Fear and theater in the time of COVID

Four alumni playwrights debut short plays online April 9 and 17

Alexander Hewlett (left) and Jenise Sheppard in Chauncy Thomas’ “The Nicest White People that America Has Ever Produced.” (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Last fall, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of Washington University in St. Louis’ live theater events. But it also created an opportunity to do something completely new. 

One new idea was to commission short plays from alumni writers, which would be staged in virtual productions. “It was one of those wonderful, collaborative creative moments where you’re not quite sure who started it,” said Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama. “We thought, ‘Well, we have years of really excellent working alumni playwrights and screenwriters out there. What if we could commission a few short plays and assemble them as a package?’”

Wegrzyn (left) and Thomas

The result is “Homecoming Voices,” a collection of four short works written by four celebrated alumni of the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences: Nastaran Ahmadi, Liza Birkenmeier, Chauncy Thomas and Marisa Wegrzyn. 

Three of the four writers were students of Carter W. Lewis, senior playwright-in-residence, who will retire this year after 22 years at WashU. Urice said that the production — which will begin streaming via the PAD website April 9 — is in part a commemoration of Lewis’ legacy as an artist and teacher. 

A faculty committee selected the “Homecoming” writers, each of whom was given just over three months to write a new play. This expedited timeline was only possible, Urice noted, because the pandemic had upended so much of American film and theater production, leaving many professionals with projects on hiatus. The charge was simple: The plays could contain no more than four characters and be no longer than 25 minutes.

Catherine Herlihy in Marisa Wegrzyn’s “Solastalgia.” (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

A new take on rehearsals and production

The pandemic has changed not only the way that audiences access theater, but also the way that theater is rehearsed and produced. 

Actors submitted taped auditions, and callbacks took place via Zoom. Early rehearsals also happened over Zoom, with later rehearsals being conducted with actors wearing masks. To film the streaming performance, the university authorized actors to remove their masks (while remaining socially distanced) for the length of a single live run-through.

The new process presented challenges for directors and actors alike. Actors tired faster when wearing masks, and watching actors work through a screen or behind a mask meant that the directors were working with limited information. 

“I’ve been a theater director for 35 years,” said Urice, who directs Ahmadi’s “Amateurs” and Wegrzyn’s “Solastalgia.” “I have that down. I know how that works. Working with the actors on Zoom, I at least can see their faces, but I don’t see the rest of their body. And when you get in the room for rehearsals, you have the body but now the face is behind a mask.”

Visiting artist-in-residence Jacqueline Thompson — who directs Birkenmeier’s “Fear is a Gift” and Thomas’ “The Nicest White People that America Has Ever Produced” — felt the impact most during early rehearsals, while interacting with actors virtually. “In theater, you move around. When I’m directing, I like to move around and get in the space with the actors. That’s not possible over Zoom.”

Sarah Beshke in Marisa Wegrzyn’s “Solastalgia.” (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Four short plays, two actors each

Though the plays were written separately, they all share production elements. Each writer was given a set of eight shared scenic elements to work with, to make production easier to manage with social distancing. Notably, though given the option to use as many as four characters, all four writers elected to use only two. 

Birkenmeier (left) and Ahmadi

The plays also share a sense of the zeitgeist of the world under COVID-19. Fear emerged as a major thread, from the way that fear governs personal ethics to how it influences the artistic process.

For example, “Fear is a Gift” centers on the recording of a true-crime podcast that goes terrifyingly awry. “Amateurs” tells the story of a brother and sister looking to reconnect, and perhaps heal past betrayals, in the home of their recently deceased mother. 

In “The Nicest White People that America Has Ever Produced,” a Black writer and a white director discuss race, power and artistic integrity in the film industry — a theoretical discourse that prompts real questions about friendship and ethics. “Solastalgia” depicts how life under COVID-19 impacts the already shaky relationship — and ratchets up existing tensions — between two increasingly temperamental roommates. 

Urice noted that “solastalgia” is a portmanteau of solace and nostalgia. First coined in 2007, the word describes existential distress caused by climate-induced environmental change.  

“One of the characters in that play calls solastalgia that feeling of being homesick inside of your own home,” Urice said. “It’s a word we should all add to our working vocabularies given the last year.” 


“Solastalgia” and “The Nicest White People that America Has Ever Produced” will debut via the Performing Arts Department website at 8 p.m. Friday, April 9. “Amateurs” and “Fear is a Gift” will debut the following week, at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 17. All four will then be available to stream through May 2. 

The event is free for WashU students. Other patrons are invited to pay what they can, with a suggested donation of $10. 

For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu

About the playwrights

Nastaran Ahmadi is a playwright and television writer living in Los Angeles. Her plays have been developed and produced by The Cherry Lane Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, Actors Theater of Louisville, Lark Play Development Center, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco and The Yale Cabaret.

Liza Birkenmeier was recently the Tow Playwright-in-Residence at Ars Nova, where her play “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” premiered in 2019. She is currently a New Georges Resident Artist and a Millay, Yaddo and MacDowell Fellow. 

Though primarily an actor, Chauncy Thomas’ playwrighting credits include “Beast Unseen,” “Insular” and “Unearthing the Heavens.” 

Marisa Wegrzyn’s work has been widely produced in Chicago and New York. She is currently a writer and producer on the Amazon TV series “Goliath.” 

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