Last March, Yussef El Guindi couldn't write. While the pandemic raged, the Egyptian American playwright's artistic fire smoldered—and it didn't reignite until he was asked to write a 10-minute play for students at UC Santa Barbara.
"I said, 'I'm frozen,'" he remembers. "And then a few days after that, I realized, 'It's a 10-minute play, for Christ's sake. Just write something. Anything.'"
El Guindi subsequently wrote Cha-Cha, a play about a divided couple dancing via Zoom. It became the first of several creations he concocted during the pandemic—and it paved the way for him to participate in the Playwright Initiative, a series of six solo works commissioned by the Theatre Company founded by Portland theater luminaries Jen Rowe and Brandon Woolley in 2019.
"We were like, 'Let's try to do a couple plays so people know who we are first, and then we'll do some commissioning.' And 2020 had a lot of different ideas," Woolley says. "These playwrights of both local and national renown are trusting us—a brand-new company that is just getting started—enough to say, 'Yeah, I'll write something for you and see what we can do together.'"
Rowe and Woolley had planned to stage Jen Silverman's The Moors last March. When COVID-19 worsened, they turned the production into an audio drama and started plotting the Playwright Initiative, which will feature works by Idris Goodwin, Emily Gregory, Ren Dara Santiago, DeLanna Studi and Claire Willett.
The first playwright Woolley and Rowe approached was El Guindi, who lives in Seattle and initially considered writing a play about an exchange student living in the Pacific Northwest.
"He would be reporting on the pandemic, having just arrived, and he would start talking about the protests that arose after the George Floyd murder," El Guindi says. "And then I felt, 'I think this might date very quickly.'"
El Guindi eventually conceived The Cut-Up, about a character who discovers that the man he sees when he looks in the mirror is actually his doppelgänger.
"The story is basically about a man who's losing his mind, but it also could be about an alien visitation," El Guindi says. "Somehow for me, that perfectly summed up a traumatic year of total dislocation, disembodiment, discombobulation, a wrenching from our routine."
Like all of the plays included in the Playwright Initiative, The Cut-Up will be filmed and released via the streaming service Stellar, but it doesn't yet have a release date. Among the plays closest to completion is DeLanna Studi's Capax Infiniti, which was inspired by the Portland mural of the same name painted by South African artist Faith47. It's about a white businesswoman named Karen (the name was chosen for its combustible cultural baggage) giving a keynote speech on Zoom for an organization called Empowering Women Empowers Women.
"Throughout the speech—because it's Zoom, because of the time we're in—she starts to become really reflective of privilege and it kind of morphs into an uncomfortable therapy session," says Rowe, who is directing the play. "If it were real, it would be really uncomfortable and I think that it would go viral pretty quickly."
Capax Infiniti's willingness to confront disquieting questions about white privilege embodies the Playwright Initiative's blend of art and activism.
"All of our playwrights are also activists in their own right," Rowe says. "I don't think that was something that we were looking for, but we looked at this group of playwrights and we were like, 'All of these people are working within their own communities at large to enhance a better way of living for all of us.' I think that's just inherent in their writing."
Given the persistence of the pandemic and the anticipated longevity of the Playwright Initiative, which will run from at least March 2021 to May 2022, it's hard not to wonder what state both Theatre Company and the Portland theater scene will be in when the last of the six plays premieres. Rowe, however, refuses to indulge in speculation.
"My experience as an artist in Portland has been full of voids," she says. "I'm an actor who has never ever, ever been invited to be a part of a company here. I feel a little bit prepared for this time. My body, my brain and my heart know what it means to adapt constantly. All we can do is do what we can do."
SEE IT: Premiere dates for the Playwright Initiative are TBA. See thetheatreco.org. Access to films will cost $20 each, a season ticket $100.