Caili Harris ’23 (Lexington, Kentucky) and alumna Tory Parker ’16 recently participated in the Kentucky Theatre Association’s (KTA) Quarantine Bake-Off. Harris won first place in the college division for her play “To Grow a Garden,” and Parker won third in the first-timers category for her entry “Groundskeepers.” Jennifer Goff, assistant professor of theatre, also participated and along with Parker read short plays written by Kentucky-based professionals during the 48-hour playwriting event.
“Bake-offs have been around for a while, but they were popularized a few years ago when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel sponsored a bake-off for people to riff on the classic French surrealist play, ‘Ubu the King,’” Goff said. “With so much theatre being shut down due to quarantine, people have started doing them online. The first one I became aware of had something like 5,000 submissions—people are hungry right now to find ways to make art.”
Goff explained that the idea of the bake-off, is that, in a limited amount of time—in this case, 48 hours—several people write a number of plays. The catch is that all of the plays have to include the same “five ingredients.”
For the KTA bake-off, Goff said the ingredients were a conversation with Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a talking horse, a flash mob, a chorus of lawn mowers and a deserted fairground. There was also an optional bonus ingredient of an argument over the last of an item.
Once the plays were submitted, a group of panelists read and ranked the plays based on their categories: youth category, high school, college, first-timers and practitioners. Goff was a panelist for the practitioner plays, Harris participated in the college category and Parker was in the first-timers division. Goff and Parker read plays from the winners of the practitioners category.
“We didn’t really have any rehearsal time, so the readings were sort of free-wheeling and spontaneous, which was a lot of fun, especially since many of the plays were so quirky and wild,” Goff said. “The readers met in Zoom, and we then broadcast our live feed through Facebook live. We would turn on-and-off our cameras for entrances and exits, someone would read stage directions to clarify actions, and we even used sound effects and puppets.”
Harris’ winning play “To Grow a Garden” is about anxiety and how love and compassion offer healing in the worst of times.
“The play follows a woman named Elsie,” Harris explained. “It shows her as a child and how her anxieties are manifested in an imaginary friend that mocks her. As she grows up, her mental illness begins to become increasingly prevalent in her life. It begins as a small obstacle and then, at one point, turns into a literal maze of lawnmowers that she tries to weave her way through. When she tries to open up her flower shop with only cactuses in stock, she finds that her anxiety has reached its height and her inner turmoil begins to take shape in the real world.
“That said, this play is also about how the love and compassion that we show each other is very healing,” she continued. “Love and compassion can make even the worst of circumstances feel small. I feel like that is very important during this time. I know a lot of people who are suffering right now as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and quarantine. It has definitely been a challenge for myself, as well.”
Harris said it means a lot to her that her play won first place during the Quarantine Bake-Off.
“I never expected to do this well,” she added. “It was just a weekend of furiously typing out words and playing around in a world that I’d like to visit sometime with people who I feel like I could be friends with. The most wonderful thing to come out of this competition was the sense of community I found. It was so wonderful, all the love that I received from friends and family. I honestly could not imagine this experience without them. Some of them looked over my work and helped me finalize my ideas, and they are the reason for my final product. I am so grateful for all of them.”
Due to the “ingredients” for the plays being silly and lighthearted, Parker said she tried to challenge herself when writing her play and to use them in really out-of-the-box ways.
“’Groundskeepers’ takes place in an abandoned Disney World, with mother and son on the run from a guerrilla militia who travel on souped-up riding mowers,” Parker said. “At the park, they meet a woman named Highhorse Derby Rogan, also known as Pony, as well as a chorus of animatronic presidents—including a future Andy Beshear—who perform a fully-fledged musical number.”
Parker said her play ended up being darker than most of any of the others written for the bake-off, but she thinks that’s one of the coolest things about the experience—everyone comes in with the same ingredients and comes out with a wildly different product.
“I was also writing with the understanding that this will never go up on a stage,” she added. “Not only does that mean that written stage directions become a part of the performance but it meant I could go crazy with production level.”
Parker said theatre is one of the things she misses the most right now—watching it, making it, reading about it and learning about it.
“Theatre-making is inherently collaborative, and in this time of isolation, it was really creatively fulfilling to write something knowing that other people would help me bring it to life, and even more people would get to experience it as an audience,” she said. “Making a play isn’t supposed to be lonely work, and this gave me a really wonderful way to connect with others, including Ali Gautier, a friend and Centre grad from 2015. She’s a brilliant comedian and performer, and she somehow always brings the exact right energy to any room or project. In the end, I was really proud of what I wrote, and how it was performed.”
Goff believes opportunities like this are important right now, as everyone tries to figure out what live events are going to look like in the face of the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19.
“Storytelling is a fundamental human urge, and it’s one that people are struggling to find in these strange times,” she said. “Theaters and cinemas all over the world have been shuttered. And sure, we have Netflix, but there’s something different about being in a space together with people, sharing the same experience and feeling each other’s energy. I’ve been attending a lot of online theatre since this all started. And while it certainly will never replace the experience of sharing a story together in one place, it’s a fascinating example of the ingenuity of the theatre community.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
May 15, 2020
Header image: Top to bottom: Rowen Haigh, Bake-off organizer and Bellarmine faculty, Ali Gautier ’15 and Jennifer Goff, assistant professor of theatre, Chelsea Russell, undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky and Tory Parker ’16 participate in the Kentucky Theatre Association’s Quarantine Bake-Off.