Portland Center Stage Unveils Four New Plays for People to Perform at Home

Four playwrights were tapped to create new works for quarantined thespians.

"Come in."

Those words echo through Three Love Songs, Anya Pearson's fierce and nourishing new play about life during quarantine.

"I asked myself, 'What would I want to hear?'" Pearson says. "I wanted to include the idea of creating a magical, nebulous space where everyone could gather again."

That space bursts to life in Three Love Songs, one of four plays commissioned by Portland Center Stage for people to perform at home as part of the national Play at Home project.

"There's so many stories to be told right now," says PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf. "Our playwrights are our truth tellers, and they will canonize this time. This was an effort to lift up those voices."

PCS's involvement with Play at Home, which was developed by a group of theater companies, including Baltimore Center Stage and the Public Theater in New York City, was spurred by Wolf's determination to bolster the careers of playwrights facing months of lost work.

"Some of the hardest-hit people in our field have been independent artists," she says. "If I could have given 15 or 20 commissions, I would have, because there's that many talented playwrights in town."

The playwrights Wolf recruited—Pearson, Sara Jean Accuardi, E.M. Lewis and Josie Seid—were each given Play at Home's guidelines. They encouraged the writers to contribute plays that were 10 minutes long, written in three to five days, mostly appropriate for all ages and "JOYFUL!" (Another rule is that each writer must be paid $500.) Yet the playwrights found ways to both work within and around the parameters.

"In early May, I was like, 'There's no joy here for me to tap into,'" Accuardi says. "So I named the character Joy and decided that was good enough." Joy, the protagonist of her play Joy Frickin' Hates Her Dumb Stupid Room, is a teenage girl who rages against the strict social distancing enforced by her parents, while her hamster—who happens to be the reincarnation of medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch—shakes his furry head at her self-involvement.

"I was thinking about myself and, I'm sure, feeling sorry for myself because I have it pretty good, but I'm still trapped in my house and angry about it," Accuardi says. "Joy is definitely a little bit of me, and I would say that Hieronymus is the one telling me, 'It's not so bad, it could be a lot worse.'"

While Joy is about two characters and one room, Pearson's Three Love Songs leaps through a number of realms. The play is divided into three "tracks" ("A Love Song for Survivors," "A Love Song for Creatives," and "A Love Song for Difference") that use flowing passages of hope, rage and wisdom to explore both Pearson's state of mind and the state of the world.

"What I have been doing since we've been in the pandemic is writing a lot more [about] the dark, internal stuff that we spend a lot of time pretending we don't have that everybody has," Pearson says. "That's certainly not going to create a vaccine for coronavirus, but I think that it's going to help people to start conversations about their mental health and the lasting effects of what is happening to our sanity while we're stuck in this liminal space."

That toll looms over most of the plays. With the exception of Seid's A Wing and a Prayer—a gloriously ebullient story of a group of friends igniting a feminist fire in the soul of a beleaguered fairy godmother—all of them evoke the agony of physical confinement. Even when a pair of inmates reclaim their identities in Lewis' The Third Prisoner, the play reminds you that a captive with a name is still a captive.

Yet that hasn't stopped Accuardi, Lewis, Pearson or Seid from creating stories for audiences who will, hopefully, also be actors—people who act out the plays are encouraged to upload their performances to YouTube using the tag #PlayatHomePlays.

"Each of them brings a very striking and distinct aesthetic to their writing," Wolf says. "And each of them has a finger on the pulse of work that is relevant and honest and speaks from the heart, and that's why I chose these four women."

READ IT: All of Portland Center Stage's Play at Home scripts may be found at pcs.org/play-at-home.

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