UMN theater students’ creative quarantine competition goes viral

Three University of Minnesota students created a playwriting competition in an attempt to beat isolation, one play at a time. They have since received over 2,100 entries.

Sarah Mai

Sarah Mai

Alex Strangman

As people across the globe are stuck in quarantine, many are looking for ways to escape this new dystopian-like reality. A few University of Minnesota students came up with their best attempt to beat isolation.

Three students in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theatre BFA program, Gus Mahoney, Nigel Berkeley and Willie E. Jones III, have created an online playwriting competition they’ve dubbed the “Quarantine Playwriting Bake Off.”

The rules are simple. At 10 a.m. CST on March 16, the group will email contestants five “ingredients” which have to be incorporated in an original short play — 10 to 30 pages — due 32 hours later at 6 p.m., on March 17.

Once the submission period ends, a panel of judges will read all of the submissions and choose the 10 best entries to be read live on YoutubeLive on March 18 at 6 p.m.

The inspiration for the idea came from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, who was a part of the group that created the “bake-off” workshop style.

When they first came up with the idea for a quarantine bake-off, they expected it would just be a few people that joined in on the fun, Berkeley said.

“We thought it was just gonna be like our friends and some of our friend’s friends. We were thinking picking 10 [finalists] might be lofty because we didn’t even know whether we’d get 10 submissions,” he said.

They were wrong. Since the first social media post was made — slightly over 24 hours ago — they’ve received over 2,100 inquiries from people in countries all over the globe, including Ecuador, Australia and the Czech Republic.

And it’s not just other playwrights getting involved. Jones said they’ve received inquiries from older people who have never written before, and even an 11-year-old who wants to try writing for the first time.

Mahoney said he thought this would be a great way for fellow theater students to continue to work on their craft as classes move online, making performing extremely difficult.

“I was like, what’s a way that we could keep ourselves active as artists and keep that artistic muscle [strong]?” he said.

Needless to say, the group has a busy few days ahead of them. Aside from the thousands of inquiries, and potentially even more submissions they have to go through, they also need to create a website and find and vet 15 judges before the competition begins.

After seeing the massive response they’ve gotten, the group has ambitious plans for the bake-off. They hope to get people from theaters across the country involved, publishing the plays on a database and maybe starting a festival as a tribute to a difficult time in our collective history. 

For Jones, the bake-off is just that: a way to get through a difficult time of worry, sickness and isolation.

“It’s a very jarring feeling being told not to be around others, and I think this creates a sense of community. It’s an outlet for expression, which just got cancelled for most of us. So it was kind of like a lifesaver for a lot of us that brings us together,” he said.

More information, including where and how to submit a play can be found here.