Is the future so bright that we'll have to wear shades? Or so dark that we'll need some of those clip-on coal miner lights?
According to a couple of dozen Twin Cities theater artists, the answer is somewhere in between. They're imagining the days and years ahead in "Hopscotch: Pop-Up Plays About the Future," playing at two St. Paul parks through Sept. 12. The 10 short pieces, performed in two groups of five — you'd need to attend two performances to see all of them, which can be done in one day or two — were inspired by a challenge.
Wonderlust Productions' Alan Berks and Leah Cooper asked writers such as Kira Obolensky and John Heimbuch to imagine a time when we've learned something, good or bad, from the pandemic/climate crisis/social-justice-craving era we're in.
"We were in our office going, 'What is the purpose of our company? Why do we exist?' " Berks recalled of the early days of the pandemic. "One thing is we care about communities. In that moment, we really felt the artist community. I've been working all my life in this. This is my identity. Now it's gone. It's a weird existential thing."
Wonderlust resolved to corral donors so they could pay playwrights and, ultimately, performers. In Zoom sessions, artists heard from experts about the future and discussed ways to engage audiences between performances of the plays. (There will be a free-form quiz and possibly a take-home card game.)
Hiring the actors wasn't as easy as that sounds, with people eager to get back to work after many theater-less months.
"Trying to cast this play was like doing a super-informal survey of 'How's everyone doing?' " said Cooper, who assembled a fully vaccinated cast that includes Kurt Kwan, Katie Bradley, Siddeeqah Shabazz and Adam Whisner. "People were like, 'I had to move back home with my parents.' Or, 'I switched careers. I am in grad school now.' Or, 'My mental health is just not up to it now.' ... We got people saying, 'I'm not in a place where I feel like I can act in a play again.' "
Some playwrights also declined. JuCoby Johnson — whose "No More Statues" is set 20 years from now, when two men play hopscotch and contemplate the meaning of a new George Floyd statue — gets that.
"I had to figure out if I had any ideas because I was very vegged out during the height of the thing," said Johnson, who heard from Wonderlust last summer and quickly realized, "I was excited to have an activity."
In a process he describes as "therapeutic," Johnson thought about COVID and the unrest that followed Floyd's murder — so much so that when he sat down to write, his six-minute piece came out fully formed. The "No More Statues" that audiences will see, which Cooper admits is her favorite of the 10 plays, is essentially his first draft.
"I wanted to address a situation, to call back to a time in our state's and our city's recent history that is still there with us," said Johnson. "I wanted to create something hopeful and something that does show people in the future laughing and making jokes and looking back at this time, understanding the difficulty of it but living in a future when we learned."
The plays cover a lot of territory, from the magical realism of Antonio Duke's "Soar" to Cooper's artificial-intelligence-themed "Total Paz" to Oogie_Push's joyous "Breathe in the Light," which the writer told Cooper sprang out of a need to portray connection.
"Oogie said right out, 'I'm sick of trauma porn.' She's from the Meskwaki Nation and she ends up having to represent all abuse of Native Americans," Cooper said. "She told us, 'I want to write a play where people feel good and take care of each other. I don't want there to be any conflict.' "
There is conflict in Katie Ka Vang's "And If You've Never," in which we meet three peace officers who have received training that encourages them to stay in touch with their own challenges as well as the challenges of others. Like Johnson, Vang was inspired by the legacy of Floyd, specifically by colleagues who admitted they wanted to visit George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis but were unsure how to approach it with respect.
"When I heard from Alan and Leah, there was a kind of liberation: 'Great, I can think about the future!' But our present is so present and we also just have to get through today," said Vang, who decided to apply her colleagues' concerns to the idea of training police to be more responsive to their communities.
"I was telling Alan, who's directing it, 'I feel like I'm not being political enough,' " Vang recalled. "He said: We don't know if the police will get torn down or defunded, and that's true. I wish we would defund the police but how realistic is that? So I wanted to approach this in a somewhat utopic way but also be realistic."
The plays have been prepared individually and won't all come together until Thursday, when technical rehearsals assemble the pieces. You could view that as a metaphor for the way theater artists are slowly coming out of 18 months of isolation to collaborate again. Vang is eager to find out how the 10 disparate plays bounce off and inform one another.
"We all did a lot of listening to each other but we never got to workshop [the pieces] with each other," Vang said. "That's what I really cannot wait to see. I'm really interested to find out where everybody's at."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Hopscotch: Pop-Up Plays About the Future
Sept. 4-5: 3:30 & 6:30 p.m., Frogtown Farm, 946 W. Minnehaha Av., St. Paul.
Sept. 11-12: 3:30 & 6:30 p.m., Newell Park, 900 N. Fairview Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: Pay-what-you-wish. $15 suggested for one play, $25 for two. wlproductions.org