Like all Florida Studio Theatre productions, The Playwrights Project began with a huddle. In this case, a virtual huddle on Zoom, thanks to social distancing. Richard Hopkins, FST’s Producing Artistic Director, challenged the participating theatre artists to follow Shakespeare’s example. Think epic. Think big. Reinvent what theater means. Create a new kind of theater that’s relevant for today.
Quite a challenge. It captured Sandy Rustin’s imagination. The playwright had already pitched one big idea — Collider, a scientific satire about the Large Hadron Collider. Now another big idea was taking shape in Sandy’s mind:
Family Dinner: a Quarantine Comedy.
Here’s Rustin’s description of that initial brainstorm…
Small is Beautiful
“Theater for today?” Richard put that out there. And it got me thinking.
I tried to imagine what that would look like.
How do you create theater that speaks to this moment? The answer is: you’d design a performance for video sharing platforms like Zoom. It could be drama or comedy. OK. What would that look like if I wrote it?
My Zoom play would be a Neil Simon-style comedy. The cast would be a mom, a dad, a grandpa, and a bunch of kids — definitely a family comedy. That’s where I live and it’s my comfort zone.
So, add it all up. Could I do it? Could I put those characters into Zoom and still get a Neil Simon-esque comedy out of it?
Yes. I think I could.
That was all going through my head during the meeting.
After the meeting, I reached out to Jason Cannon, an FST Associate Artist involved with coordinating new play development in this project. I emailed him: “I want to write a Neil Simon-esque family comedy in Zoom format.” He wrote me back: “Great. Let’s see about that.” He passed my pitch on to Richard. And, fortunately, Richard was really into the idea.
So, I got the green light. Then, I came up with the premise for the show and the cast. The cast is key to this concept. It matters even more than story.
The bulk of my characters are high school and college age. There’ll be a few adults, but most of the characters are kids in the family, and their various friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends in the same age group.
There’s a crying need for youthful roles right now. Theater directors in high schools and colleges around the country are scrambling for appropriate content they can produce with their students. So many of these students want nothing more than to be actors. Now their lives have been put on hold, and their dreams have been cut short. If I could create some fun and entertaining programming that these students could be cast in, that might turn things around for these kids.
That casting opportunity is the goal behind the Zoom concept for Family Dinner, my newest play in progress. I’m excited to write it — and that’s a weird thing to say about a script that might never be staged. Jason says it could work in a Hollywood Squares-type set. But even if it’s never staged, that’s fine with me. It lives on Zoom, and it lives in this moment.
Sandy Rustin is an actress and an award-winning playwright. Her hit comedy, The Cottage, was recently produced at Florida Studio Theatre. Her work for FST’s Playwrights Project includes Family Dinner: a Quarantine Comedy and Collider. Rustin is also contributing to FST’s Suffragist Project with The Suffragette’s Murder, which she is currently adapting for performance on Zoom.