Theater depends on social interaction, and with no clear end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current situation can be tough for many artists. But several students at this university decided they weren’t going to let social isolation stop them from writing and performing. And thus, the UMD Pandemic Players was formed.
The UMD Pandemic Players, a theater company established during quarantine to find a way to create even in this new online world, recently participated in Quarantine Bake-Off, a global movement designed to keep writing and acting alive during social distancing. Writers received a list of five “ingredients” to include in their play: a goodbye, peach, a silence, a misconception and a tree growing (extra credit if they included shooting stars or a sword fight). They only had two days to write and submit their plays.
In total, the UMD Pandemic Players wrote seven plays for the Quarantine Bake-Off. The group performed the plays live Friday night over Zoom. Although the list of ingredients was the same for each writer, the plays all turned out extremely different.
Aimee Dastin-van Rijn, a rising sophomore economics and theatre major, wrote one of the plays and directed another. The production was a very collaborative process, she said. In theater, she added, you don’t typically have the playwright with you to consult about a specific line or plot point. But during this process, everyone was able to ask questions and give advice.
“Our inspiration for all of them was just our own imagination and the ingredients we were given,” Dastin-van Rijn said.
The second play performed, “Destiny Loves Peaches,” illustrated just how creative you can get over Zoom. Actors used backdrops and areas of their houses to create scenes. In this play, a fantasy romance story, characters dueled by punching near the camera on their computer.
And the actors didn’t let technology get in the way of their performance — they all got into character. While watching people act over Zoom was awkward at times, it added to the overall charm of the performance.
The production was free for viewers, but the group encouraged donations to raise money for Empower DC, a nonprofit advocating for racial, economic and environmental justice for low-income communities in Washington, D.C. One donor even agreed to triple any contributions made on the group’s GoFundMe page.
“We are hoping we can try and find a way to make a difference that way through theater,” Dastin-van Rijn said.
In one of the standout plays of the night, “A Peach For My Peach?,” a boyfriend and girlfriend fought about spending time together amid the pandemic. It was amusing and sounded like a fight some couples might currently be having.
The plays were short, which kept my attention, but at times it became hard to follow because it moved quickly from each play to the next.
The last play performed, “Cepheus,” written by Dastin-van Rijn, was quite impressive — the stage manager adjusted the backgrounds of two actors, connecting them to look like one cohesive scene. The play discussed life and divorce, and even featured some intense monologues. It surprised me how emotional and moving a virtual play could be.
Friday night showed me that theater can still bring joy and hope amid a pandemic — this is an opportunity to get creative, even with art.