Director Jenna Worsham and Playwright Catya McMullen
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jenna Worsham: Hi there. I'm Jenna Worsham. I'm a stage director and an activist, and the co-creator of the Homebound Project.
Catya McMullen: I am Catya McMullen. I am a playwright, and I also write film and television, and I am the co-creator of the Homebound Project.
Jenna Worsham: Well, the Homebound Project, it's a new independent theater initiative that Catya and I started. We're bringing together established and emerging American playwrights to write for some wonderful actors in an effort to create new theater that is raising money for kids around the country who are suffering from hunger who are also being deeply affected by school closures and COVID-19. So we partnered with the incredible No Kid Hungry, and all proceeds for all tickets go to No Kid Hungry.
Jo Reed: You just heard Jenna Worsham who along with playwright Catya McMullen created the Homebound Project, and this is "Art Works," the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. We know this is a bad time for theater with performances shut down and people on both sides of the curtain out of work, but for Jenna Worsham and Catya McMullen there was also a sense of not being able to contribute what they do best to help during the pandemic. So they put their heads together and created the Homebound Project where playwrights write a short, essentially one-person theatrical piece for an actor to perform on camera. And as you heard, all proceeds go to No Kid Hungry, and Catya and Jenna have gathered some extraordinary talent. Homebound playwrights like C.A. Johnson, Michael R. Jackson, Migdalia Cruz, and Sarah Ruhl have all contributed work while sheltering actors like Daveed Diggs, Diane Lane, Blair Underwood, Phillipa Soo, and Cherry Jones have all performed. And believe me, I'm just skimming the surface of the talent involved because the Homebound Project is currently presenting its fourth series online. It runs from July 15th through the 19th with the fifth and final edition to stream August 5th through the 9th. So this amounts to over 50 new plays written and performed in the past few months with everyone donating their services to feed hungry children. I spoke to Jenna Worsham and Catya McMullen at the end of May, and I'll let them fill you in on how this wonderful project came to be. We'll begin with Jenna with some nuts and bolts describing the format of each Homebound Project edition.
Jenna Worsham: So essentially, it's 10 to 11 writers write two- to five-minute pieces for 10 to 11 actors for each series. So each performance, so to speak, runs about 70 to 80 minutes. We include an intermission, and there's usually a special guest. Three editions have already streamed. The first edition, which had a theme which was "Home," was May 6th through the 10th. The second edition, the theme or prompt for the writers that time was "Sustenance." And then the theme for the third series is "Champions."
Jo Reed: And you've set the bar fairly low for an audience member to have access. It's a minimum donation of $10.
Jenna Worsham: Mm-hmm.
Jo Reed: People are certainly encouraged to give more because as you said, all the money goes to No Kid Hungry. But $10 gives you access. Catya, go ahead.
Catya McMullen: One of the things-- so many of our friends are out of work right now, and we wanted this to be an accessible experience, and also by giving $10, that actually makes a huge difference in this fight. And we really wanted it to be an accessible experience, and we also hoped that the project would inspire those who were comfortable and able to give more, and we've found that they have, actually. And so we trusted in the generosity. We had a blind trust in the generosity of our audiences, and we've really found that that's really come to life. And also, we wanted this to be as open and accessible as possible.
Jo Reed: Jenna.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah, and that's the exciting thing, I think, about where theater is right now is that it is a bit of an equalizer. When things are put online in this way, it becomes more accessible. It's not your typical off-Broadway or Broadway crowd, which I think is very exciting about what we're doing and what other theaters are doing and making available. It would defeat the spirit of what we are. This is not about the exclusivity and elitism that theater can be. It's about the most important thing about theater, which is the sharing of stories and the breeding of empathy and the spreading of hope. People need theater right now, and we want to make sure they all get it.
Jo Reed: How did this take shape, Catya? How did it move from a great idea to a full-fledged project?
Catya McMullen: The answer is it was quick, fast, and furious.
Catya McMullen: We got [ph?] started with a conversation with Jenna on her porch and me in my backyard where we both felt completely useless, and we both sort of realized that we are just two artists sitting at home, and that our jobs were to stay at home. And so creatively, the model that we're using artistically came loosely from a variety show series that I used to do in New York, and then really it was we picked an organization and made a couple phone calls. And suddenly our creative producer Mary Solomon-- who's a film producer who I work with-- had us on a Zoom with Billy Shore, the executive director of No Kid Hungry. And really, then, also creatively it was-- we made a few phone calls and all of the artists involved, almost everybody has said yes. It's obviously been a really huge undertaking, but simultaneously people have been so excited and moved to just a) be creative, and b) to be creative towards such an incredible cause that a lot of it has just been we called a couple friends, and suddenly we are where we are.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah. It really did. I'll tap onto that a little bit. It snowballed. Like Catya was saying, I was sitting on my porch laughing. We were laughing at ourselves because I think there's nothing like a crisis and a pandemic to help artists realize how very self-centered what we do is-- and not necessarily in a bad way. I think that introspection is really important for artmaking and theater as well, and in fact, it's what enables an audience when they come to a show to then be introspective as well. It's not a bad thing. But I told Catya on the phone, I said, "I've realized I'm not a fireman or a surgeon or an essential worker. I'm just someone who makes stories about those people, and so in a time of actual crisis I feel pretty useless." So we laughed about that, and then literally we just thought, "Well, is there a way to do what we do best? Is there a way to make stories right now that can also help people on the frontline, people who are essential, who are making a difference? Can we do what we do best and tell great stories with really talented people?" because we are in a community that is very small-- the theater community, especially, everybody knows one another. And while Catya and I think we'd definitely be categorized as more younger, emerging artists, we happen to have access because of collaborations and relationships to some really incredible, great voices of the American theater and also to incredible actors in the American theater, and you never really know until you ask. So like she said, once No Kid Hungry really showed a lot of enthusiasm for the idea, we just started sending emails not really knowing what to expect. And the really moving thing was one by one we realized, "Oh. This is something that-- it's not just us who are feeling this way. A lot of artists are really wanting to help right now and make a difference in a way that they feel like they can."
Catya McMullen: Everybody involved is just-- whether you're an audience member, whether you're an actor, whether we have volunteer designers, everybody is a small part of a greater whole making a difference, and it has really united both us creatively. And simultaneously, audiences literally around the world were sinking into the same kind of conversations. And also, one of the things that we've seen as these editions have emerged is that each edition the playwrights really do speak to what's happening emotionally and spiritually in the country in that where we are now versus where we were two weeks ago, it's totally different. And what we're finding is that there's an emerging conversation and an artistic time capsule, really. And that has also helped bring people together, which is in a time where we're all supposed to be physically separate for safety-- one of the Homebound Playwright who also Jenna happens to be married to--
Jo Reed: Which is the playwright Lucy Thurber.
Catya McMullen: -- always likes to say that after food and shelter, we need stories so we know we're not alone. That's been part of our mission is to commission writers who tell the truth and commission writers and actors who are the voices that we long to hear from right now. These are the playwrights, and these are the actors who I'd look to in times of personal crisis throughout my life but also now, in the middle of this global pandemic. So many of these writers are the writers who I've turned to, and so it's been this incredibly moving experience.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah. It's deeply motivating, and I think-- we dreamed of the project having, like Catya said, a multi-layered agenda of sustenance. First and foremost, it's helping feed kids around the country who now more than ever are not getting what they need, especially while schools are closed, but also providing sustenance to artists who-- what we do is all about the act of gathering, and to be denied that is to be gutted artistically. So imagining this new virtual and cerebral place where we can still gather, where an actor can still collaborate with a writer, etc., and a costume designer can still collaborate with an actor, etc., and then lastly that final ingredient of theater also hopefully providing some sustenance to a hungry audience who is looking for these kinds of stories and is looking to find something that reflects the state of the nation emotionally and otherwise, as Catya said.
Jo Reed: Yeah. These stories are immediate.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah. Exactly.
Jo Reed: How did you pair the playwrights and the actors? What was that process like?
Catya McMullen: A lot of spreadsheets.
Jenna Worsham: <laughs>
Catya McMullen: We've actually put a lot of thought and care into our playwright and actor pairings. We really tried to match actors and writers whose voices we found to be really compatible, who we thought it was a really interesting combination. Some were really natural; some writers and playwrights came together as a packaged deal. It's really varied, but what we have done is a lot of "Who would be the best amplification of your voice?" Or I think one of the things that I find is writing for an actor specifically-- because these are custom tailored to these actors, what I do as a writer is I'm writing them a gift. It is a thing that is special that is for them.
Jenna Worsham: It's collaborative. It's deeply collaborative, and that's something that's so important about theater in general.
Catya McMullen: I got to write for Amanda Seyfried, who I'm such a huge fan of, but it was like, "What is it that I don't usually get to see her do? Where do I think that she's special?" And in that there was a really interesting collaboration that happened that was just really fun, but the pairings have come in all sort of shapes and sizes. Michael R. Jackson, who just won the Pulitzer, wrote a beautiful monologue for Diane Lane.
Jenna Worsham: Well, and it was just beautiful for us to imagine his voice and her voice coming together in that way, and I think as curators of the whole thing we've actually had a lot of fun. I won't lie; it's a lot of work. But I think artistically, Catya and I have just been really honored and thrilled to be making these pairings and deciding on the lineup and producorial things that go into running an organization, which is very new for us <laughs>.
Jo Reed: Well Jenna, you directed a few of these. Tell me the process of directing virtually.
Jenna Worsham: Oh. Listen. It's different. But another thing that's wonderful about the Homebound Project is that it's a little more one on one. So I've done a few workshops since I had a show off Broadway that got shut down in March, like so many other artists in the city, so was out of work and was starting to get these offers of "Do you want to do this virtual workshop?" etc., and was very grateful for the work and was also I think really-- like a lot of directors-- kind of disheartened by the great chasm that is Zoom <laughs> and how different it is. It was hard. But this, I think because the intentions behind it are obviously about feeding kids and about creating something in an empty space, that there was no formula for what it had to be-- we just knew that we wanted the bones of this to feel like theater, to feel alive, to feel like recorded theater as opposed to film, something that was meant to be live. And going with that impulse and allowing theater artists to run with it, it's taken so many unique forms. I feel like a lot of the different writers I've worked with and actors I've worked with, we've all sort of imagined it differently. I think it's the uniqueness of each piece that somehow makes it all work, that we're not trying to be one cohesive thing, that it's really a collection of very different voices talking about the same thing, talking about home or sustenance, etc., and how does all of their unique theatrical brains interpret that phrase has been part of what's I think really exciting about it. But I've really enjoyed it. I think it's been wonderful just to get to work, to get to dig into a text. I always find myself that our rehearsals go longer than we planned because the writers and the actors and I are just so hungry for it and are having a great time just making theater in the only way I think that we can right now.
Catya McMullen: It's been a beautiful thing to watch-- not directing, thank God.
Catya McMullen: It's theater, but simultaneously we're not making films, and it's this in-between place. Some people say it really, really feels like theater, and I feel like we are sort of making theater. But simultaneously, it's also not. It's this very specific and unique form where it's written to be theater. And what I've watched [ph?] Jenna capture so beautifully is the intimacy that comes with live theater is a thing that is deeply captured. These pieces are written to be done in one take for the most part, they're written to be done to capture what is most inspiring and we find connection-based about theater, and-- I've seen our directors really do this beautifully-- is trying to capture the spirit of what theater is. Ultimately, theater is the most adaptable form. What I've really seen the artists do in really exciting ways is expand the places a play can go. It's actually the limitations a lot of the time actually inspire the most expansive creativity. It's been really exciting.
Jo Reed: Theater has been through plagues in the past and has reemerged, but I think it's clear, as the country thinks about reopening, that the performing arts are exceptionally vulnerable for a number of reasons. Social distancing and theaters is economically unfeasible, and theaters tend to operate on very tight budgets with very, very little wiggle room. I'm wondering how you two are seeing this. Jenna?
Jenna Worsham: Yeah. To be honest with you, it's really scary. I think what's helpful is theater people are nothing if not innovative. Literally, what we do is we take an empty space, and we imagine something in it that was not there before, so this is in our wheelhouse. I think I said this earlier, but what's gutting about it is that the locus of our universe is the act of gathering. It's that act. It's an action. And when you take that way, I do think we're having a bit of an identity crisis because we don't quite know who we are and what we are. But theaters are figuring it out. From where we started when this was just an idea to now, the amount of content that's coming out of all these wonderful theaters off Broadway and around the country-- regional theaters-- are a) providing work for artists, and b) making it available to audiences in ways that are I think really exceptional, particularly to audiences that they may not have gotten had it been in a literal space, had a performance just been their normal way. Like I said, it's an equalizer, and I think in exciting ways. Does that mean that it's the same? No. I think I'm longing to be in a room with people. I think that the part of the power of theater is the transference of empathy that must be in person, so obviously I'm hoping we recover and come back. It's just, for me, it's a question of what we do in the meantime, and for us I think that's ended up being this. And I think what artists need right now is to find ways to feel like they can continue to tell stories and continue their vocation and make a living, and that's just going to require a lot of imagination, I think.
Jo Reed: I often wonder how people are supporting themselves because it's hard enough to earn a living in the theater in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. And not only are theaters closed, but restaurants are closed, and that's typically job number two.
Jenna Worsham: <laughs> Yeah. So true. I was a waitress for many years before I started getting regular work, yeah, as a director. Mm-hmm. A lot of us are applying for these artists grants. It's difficult, but I think that Actors' Equity, SDC [ph?], etc., are stepping up and trying to help membership in a way that's essential and wonderful.
Catya McMullen: And I also think if there's anything a theater artist is used to doing, it's not knowing how they're going to make a living. It's really-- sometimes it feels like a career, and sometimes it's a beautiful, full-time calling that I have devoted my life to and I pay to be a part of, basically. But I think that we're in a place where everybody across so many different fields are struggling, and it's just theater artists are one industry [ph?] that's deeply struggling. And honestly, we're used to it. So on one hand, there is a slight advantage, but is it terrifying? Absolutely. But I also think everybody's scared right now.
Jenna Worsham: But perhaps terrifying in a way, too-- thinking strictly of theater-- is that it is, again, the act of gathering. So I do feel there is an ominous nature to "When will it be back, how long will it take for us to feel safe in a theater again?" A Broadway house with over 500 seats-- are you kidding me? That part is pretty daunting. I, for one, have had I think four productions now that have been officially postponed or canceled.
Jo Reed: Gosh. That's a lot. I'm sorry.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah.
Jo Reed: In the Homebound Project, you're marrying civic engagement with your creativity and with your skills, and I wonder if the project is also having you rethink working virtually until things open up again. Are you reexamining that way of working? Catya, let's start with you.
Catya McMullen: It's definitely opened my eyes about some of the other theater development that I want to do in the coming year. Again, I think as theater artists, we're deeply, deeply adaptable, and so I'm excited to see what innovation comes next. I feel like we're in a really interesting and exciting phase. But really, I think what I've seen most and what's given me the most hope is how much the artists that I know and love just want to find a way to be creative and connect, and I feel like that spirit is what drives what we do. And so yeah, it's definitely made me think about how I can adapt as a playwright in this time and how I can use the resources to work on things that I wouldn't necessarily have worked on. A lot of these limitations can be freeing, like anything else in theater.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah. I've always been very just sort of strictly theater in my young career, and Catya's always said to me, "I think you would really enjoy film and television," and I was like, "Sure. If I ever want to make money, I will definitely look into that," and I have been forced to, in some ways. I've been forced to really understand this medium in a way I never have had to before, and it's been really educational, and it's a new skillset, too. Some of the writers we're working with don't write for film and television, too. So it's different for them as well to see their work captured in this way, in a way that's not strictly archival, like it's not something that's just going to be in the Lincoln Center Library. This is streaming for four days around the world. That's exciting because that's about access. I think Catya and I both identify as arts activists, and there's usually some level of access and representation that layers into our work in general. And I think what's exciting is that this is a time where those things are even more important-- so why not learn? Why not redefine your limitations as an artist and what defines what theater is.
Jo Reed: What surprised you by doing this? Was there a surprise from this project you just didn't see coming? Catya?
Catya McMullen: Jo, we've raised a lot more money than we thought we were going to, and now we have bigger goals and are able to make an impact with partnering with No Kid Hungry that we just could not have imagined when we were laughing on our couch and porch, respectively. I think the biggest shock for me has been the overwhelming generosity of these artists, some of whom are my great heroes and the response nationally and globally to the project has just been so deeply moving and has made me feel so connected.
Jenna Worsham: Yeah. I think there's a lesson in it of just because you feel like something's taken from you doesn't mean that you don't get to find a way to have it back. Somebody took my theater away, literally-- the play I was directing, it's gone. It's shut down. I had no choice. None of us did. I lost a job. The play never opened. It was years of work that just went into something that just halted in the face of this crisis. Just because that was taken from me doesn't mean it didn't matter, and if that's the case, then why can't we make something that matters now? It's clear to us from the people who are saying yes that even though the schools are empty, the theaters are empty-- it sounds corny, but our hearts are not, and our imaginations are not. So let's redefine the playing space. Let's redefine the act of gathering, and let's do so, I think, for a higher purpose that's fundamental to what theater's about, which is helping humanity, I think.
Jo Reed: You just heard director Jenna Worsham and playwright Catya McMullen, co-creators of the Homebound Project. The fourth edition of the Homebound Project is streaming online. It began at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 15th, and will last until 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 19th. View-at-home tickets are on sale at homeboundtheater.org, and that's "theater" with an E-R. And there are complimentary viewings for first responders and essential workers. You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to "Art Works," and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.
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What do a playwright and a director do when the theaters are closed, a pandemic is raging, and they want to be useful? Well, if they’re playwright Catya McMullen and director Jenna Worsham, they bring playwrights, actors, and directors together virtually to create The Homebound Project, an online series of short original plays that each actor performs on-camera in isolation. The Homebound Project has been a success in every sense of the word. McMullen and Worsham have gathered some extraordinary talent—playwrights like C.A. Johnson, Michael R. Jackson, Migdalia Cruz and Sarah Ruhl have contributed new work and actors including Daveed Diggs, Diane Lane, Blair Underwood, Phillipa Soo, and Cherry Jones have brought that work to life online. The Homebound Project is currently presenting its fourth digital series (July 15-19) with its fifth and final edition scheduled to stream August 5–9. That amounts to more than 50 new plays written, directed, and performed in the past few months with everyone donating their services to support a great cause. (More on that in the podcast.) Join us as McMullen and Worsham talk about creating The Homebound Project, finding and matching actors with playwrights, directing theater virtually, how the pandemic has affected the theater sector, and the promise the art of theater holds in times like this when story-telling is essential.