Open writing prompts can be daunting. Open writing prompts can be your enemy.
But “constraints are fun,” Sarah Einspanier said. “Constraints are friends.”
Einspanier emailed me this in March, and after meeting her in person and reading her so-ruthless-it’s-mirthful play Lunch Bunch, it was easy to sense a wry humor and rascal smile behind her screen as she sent this credo into the ether. Her hit play Lunch Bunch, which premiered in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks (2019) and was slated to run again in April in a co-production with The Play Company, owes a lot to the unleashing potential of constraints.
“You are limited to three stage directions and three props,” read Clubbed Thumb’s email to its early-career writers’ group, which Einspanier was a member of from 2015-16. The message jumpstarted the world building of Lunch Bunch, a pseudo-workplace comedy where public defenders stave off the horrors of the New York judicial system by seeking solace in ornate, systemized, and highly competitive lunches which each takes turns preparing for the others. (The play is based off of a real group of Bronx Public Defenders—where Einspanier’s friend works—who joint-meal prep as seen in the show and, recently, on Instagram @lunchbunchforever.)
Without the aid of stage directions or props, Einspanier found a solution for establishing the tone of her world, playing with placement, punctuation, and size of text to musicalize the quippy dialogue on the page. “I find lines mean completely different things based on how they’re formatted,” Einspanier said. “It’s all about how we don’t finish our sentences, and you have to gesture toward these things.” Gesture she does:
“Sarah has such a clear, distinct writing style,” said actor Ugo Chukwu, who appears in Lunch Bunch and was also in Einspanier’s play House Plant, which was part of Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop in February. “She creates a very specific playground that allows me to give myself over to the text completely. There’s also so much room to experiment and discover that results in a very rewarding (and fun!) collaboration.”
In addition to the prompt’s limitation, the workshopping would evolve with specifics of its own: Lunch Bunch’s presentation at Winterworks, Clubbed Thumb’s lab that engenders writer-director collaboration, would be staged in NYU rehearsal rooms. “I mean, those fluorescents!” Einspanier said.
But the play found its bite in these contained spaces, so the ability to open it up led to more questions than celebrations. Following Winterworks in January 2019, Lunch Bunch was programmed for Summerworks, Clubbed Thumb’s main presenting season, later that year.
“I wrote the play knowing it’d be in a rehearsal room, so between Winerworks and Summerworks there was sort of the question of, ‘This is really satisfying in a rehearsal room, but does it want something more?’” Einspanier recalled. “When you add design it makes me ask…do we have fluorescents the entire time? The stage directions [for the play’s setting] read, ‘Can you keep a plant alive in this?’ so now it’s ‘Can you keep an audience alive in this?’ Does the play want to open or expand? Does it want an additional ingredient? Should I put lemon in this? The answer is often yes.”
Even as the play polished, previous grievances were missed. “The show was off and running, and Tara [Ahmadinejad, the play’s director] and I were on the roof of the Wild Project just debating for 30 minutes, carpet or no carpet? and missing the sound of rolling chairs, which we thought we’d be so happy to get rid of.” The play, as it’s set in an office, involves a lot of what Einspanier dubs “chair-eography.”
At Winterworks in the rehearsal rooms, “The actors had to roll then speak, roll then speak, and we found it had this impending doom whenever you heard the rolling,” Einspanier said. But at Summerworks, “It’s a raked stage, and we thought we need carpet or the actors are gonna slide off the stage to their death.” And so they missed the chair-rolling sound that the carpet muffled. It’s more than just lunches that depend on various ingredients working together.
The highly-ordered world of public defenders is explored through the back door in Einspanier’s comedy—no court cases are seen, no rulings dissected, but the dark world of do-gooders is nonetheless on full display in the munching and chewing of elaborate lunches where lemon tahini goddess noodles with tempeh “bacon” and garlic broccolini is the standard to exceed.
“I think there are similarities between certain theatermakers and certain lawyers,” Einspanier said. “I find that lawyers are extremely witty. You’ll hear stories where judges will say, ‘Don’t just sit there like a potted plant’, and you go ‘AAHHH I couldn’t write that line if I gave myself five weeks!’ There’s a certain performativity to lawyers’ work—your job is wielding language and argument.”
Beyond the play’s office walls, children are ripped from parents’ arms, a nefarious judge presides, and (farther away still) a president sits in the White House with little care for the wellbeing of those The System doesn’t benefit. But there’s a closet to cry in, and in the winter the coats work as insulation to stifle your sobs. Is Lunch Bunch a snowflake’s delight or worst fear?
The play feels simultaneously apiece with our politically confused world and also contained totally unto itself. “I'm interested in writing plays that feel like microcosms of the ‘larger world,’” Einspanier said. “At the time of writing, I was thinking a lot about the struggle towards kindness. We talk a lot about conflict (drama!) in the theater—I wanted to explore care, and how we might embody it onstage.”
This care and reciprocity has extended offstage as well; the Bronx Defenders have come on as a community partner for the remounted production, and JūLondré, The Play Company’s Literary and Community Engagement Fellow, is putting together three panels to illuminate the work of lawyers like those represented in the show. After the show closes, the Bronx Defenders will be honored at The Play Company’s spring gala.
But when it comes to showing care, there might not be anything purer than preparing food for someone else. “When we did the play for SummerWorks we started our own Lunch Bunch with myself, Tara, and the designers, and during tech we would bring each other lunch because tech is a hard time to take care of yourself,” Einspanier said.
The effort was a success, even if art imitates life—or lunch. “It was very intense,” she added. “I was suddenly like, ‘My lunch is not gonna be good enough for all these people! AHHHH!’”
Lunch Bunch, by Sarah Einspanier, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, was scheduled to run April 1 – 26. Due to the coronavirus, and Mayor De Blasio’s order to suspend theaters until further notice, the show has been postponed. For further information and updates, visit https://playco.org/events/lunch-bunch/.