Bake-Offs: A History

In 1984 a group of playwrights gathered in Gordon Edelstein’s downtown loft on Chamber Street in New York City.  We included Mac Wellman, Paula Vogel, Connie Congdon and Jeff Jones. It was a “kvetch” session that occurs between artists who cannot, as the saying goes, get arrested.  All of us were knocking on the door of the American Theater, but to no avail. It seemed to us that the only new plays done in New York were plays transferred from the Actors’ Theater of Louisville, so we decided, as a vent for our frustration, to discern the formula of what made a commercially viable new play in 1984. Then we were to go home and in 48 hours each write a play to that formula. We called it The Great American Play Bake-Off.

We agreed that the three necessary elements were a front porch, a kitchen sink and a withheld secret. That became the basis of what I have come to term a BAKE-OFF. I chose the word, inspired by the Bake-Offs® that Pillsbury, starting in 1949, has sponsored each year. Although Pillsbury only required one common ingredient—their flour—in my imagination I picture 50 women and men at their identical electric ranges with a limited time competing to make the most successful cake out of a Betty Crocker instant cake mix. (And actually the first contest was won by a man!) I imagined it as a domestic ancestor to today’s Iron Chef programs and combined the notion of modern technology for the ‘50’s with the culinary expediency of the cake mix, intended to allow women to break out of domestic bondage. I liked the idea of using a term borrowed from women as creative agents; I liked the idea of a group-constructed competition. And I loved the idea of creating plays as recipes, as a group responding to a staple in our diet and creating endless variations.

As I thought more about the dynamics of playwriting and cooking, I realized how apt the metaphor is that we cook on a deadline for a specific group, a theater company, actors we know and love, a specific audience. We cook as well in homage to our ancestors: my great aunt Betty’s recipe, my grandmother’s pound cake, my mother-in-law’s brisket. In the same way, we write plays looking over our shoulders to our writer ancestors. Whether in fury or infatuation, the impact of previous writers can be seen in the words of Thornton Wilder, as more of a relay race than a foot race. We also cook in competition. “I can do a better job than that restaurant.” ”I have a better idea for this cake or salad.”  

And so in my mind, I saw Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine wearing berets, two Frenchmen in the 17th Century sitting in a little bistro and daring each other. “I dare you to write Phedra. If you write Phedra, I’ll write Phedra”. In fact, when looked at through the lens of a bake-off, we can see theater as a great group game, unique perhaps to any form of writing. No playwright writes in isolation. We are always responding to the same audience, the same crises, the same moment in time--a time in London when there were revolutions, gun powder plots, plagues, and fires all shared by only two theater companies and the same audience. The root of drama itself is a bake-off. The yearly festival of Dionysis during which Greek playwrights competed for production by dramatizing a set number of Greek myths was produced on a hillside before an audience that knew every myth. There were multiple Medeas, multiple Oedipus plays and thus a young Eurypides looked over his shoulders at his ancestors--Sophocles and Aeschylus.

In the only playwriting class I’ve ever taken, Bert States told me that every time I sit down to write a play, I am talking back to Aristotle. I am keenly aware of the ancestors that I talk to: Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the ancestors of women writers, Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, Caryl Churchill, Maria Irene Fornes and Susan Glaspell. In fact the ancestors of our plays may be alive and well. Many of the ancestors of my plays are former and current students whose plays I’ve produced.

I believe that a great writing workshop consists of unique and original voices each bringing their particular ancestors to the table. And over the time that we spend with our sleeves rolled reading, discussing each others’ first drafts, we adopt the ancestors of the playwrights we work alongside of.  I have been fortunate to have worked with specific groups across the globe: Brazilian playwrights and a translator for two weeks in Rio de Janeiro; English-speaking playwrights in Prague, Canadian playwrights in Montreal, writers from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Bush and National Theaters in London, and perhaps my most extraordinary journey of all, Los Angeles playwrights for a week at the Mark Taber Theater. To spend a week in the room with writers who share the culture of a specific place and time is to participate as a visitor in a way no tourist can. I now sense through the imagination of these writers what it feels to live in Brazil, in London, in Montreal, in LA.