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In ‘Homebound,’ 10 playwrights write a Web series as unpredictable as the life we’re living
What’s it like to be hunkered down at home as the coronavirus pandemic rages all around us? Round House Theatre thought the question was so ripe for exploration that it hired 10 playwrights to ponder the dramatic consequences.
The result is “Homebound,” an original Web series starring local stage favorites Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Craig Wallace that kicks off Monday on the Bethesda theater’s YouTube page. Humorist (and Washington Post columnist) Alexandra Petri launches the series, with a new playwright — including Karen Zacarías, Dani Stoller, Tim J. Lord and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi — picking up each week where the previous writer left off. The 10-minute episodes will post every Monday at 9 a.m. through June 29.
“It’s certainly an ambitious project,” Wallace said. “For the most part, actors act, directors director, designers design. [With ‘Homebound,’] we’re having to do a little bit of all of it.”
Like the characters they are bringing to life, the actors will work in isolation and without knowing what happens in the next installment. And it will unfold at breakneck speed, said Wallace, who read Petri’s script only last week. “It’s like a prologue, a great way to introduce myself and Maboud,” he said. “And it’s Alexandra, so it’s funny.”
In Petri’s opening episode — the only one written so far — Wallace’s character calls his friend, played by Ebrahimzadeh, for technical advice before an important Zoom call. Ebrahimzadeh’s character recently attended a conference, where he may have been exposed to the virus.
“I pick the characters and their relationship, or at least imply it,” said Petri. She focuses on technology, which has an outsize role in our new “stay at home” normal. The story has to be specific to feel resolved in 10 minutes, but open-ended for the rest of the writers. “It’s not like ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ You can’t do that in 10minutes,” she said.
Round House created the project with two goals in mind: to give playwrights the opportunity to address this unprecedented event and to give actors and designers a little cash while they wait for a semblance of normalcy to return. Many regional theaters have moved to the digital realm while their stages are dark, but “Homebound” is unique because it features multiple writers spinning an evolving tale.
The playwrights were told the series stars a man of Iranian descent in his 30s and an African American man in his 50s, with a diverse supporting cast, said Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette.
“It’s about covid, has to be filmed in peoples’ homes. No nudity. Beyond that it’s truly up to them,” he said. “We said lead with your heart, with humor, and write the stories that you want and need to hear right now. There’s an immediacy to the trauma we’re going through that in six months or a year’s time will be lessened.”
Two actors are paired with a playwright for each episode, with Wallace and Ebrahimsadeh appearing throughout the series. The playwrights are able to video conference with their actors to get a sense of them and their surroundings, which will become part of the story.
The show is part of “Round House at Your House,” the free digital programming the theater is presenting during its forced closure. The theater is also live-streaming weekly interviews with well-known playwrights, cocktail-making classes from its Fourth Wall Bar & Café and educational programs for young audiences.
The project will cost $30,000, raised from board donations, with most of the money going to salaries, Rilette said. The raw production values and speedy turnaround will allow local theatergoers to get up close to the artists they usually see in a more traditional setting.
“You’re watching local artists you love creating on the spot, getting to watch the game of it a little bit,” he said. “You can enjoy the art and the process at the same time.”
Zacarías likened the project to a relay race that is built on the “yes and” rule of improv that invites and accepts all ideas. “Creativity always does well with some kind of structure and a little bit of randomness,” she said. “It’s a really generous exercise from Round House, to give us the opportunity to explore.”
The format fits the uncertain times, Rilette said, noting that the first episode will debut weeks before most are even written. The aspect of the unknown is both terrifying and appealing, Zacarías said. “There’s little time to think. There’s no luxury of doubt,” said the author of “The Book Club Play” and “Destiny of Desire.” “The fact that there’s a little bit of dread is exactly why I should do it. You feel a little bit exposed. I won’t be able to rewrite it, workshop it. We’re going to make it messy and throw it on the wall.”
The designers and cast members had been hired for the three shows that Round House had to cancel because of the pandemic. In addition to Wallace and Ebrahimzadeh, the cast features Helen Hedman, Alina Collins Maldonado, Yao Dogbe, Maya Jackson, Chinna Palmer, Lynette Rathnam and Jamie Smithson. Rilette and Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson are directing via video conferences. Lighting designer Harold F. Burgess II will advise the actors on how to light their homes, and costume designer Ivania Stack will help select pieces from their closets.
“Talk about vulnerable,” Wallace said. “People who know me will recognize my clothes.”
The theater has bags of basic tech equipment — a tripod, a selfie stick, extra cords — that are dropped off at each actor’s home to help them film their scenes. Round House staff will edit, add music and the opening and closing sequences and post the episodes online.
The project’s experimental feel attracted playwright Psalmayene 24.
“It’s treading in new territory, doing something that felt like it was new and fresh,” the creator of “The Freshest Snow Whyte” and other hip-hop fairy tales said. “This is my first time working with Round House. I was looking for a way to work with them. And I’ve also been looking for a way to start exploring film and television, so that is right on time.”
He will write the fifth episode in a few weeks, after learning how the plot and characters have evolved over the earlier episodes. For now, he’s chronicling the roller coaster of emotions he’s experiencing in isolation.
“This idea of quickly going from despair to blame to tranquility to perverse delight in the moment,” he said. “Sometimes I find myself voyeuristically watching the world unfold.”
Starting Monday, the District’s theater community will be able to watch along.