On February 19, 2018 (Presidents Day), the Playwrights’ Center hosted the Twin Cities arm of Paula Vogel’s national Ubu Roi Bake-Off. We put out an open call for plays, and playwrights had 48 hours to write a 5-minute play incorporating the ingredients Paula posted on her site. At the end of the 48 hours, 8 intrepid actors and a large, ice-storm-braving audience gathered at the Playwrights’ Center for 5+ hours of readings. In total, we performed 41 plays by 44 playwrights that night. I convened a few of the participating playwrights a couple days later, to ask about their experience: Tim J. Lord, Stacey R. Rose, Andrew Rosendorf, Alayna Jacqueline, and Julia Brown. Alayna and Julia are also on the Playwrights’ Center staff and handled the logistics of this marathon event.
— Jessica Franken
Jessica Franken: How did you describe this event to your friends?
Tim J. Lord: There are two ways to describe it: You can describe the process of the bake-off, which is one thing—everyone has the same ingredients to work from and then you create a piece out of that. But then describing the event itself... I said lots of different things: “It was five hours of actors acting their asses off,” or, the other description I came up with was, “It felt like a mass exorcism.”
Tim: There are all these demons that I think have been chewing at our souls, and we just all vomited them out onto the stage along with, you know, giant hamburgers and giant piles of poo (thanks, Andrew).
Stacey R. Rose: Yes, Andrew: I’d like to thank you because I don’t want hamburgers anymore.
Andrew Rosendorf: As the evening went on, I thought about the stamina that is required in activism. To create change… it is just not fast. The five-plus hour event was just so exhausting, the emotional swings and moving from comedy to sadness and living with the state of the country and the world. It felt like a reminder: “Oh, the stamina that we just had to have to go through this, to explore these politics or exorcise these demons—that is what is needed for years.
All: (many exhausted sighs)
Stacey: I mean, that’s what people of color have been doing since civil rights. In terms of having to maintain stamina and having to maintain a sense of humor. If Black people haven’t already burned down America, we don’t have a reason to right now. So. There’s that.
All: Yes, yes, right.
Jessica: Tim, you described it as an exorcism. Can anyone talk more about the feel in the room that night?
Alayna Jacqueline: What feels important to me is that we wrote a bunch of plays about today. They were based off an old play, but we were writing plays that speak to audiences today, and it was 50 plays by 50 living playwrights that are writing to an audience made of people experiencing the same thing at the same time. We didn’t just redo Ubu Roi, we took ingredients from it and made this new thing that can live in today as opposed to trying to make today fit into a past.
Tim: Exactly, and that came through in the spirit in the room. Everyone came together in this really fantastic way. Before the event I was looking at the hashtag on Twitter and there was a young woman who was basically like, “Oh my God, I’m going to write this play and Paula Vogel is going to be in the room to hear it.” A young playwright was having possibly her first experience with this lion of the American theater, and then of course Paula responded to her right away, saying, “I’m looking forward to it,” and that was the spirit in the room that was so incredible. Feeling this connection between audience and the stage. The actors were doing everything in their power to create new characters over and over again.
Stacey: Every. Single. Time.
Tim: Every single time.
Stacey: They were amazing. Y’all cast the hell out of that thing. Those folks, I mean, they went.
Tim: I heard them joking afterwards, like, “What a great suggestion that the playwrights should be making up new languages for their plays and that we have to try and interpret those languages with no rehearsal.” And they did it! They just did it time and time again and even when they faltered the audience was there to be like, “We’re with you,” and we just kept going.
Julia Brown: Building off our discussion of what activism looks like, Paula said in her curtain speech that a bake-off isn’t a play, a bake-off is a sketch. A bake-off is ideas. It’s getting something down and getting something out. It can be so difficult to decide on something or to actually take a step in a certain direction. It’s what people complain about with liberalism—that if it’s not pure or perfect, it’s not worth doing. Is this candidate 100% pure on all things that matter to me, or is there compromise? If I’m going to say something, what if I get a little thing wrong and then my whole point is discarded because I got one thing wrong? People can choke on that idea, that “Oh I better not say anything just in case I fuck up.” I get that with writing all the time. It’s like, “Well, if I don't have the perfect thing, it’s not helping anybody.” So just to be like, “No, you have no choice. Do the thing. Throw up. Put it on a plate. Put it on the table. And say, ‘Ok it’s puke, everybody look at it, it’s puke.’” Then we’ve all had an experience.
Jessica: It’s pshit.
Julia and Alayna: Yeah, it’s pshit.
Jessica: How did everyone approach writing their plays?
Alayna: I wrote mine on Sunday and I took the master class with Paula at the Playwrights’ Center on Saturday. That class was really big on writing a play for this experience that’s difficult to stage. I read Ubu Roi and saw that it was making fun of the famous Scottish play. I thought of visuals that would communicate what I am seeing with this administration and how I feel about it. Also, I didn’t want Ubu 45 to be the focus.
Stacey: Thank you—same.
Alayna: I didn’t want him to speak. Like, you already have a platform and I don’t need to give you another one. We already know who and what you are. I wanted the women to speak the most in it, which is why I mainly focused on Ma Ubu and why the counselor didn’t get to talk but his wife did.
Andrew: I re-read Ubu because it had been a while since I had read it. I was struck this time through by the absurdity and the shit—both literal and figurative—and that was my guiding post. It didn’t really hold anything back. I wanted to embrace the style and tone of Ubu.
Tim: Similarly to Alayna I was not interested so much in him, in the guy, because what else is there to say? Either you love him or you hate him. Lately I’ve been more interested in how that message at the top is filtering down to the rest of the masses. There’s just one character on stage living in some sort of not-too-distant future in the middle of the country, responding to the shitstorm that he’s been living with the last however many years.
Stacey: Tim’s plays always just feel like... I don't know, I think it’s because I grew up watching Little House on the Prairie.
Tim: What?? Little House on the Post-Apocalyptic Prairie, maybe.
Stacey: I just love a good dystopic story. And the way that you blend those worlds is always awesome to me. When the actor came out by himself, I was like, “Of course he wrote a fuckin’ monologue.”
Jessica: Did you all have favorite words that you made up for your plays? Or that other people made up?
Stacey: Shittle. That was my favorite one in mine.
Julia: I had fun with “telling visions” for televisions.
Tim: Oh yeah, that was a good one. The one I came up with was “shte-heil,” so it was kind of a play on “shit heel,” “shit hole,” and also you could do it in a way where it would be like “shit heil.”
Alayna: I think the only one I threw in was “FROO - UUUCK!” I was like, "Everyone's going to pick ‘shit,’ so what's a different one?"
Tim: The day after, the chorus in my head was like “covfefe covfeefee covfuhfeh covfuhfuh…”
Julia: I did like that Carson Kreitzer ended her play with them singing it to the tune of “Tradition.”
Jessica: What surprised you about the plays as a collection that evening?
Stacey: The ways in which people were working in the Macbeth aspects was super interesting to me. Like the one where the two people were saying, “What’s the name of that play?”—
Julia: —and then they just fall down dead.
Stacey: They’re like “M— Muh— Muhmuh—” and then they just die. It was wonderful. [Jessica note: This was Kit Bix’s play.]
Tim: There was one that described the character as “one weird sister.” [Jessica note: This was Charissa Menefee’s play.]
Julia: I loved that. In Cristina Castro’s she had a “When shall we three meet again” line.
Tim: Then there was—this one was really clever—the chorus of skeletal trees, which echoes the Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane and also the Melania Christmas display [at the White House].
Alayna: Rachel Teagle. She’s too brilliant.
Jessica: What are your other takeaways from the night?
Alayna: I mean, what was really cool is that it was a night of everyone just being together in this experience, and that Paula wasn’t anywhere near the focus of it. She introduced it and it was clearly her bake-off, but Paula was just like, “Alright, let’s enjoy these plays.” She was just so invested in that night and we didn’t put her on this pedestal in front of everything. She just wanted to be a part of it.
Tim: One of the amazing things about her is that any time you’re trying to put her on a pedestal she does this ninja move where suddenly you find you’re on the pedestal and she’s looking at you. When I first met her years ago, I was trying to do this, like, “Oh my God, you’re Paula Vogel,” and she’s like, “No no no, you’re the writer. Tell me about you.” And I was like, “What? No! How did I get up here?”
Alayna: On breaks she made sure to walk up to playwrights and say, “Great piece,” and you didn’t think she actually knew which play was yours but then she would say a comment about it and you’d realize she totally remembered. She was just so into the spirit of the night. There was no, “Let me give you advice on how to push that forward.” It was just, “You did a thing and I’m happy that I got to experience that thing.”
Jessica: She was so happy that night! And I love that it was important to her that event hosts did open calls for plays. There are people who have been posting on social media things like, “This is the first time my work has ever been read in front of anybody else.”
Julia: I also really liked being able to feed people at this kind of event. And have people take food home. There was something about that, about people walking out with boxes of pizza that just made my soul happy.
Jessica: I think Paula bought the pizza.
Alayna: Yeah, she did.
Jessica: Paula Vogel bought pizza for everyone.
Julia: Yeah, she was like, “You need to be nourished.”
Tim: I didn’t realize until she mentioned it in the opening remarks that this bakeoff came out of a place of darkness, where she was feeling really depressed by the state of the country and was like, “I need to do something.” And she found a way not just to lift herself up but to lift up so many people.
Stacey: I would rather do bake-offs than march, quite honestly. I feel more active and it feels more participatory and it feels more engaging. I mean, kudos to everyone who marches but I feel like when you’re marching, if you’re not marching for something so specific with an end game, it just starts to feel like chaos to me. But this felt very pointed and specific in a way that other forms of activism don’t. This felt really good and it inspires me to take it and use it in other ways. I kept thinking, “OK, I’m going to leave after…” “OK, I’m going to leave after…” and then I stayed all night. You’re right, Julia—there was something just great about the energy of people eating and people communing and talking. It really fed my spirit in a way that it needed to be fed.
Andrew: It’s a model for how the theater community can respond with immediacy versus the long development route it takes for a play to get up on the stage. You know, we talk a lot about the disappearing audience of the American theater and how to get people back in the seats. I always come back to: What is your relationship with the community that you live in, not just for a single production where you’re doing outreach to a specific community, but within the arts and politics and everything that is going on within that city? Something like this Ubu Bake-Off, even though it was a national thing, it’s a model for how an organization can respond to what is going on in the world and in their specific community, and the issues that specifically affect the residents there.
Julia: And having dedicated funds to do that. Because I don’t think it would’ve been the same if we hadn’t hired a professional cast. A lot of folks approach community engagement like, “We’re just gonna open the door and people will come and tell us what they want and if the community wants it they’ll do it.” But it takes a dedication of actual resources to make a thing that’s effective. It sounds kind of obvious, but it’s often the difference that makes an initiative successful.
Alayna: I don’t think that people really understand the importance of what it means to have a building like this and an arts organization like this. It’s so important to have it in a community and support it. Like, we have to exist to be able to put on things like this where artists can be activists. Paula Vogel needs a place where she can go and say, “I have this crazy idea and I want to do this on this big a scale—where am I gonna go?”
Andrew: And the Playwrights’ Center made a commitment to not just invite specific writers you have close relationships with, but ask for people throughout the community who are interested.
Tim: Among the writers that night, there were only a handful of affiliated writers, right? I’m curious to know how many people had never done anything at the Playwrights’ Center before.
Julia: The majority.
Tim: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. That’s the kind of thing that an organization like the Playwrights’ Center can offer—just inviting people in.
Julia: That was a priority for Paula from day one. She was like, there’s not going to be any application. This isn’t a showcase of, like, Professional Writers Having Feelings. It needs to be open to everyone.
Stacey: God, that’s so important, what you just said. “Professional Writers Having Feelings.” Right.
Julia: That’s also important, but...
Stacey: But it does make room. I always try to be cognizant of the seat I have at the table, and the fact that there are writers out there who may never get the same seat. Their voice isn’t any less valuable than mine. Opportunities like this do create space for people to move forward and share space and it’s really powerful.