The Theater Community Is Banding Together to Fight Child Hunger


Playwright Catya McMullen and director Jenna Worsham talk about their new online theater initiative.

Childhood hunger was an issue long before Covid-19 hit, but with school closures across the country, more kids could now be at risk. Recognizing this need, playwright Catya McMullen and director Jenna Worsham teamed up to create The Homebound Project, an online theater initiative that aims to raise money for kids who are facing hunger as a result of the pandemic.

Starting May 6, the initiative will feature a collection of 10 new theater works, written by playwrights and recorded remotely by actors like Amanda Seyfried and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Tickets are $10 each and all proceeds will be donated to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign aimed at ending childhood hunger that’s run by the nonprofit Share Our Strength. So far, the project has already raised more than $12,000, according to Worsham.

In an interview with Wake-Up Call’s Tess Bonn, McMullen and Worsham opened up about how the project came about.

Wake-up Call: Walk me through how this idea initially took shape. What inspired you to start this online theater initiative?

Catya McMullen: Jenna and I were on the phone regularly, we felt totally like everyone else, right? We felt totally useless. My family, they’re all doctors and they are on the frontlines and it is, I think Jenna and I are both people who are naturally proactive, not just in our work life, but also sort of in the world. And, our job is to stay home right now. And so we wanted to figure out a way where we could A) funnel this energy and find a way to give back and actually sort of activate our community and b) also find a way, I mean, Jenna’s wife, Lucy Thurber who is a playwright, always likes to say that after food and shelter, we need stories so we know we’re not alone.

And so we also wanted to find a way to both make a tangible difference on the frontlines and then simultaneously also bring some comfort and activate our community creatively.

How did you come across No Kid Hungry, and why did you choose to focus on the issue of child hunger at this time?

Jenna Worsham: We talked a lot about like frontline workers and essential workers and when it came to hunger and kids especially, you know, kids in New York City where Catya is from and where I live now — I think [for] both of us, it was a personal cause and also one where we felt like we could make a difference, you know, in terms of motivating the community.

There needs to be more, but there were already a lot of incredible things happening for nurses and people on the frontlines in that capacity, so we were what about this and just logistically how it happened was we made a list of all these incredible organizations and we’re like, how do you even begin right to choose, and Catya said, you know, I think this creative producer, she works with Mary Solomon, knows someone at No kid Hungry. So Catya, you called Mary, right? And you were like, ‘Hey, what do you think of this idea? Can you put us in touch with them?’ And then literally within 24 hours, I was on a Zoom call with the founder of Share Our Strength, who’s the executive director, Billy Shore, of No Kid Hungry.

Catya McMullen (pictured left) and Jenna Worsham (pictured right)

How did you go about approaching theater in terms of format, given that it’s a virtual experience?

Catya McMullen: We used a format that actually was similar to a variety show series that I did years ago and the idea was that we commissioned writers to write on a theme for these actors specifically. It’s mostly monologues. The first edition is, is all monologues and we wanted to figure out a way to make it as user friendly for the actors. We have an incredible video designer who’s come in and, and has sort of helped direct and mold the whole project and also just deal with all of our technical, with sort of making this technically user friendly as possible. And so actors are mostly recording on their iPhones — similarly to the way that you see a lot of how these projects, I mean, even like the Parks and Rec special. And they’re not communicating with each other. But we also wanted to create individual standalone pieces that could be done in one take and as closely without being live, and without being together, simulate the experience of an evening of theater. So very much like as close as it can possibly be, feels like an evening of one-act plays.

Jenna Worsham: That’s like not easy right now. I mean, you know, nobody knows what theater is right now. So we’ve learned a lot. And I’d say, I just watched the first cut yesterday and I will say that I’m very excited for what’s about to happen. We wanted to, you know, bring theater to the forefront because it’s, you know, much like empty classrooms, there’s empty theaters all over the world right now. So we were thinking, I mean, that was one of the first images I thought of when we came up with the idea was like these empty spaces, you know, they’re so sad when you think about them, but that’s theater. Like theater is all about the idea of the potential of an empty space.

What sort of themes will you be exploring under this new format?

Jenna Worsham: Our next round I think has 11 playwrights. So it’s between 10 and 12. We were having an embarrassment of riches at the moment because the response has been overwhelming. So our subsequent rounds may have 11 or even 12 writers. We don’t want to go further than that because that’s, that’s a lot of theater.

It’s one way to allow them to be unique but also unite them is to give each round of themes or the first one is home. So these first 10 writers in some ways spoke to that idea, whatever that means to them in this moment.

Our next round is sustenance. Obviously sustenance is, you know, our, our mission right now and multiple ways, right? Like obviously like the critical literal provisions for kids, you know, also sustenance for artists who are so isolated right now to connect and collaborate. And then hopefully we do it right. You know, sustenance for the audience. Just a little that empathy and humanity that theater can bring.

You have some big names featured in this all-volunteer endeavor. What was the process of getting some of these actors and playwrights involved?

Jenna Worsham: The first round was simply about asking people we knew really well as collaborators, you know, who we worked with, or just were part of our theater family. And we were both surprised and kind of touched by the amount of people who said yes just right off the bat and then, and then you know, those connections widened, right? So like we just got an actor, a really exciting actor, confirmed for round four today who is very good friends with an actor in round one and saw it on their Instagram and was like, how can I get involved in this?

Catya McMullen: It wasn’t hard — people want to help. They want to step up. That’s why we did this — so much of it was actually activating the artists that we love, who also feel like their hands are tied as they’re sitting at home.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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