s not going to be a lesson in what to do. But I kind of hope that there’s more cohesion than friction.”

Playwright Nastaran Ahmadi, of the class of 2000, also utilized conflict through words rather than actions. Her play, “Amateurs,” is the story of a reconciling brother and sister.

“I took that real life experience of mine—of having a sister that I have that kind of relationship with—and I put it into an extreme circumstance where they’re raised by a single parent, so they have learned and grown to rely on each other all the more, and then bumped it up a notch.” The siblings in her play have a single parent, and the sister feels abandoned after the brother left her to care for their ailing parent. 

“The way I incorporated the recognition that we would have to abide by COVID-19 guidelines was to say ‘Two people—what scenario can I come up with where they will want to maintain a distance from each other?’” Ahmadi explained. The product of that line of thinking is what ultimately became “Amateurs.” 

That wasn’t her first idea, though. Ahmadi briefly discussed a comedy she had considered, in which a rolling PlexiGlass screen was both a running gag and a safety precaution. That idea was scrapped in favor of something that required fewer props. 

Even though the current play is a drama, it doesn’t mean it won’t be funny. Humor is a part of all of Ahmadi’s works. “I think we essentially, whether we’re in a tragedy or a comedy, live our lives with a sense of humor just to keep ourselves afloat,” she said. “So there is humor in a drama no matter how high the stakes always are or feel, just because that’s how I conceive of the world.”

Over the last two decades, Ahmadi has had a chance to put that humor into a multitude of projects. Currently a screenwriter in Los Angeles, she, like Thomas, was primarily an actor while at Wash. U. That changed after she graduated, when she realized storytelling was her true passion. 

In addition to being a playwright, Marisa Wegrzyn, of the class of 2003, is also a screenwriter. She noted a big difference between the two types of writing—plays, she said, give more time with a character and less time to plot. 

That’s certainly true of her play, “Solastalgia.” Set in pandemic quarantine, “Solastalgia” is about roommates who have lost their jobs and are quarantined amid the backdrop of not only COVID-19 but the California wildfires. “It was a challenge to make it both about what’s really happening right now, but also the situation in the play could happen outside of a pandemic situation as well,” Wegrzyn said. 

She described her play as a series of monologues mostly consisting of characters talking to the (virtual) audience. “I settled on mostly monologues because they didn’t really require any scenery. I didn’t want to require any props; I didn’t want to require the characters to necessarily get close to each other physically.”

That’s similar to Thomas’s approach. “I intentionally wrote something that I thought would be kind of verbally challenging,” Thomas said, since he couldn’t rely on things like props or multiple actors. 

For Wegrzyn, those restrictions meant writing a play with nearly no props or scenery. “It was sort of a moving target figuring out what this would ultimately be,” she said. “And not only what the target was moving, it was sort of invisible. It was like ‘Is this going to work? I don’t know.’”

“It was a really kind of fun challenge,” Birkenmeier said.

Her play, “Fear is a Gift,” also echoes quarantine. In it, two teens who give a haunted bike tour are stuck at home after one is injured. The characters describe what to do on the bikes while also telling the ghost stories to the audience, all within the confining comfort of their home. “It’s a similar remove that we have in life,” she said.

The idea for her play came from one of Birkenmeier’s passions: taking tours. Though she’s often disappointed in them, she said, they are immensely theatrical all the same. 

Generally, “you’re better off just taking a tour instead of writing a play about a tour or taking a fake tour, but for some reason [the pandemic] made it seem like a really available choice, to be like ‘What if?’ What if I put this restriction on a different format?” Birkenmeier said. If everything in life is virtual, why not write a play about a virtual tour?

Birkenmeier was thrilled to write the play for Wash. U. Like Ahmadi, she had a play produced in the A. E. Hotchner Festival as an undergraduate, and credits that experience with spurring her career in playwriting. 

Writing “Fear is a Gift” for Wash. U., she said, felt “really like a homecoming. Deeply, truly, happily like a homecoming.”

More stories about Wash. U. theater during the pandemic:

Black Anthology, first student-run cultural show to return to Edison, navigates pandemic restrictions to produce 32nd show

‘FOCUS’ traps audiences inside their own heads (in a good way)


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