The Theaters Are Shut. Why Not Put On a Play at Home?

3 min
The cast members from KQED's staged reading of "Half A Dozen of the Other", a new short play by Min Kahng commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the national Play at Home initiative. Featured clockwise from upper left: Chinwe Oniah, Masha Pershay, Gabe Meline, Lina Blanco. (Masha Pershay/KQED)

You can’t go to the theater these days.

So theater companies big and small across the country, including Berkeley Repertory Theatre, New York’s Public Theatre and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., have asked dozens of professional playwrights to create short dramas for people to perform at home. The play scripts, part of a new initiative called Play at Home, have been downloaded 20,000 times since the start of April.

I decided to assemble a group of coworkers together via Zoom to give one a go. You can view our effort here:

I picked Bay Area playwright Min Kahng’s Half a Dozen of the Other from around 100 plays available on the Play at Home website. One reason is that it could be performed by the exact number of coworkers who'd agreed to participate: three people to play roles, one to read the stage directions, and one (me) to introduce the proceedings. I also liked the sound of Kahng’s quirky drama centering on a mysterious, locked wardrobe. Of course, it doesn't stay locked for long.

All the Play at Home plays are available online for anyone to download for free and perform from home with friends and family—or with colleagues online. KQED Arts' senior editor Gabe Meline, who in our reading played a character whose curiosity is aroused by the wardrobe, says doing Kahng’s play served as a welcome break from having to be his usual self in Zoom meetings all day long.

"After doing this play, I realized how refreshing it was to be someone else for 10 minutes," Meline says.

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Since the stay-at-home orders went into place and theaters shut down, many theater companies have streamed shows from their archives. Theater director Stephanie Ybarra wanted to do something more interactive, so she came up with the idea for Play at Home.

"I started thinking about who is sitting at home, who is stuck together," Ybarra says. "What would it look like for a play to be read by those folks?"

Ybarra is the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage in Maryland. More than a dozen theater groups have commissioned playwrights to pen works for Play at Home so far, ranging from monologues to dramas with cast sizes worthy of Shakespeare. Ybarra says each author gets $500, as well as a few pointers.

"Things like: be mindful of the fact that there are probably multi-generational folks in one play, so maybe consider being kid-friendly," Ybarra says. "And people don't really want to be sitting and reading a six-hour play. So think about a five-to-ten minute play."

Playwright Min Kahng is the author of 'Half A Dozen Of The Other.' The play was commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the Play at Home initiative. (Courtesy of Min Kahng)

The creativity in the scripts is mind-boggling. There’s one play featuring a pair of talking cats and the President of the United States, and another set on a pirate ship that calls for butterflies and flying spaghetti.

And then there’s the creativity of the participants themselves. For Kahng's Half a Dozen of the Other (one of several works commissioned for Play at Home by Berkeley Repertory Theatre), the script calls for glowing eggs that float in mid-air. One member of KQED's cast employed an egg-shaped lamp to create the special effect. Others used eggy Zoom backgrounds. Having no better option, I grabbed an actual chicken egg from the fridge right before we started the reading.

The playwright says he has no idea what a glowing egg looks like.

"Each group that's doing it figures it out in their own way," Kahng says. "And I thought that that was going to be a really fun thing to just see creativity explode."