Magazine article American Theatre

For the Love of the Game: A Monthly Playwriting Exercise in the Bay Area Is Getting Its Writers Noticed

Magazine article American Theatre

For the Love of the Game: A Monthly Playwriting Exercise in the Bay Area Is Getting Its Writers Noticed

Article excerpt

IT'S FIVE O'CLOCK ON A RAINY MONDAY, AND the play wrights are restless. They squeeze through the doors to greet the directors and actors already milling around the lobby of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Brady Lea is especially frazzled, having spent the weekend laboring over a full-length commission that was due today to PlayGround, the San Francisco theatre company that puts on the evening of short staged readings due to take place here in a few hours. A few days ago, Lea's short play submission was chosen for this evening's lineup, and she and her peers have come to meet their respective actors and directors for a quickie rehearsal.


"I think they just picked mine so I have to show up and can't play it off like I'm sick," Lea says, only half-joking.

"I've got the dreaded opening slot," groans playwright Aaron Loeb. "Mine is the one that's so bad you need five other plays to recover from it."

Within minutes it's a frenzy of activity. Six short plays are being rehearsed simultaneously in every available corner of the Berkley Rep lobby. Two actors recite lines from Nima Aghdam's melancholy fantasy about an out-of-body conversation between Chef Baker and Miles Davis, while on the other end of the room, a quartet of actors playing two characters stuck in a loop in Loeb's play practice exiting one side of the stage and entering on the other. Just above them on the upstairs level, performers slink around as philosophical tigers in Mark Routhier's piece, while Carolina Rojas Moretti's actors swirl around each other making whooshing sounds.

The playwrights, actors and directors have just 90 minutes to rehearse the shorts, each 10 pages (and theoretically 10 minutes) long, then rush off for tech in the theatre proper before the audience wanders in for a pre-show discussion.

Founded in 1994 at San Francisco State by Jim Klein-mann, Brighde Mullins and Denise, Sharma, PlayGround uses what's essentially a theatre game to develop the chops, portfolio and profile of emerging playwrights. Applications are accepted over the summer for 36 spots in the company's writers pool. Each month this pool is given a topic on a Friday (e.g., "star-crossed lovers"), with five days to write a short play, six of which are chosen for the following Monday Night PlayGround at Berkeley Rep. The shorts are cast by associate director Annie Stuart from a burgeoning pool of professional actors and directors--often ones well-connected enough that getting them to know the playwrights' work is an end in itself. From inspiration to fruition, the process takes 10 days.

This particular February Monday is complicated further by PlayGround's collaboration with the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Once a year the mathematicians suggest a topic for the playwrights to tackle. It's usually something that could be taken in a conventional way ("zero-sum game," "strange attractor," or this week's concept, "one-sidedness"), but there's an optional field trip to MSRI in the Berkeley hills for a lecture on what the concept means to mathematicians.

After six of these Monday Night PlayGrounds (from October through March), 7 out of 36 plays are selected as Emerging Playwright Award winners to be included in the Best of PlayGround Festival, the next of which will be held May 7-31 at San Francisco's Thick House. Each year the company publishes these selected shorts in a Best of Play Ground anthology, and it has partnered with KQED to produce some of them as audio podcasts.

BETWEEN THE EVENINGS OF SHORTS, the festival unveils staged readings of five commissioned full-length works. Since 2002, PlayGround has offered two first-time commissions each year to writers in the festival: the June Anne Baker Prize, given to a female playwright who represents "a gifted new comedic or political voice," and the gender-neutral PlayGround Fellowship.


This year's June Baker play is Postgrad (or the Odyssey Years) by Lauren Yee, who is in her second season in the PlayGround writers pool. …

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