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Howard Sherman: Ubu Bake Off gives voice to theatre’s anti-Trump insurgents

Playwrights Paula Vogel and Jeremy B Cohen. Photo: Whitney Rowland.jpg
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Four days ago, the US theatre community fostered the birth of more than 100 new short plays, on our federal holiday of Presidents’ Day. These were not, however, created in a spontaneous outpouring of national pride, but rather a coordinated – if entirely voluntary – effort that specifically sought to conflate the current presidency with Alfred Jarry’s absurdist and profane play Ubu Roi.

Held at nearly two dozen theatres and theatre-related organisations, the Ubu Bake Off was the brainchild of award-winning playwright Paula Vogel, who, please pardon the expression, cooked up the idea while musing on Facebook just five weeks ago. The interest from her Facebook friends and acolytes was immediate.

The Ubu Bake Off followed guidelines Vogel has previously used in her teaching career. It was an exercise designed to prompt people to quick, instinctive creativity, helped along by a 48-hour writing time limit, coupled with a five-page limit. Vogel also provides a set of ingredients, so that the resultant playlets are all variations on a theme.

For Monday, the ingredients included Pa Ubu 45 (supposedly 6ft 3ins, a trim 239 lbs, in “excellent health”, and, yes, the hair is his and real), angry ambassadors from every country that Pa Ubu has insulted, a strange use of the English language that sounds like it is supposed to be English (ie, words for ‘shit’ are prolonged like ‘pshitte’), covfefe, and a double-triple-quadruple-octahedral cheeseburger with special sauce.

Among the companies that participated were the Vineyard Theatre (a creative home for Vogel) and the New Ohio Theatre in New York; the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis (which Vogel attended), Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and Crowded Fire Theatre Company and Antaeus Theatre in California. I even got into the act, hosting a small group under the auspices of my day job at the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.

This decentralised, far-flung realisation of Vogel’s idea means that no one person saw, or even read, all of the one-act plays that emerged. Almost like carefully organised insurgent cells, each location, each playwright, was part of a larger whole, carrying out their own missions, not knowing what else might be happening for the benefit of the cause elsewhere. Yet, at the same time, we were secure in the knowledge that other partisans were fighting the good fight in the same manner at the same time.

In my little troupe, we read nine plays over two hours, with playwrights and actors joining to give voice to the texts brought into the room, none adjudicated in any way. The Playwrights’ Center deployed eight actors to read all of the plays – in this instance, an astounding 41 plays by 44 playwrights in an event that lasted more than five hours. No doubt the solutions were as varied as the locales.

Based on the circle at my office, and the plays read, the Bake Off inspired instant camaraderie (I had previously met only one of the participants). It was great fun, in the name of expressing frustrations with our present leadership, while concurrently paying homage to a literary classic. The low-pressure, everyone-is-welcome spirit also stripped away any sense of theatrical hierarchy or critical judgement. It even freed me to try my hand at playwriting for the first time in about 40 years.

But perhaps most importantly, Vogel’s inspiration and recipe yielded a great deal of work in a very short time, demonstrating that her educational tool offers a significant opportunity for involving many voices on the same subject.

Without the demands of rehearsal, staging, ticket sales and fundraising, Vogel’s Ubu Bake Off stripped theatre to its most rudimentary essentials, yielding experiences that were, if my own metaphorical kitchen was at all representative, unifying and cathartic. It certainly provides a model for rapid-response theatre applicable to almost any topic. I suspect we have more national Bake Offs in our future.

This week in US theatre

Hammaad Chaudry makes a high-profile playwriting debut at New York Theatre Workshop this week, with his play An Ordinary Muslim premiering on Monday night. The story of a couple struggling “to straddle the gap between their Pakistani heritage and their British upbringing”, according to its synopsis, the play has already won several playwriting prizes. Jo Bonney directs.

On Tuesday evening, Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs, about a group of pageant players in the 14th century trying to outrun the Black Death, opens at the Vineyard Theatre under the direction of Oliver Butler. In promotional summary, The Amateurs seems to join Peter Barnes’ Red Noses, another plague-set story of itinerant players, first seen at London’s National Theatre 33 years ago, in the small niche of theatre-themed epidemic plays.

Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans, the story of siblings on a prosaic road trip following the death of their father, opens on March 1 at Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. Scott Ellis directs a cast led by Mark Blum, Debra Monk and, notably, Jamie Brewer, an actor with Down’s syndrome.

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