How the Homebound Project Brought Stage and Screen Artists Together to Help Fight Child Hunger

For the past few months, director Jenna Worsham has been making theater for people all over the world. “People in Singapore, Brazil, Germany are tuning into the show,” she said. “It’s crazy to think that if I did a show in New York, I would never have this audience.” 

That’s because Worsham’s been producing digital theater. Worsham is the co-founder of the Homebound Project, which since May has been commissioning original short plays, and performers to act in them and film it for the web. Homebound just finished its fourth installment, the final one will be streamed on August 5–9. 

When all is said and done, Homebound will have created more than 50 new short plays, all created and performed by volunteers to benefit No Kid Hungry, a campaign of Share Our Strength, an organization committed to ending hunger and poverty.

“We found out this morning that we hit over $100,000 in donations, which is just, I can’t even wrap my head around it,” said Worsham. And for the final installment of Homebound, an anonymous donor will be matching all donations, up to $20,000.

Worsham co-founded the Homebound Project with playwright Catya McMullen (whose credits include the play Georgia Mertching is Dead and she is also a writer on “The Auteur,” a new comedy by Taika Waititi  on Showtime). When asked about why they started the Homebound Project, Worsham described it as “sustenance.” 

A play she was directing Off-Broadway, The Siblings Play by Ren Dara Santiago, was cancelled at the beginning of its run at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Another play she was directing in the summer at Lincoln Center was also postponed. Worsham and her wife are also immunocompromised so they both were literally homebound. 

“I feel like I was going crazy for a couple of reasons,” said Worsham. “New York City was falling apart and a lot of people were getting sick. And Catya and I both felt like we wanted to make something. And we also felt really useless. Because, you know, we weren’t first responders. As artists, I feel like your job is to feel relevant. I am not a firefighter, so we were kind of like, alright, what can we do?”

This was also during the early days of shutdown in New York State and of digital theater, where the focus was mostly on streaming pre-existing shows that had already been staged. McMullen and Worsham wanted to create original works that responded to the current moment. 

“I want to hear from the writers who are actually going to speak to this moment,” Worsham said. “Different voices in the theater that we want to actually hear from right now, while we’re stuck in our homes, who can make us feel human. And also give people and ourselves an opportunity to work, even if it’s through Zoom, the sustenance of that creativity is so essential, and just something I think we were dying for.” 

Playwright and actor Ngozi Anyanwu (who wrote the play Good Grief and is a writer on the upcoming HBO miniseries Americanah) has both acted in and written a piece for Homebound. In quarantine, she admits that she’s been too overwhelmed with the news to work. So short projects like Homebound have been useful in giving her a creative outlet that isn’t too draining.

“With COVID and the racial uprising, most of the time, I literally want to stay in bed and not do anything,” Anyanwu admitted. “When Jenna called me about doing Homebound, I was like, OK, yeah, feed hungry people, I can do that. It’s low energy, it’s low impact and it’s for a very good cause.” She then added, “It’s really helpful to me to know that I’m being helpful with my work and it does relieve some of the, just like, staying at home all day.”

Anyanwu wrote a monologue for model/actor Hari Nef called Here is Good, directed by Caitriona McLaughlin, which takes place in bed under a blanket. For the playwright, it was freeing to just write what she was feeling, and not go through the years of development a typical play goes through before it’s produced.

“I’ve been using these mini-commissions to take the pressure off of having to toil over the words and every single conjunction, every single preposition,” she said. “For the most part, it’s like, what if I treat everything that I make as worthy?”

Unlike other Zoom theater experiences, Homebound is not performed live. The playwrights are commissioned to create original monologues on a certain theme (the most recent Homebound theme was “promises”). Then the actor they’ve been paired with are taught how to shoot the work on their smartphone. If they want a director to help guide them, they can ask for one, who can help them with props and set dressing. It’s similar to The 24 Hour Plays—solo work where everything is pre-taped and put together with the resources on hand. 

Anyanwu performed a monologue by Anne Washburn called Comfort Food, which called for her to sit in complete darkness with her face illuminated by a candle. Trying to find the right candle that didn’t “look shitty on camera” was a process, as well as the right room in her house acoustically (she settled on the bathroom). “This is why tech people are important,” she said. “Just becoming your own producer, it was fun and it was a lot of learning. I literally filmed it by my toilet.” It’s not just Homebound, it’s also homemade. 

Ngozi Anyanwu in “Comfort Food”

Then Homebound’s Jon Burklund edits all the videos together, and the Homebound installment is then available for four nights for ticket-buyers to stream. The creators also teamed up with Broadway producer Mary Solomon to help them with logistics (she was the one who put them in contact with Billy Shore, who runs No Kid Hungry).

So far, the artists involved in No Kid Hungry have been a who’s who of theater and Hollywood names: William Jackson Harper, Martyna Majok, Betty Gilpin, Zachary Quinto, Diane Lane, Leigh Silverman, Philippa Soo, Blair Underwood, Michael R. Jackson, Lena Dunham…the list goes on.

“The first two series was just us asking our friends, famous friends that we’ve made through theater to get involved,” said Worsham. But as word got out about Homebound, artists started inviting other people they knew to get on-board. “It’s such a community, like I did a show with Phillipa Soo few years ago, and she’s a friend with Daveed Diggs [of Hamilton]. I feel like once people know who you are, and they have a good time, then they vouch for you.”

It’s an all-volunteer effort, no one (not even the producers) are getting paid. But it’s a way to feel useful during this time. And though the plan is to close Homebound in August, Worsham isn’t saying anything definitive. The team have been talking about doing a live show whenever theaters reopen in 2021, as a reunion special and a final fundraiser for No Kid Hungry.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Worsham. “If there’s a need down the line, whether it’s with No Kid Hungry or another frontline organization, I wouldn’t put it past us. We’ll see what happens and if the call is there, I think it’ll probably be answered.”

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