Monday, March 28, 2011

15th annual Best of PlayGround Festival

PlayGround has announced this year's Emerging Playwright Award winners and the line-up for the 15th annual Best of PlayGround Festival.  The festival, the leading showcase for Bay Area emerging playwrights and their work begun in 1997, features an evening-length program of seven short plays and/or musicals selected from the Monday Night PlayGround staged reading series.  So, without further delay, here are this year's winners!

15th annual Best of PlayGround Festival

This is My Body by Daniel Heath, directed by Susi Damilano
Calling the Kettle by Brady Lea, music by Christopher Winslow, directed by Jessica Heidt
Ecce Homo by Jonathan Luskin, directed by Molly Noble
Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero by Katie May, directed by Jim Kleinmann
See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. by Evelyn Jean Pine, directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges
Escapades by Mandy Hodge Rizvi**, directed by M. Graham Smith
Frigidare by Arisa White, directed by Jon Tracy
** Winner, 2011 June Anne Baker Prize

The 2011 Festival also features staged readings of seven new full-length plays commissioned by PlayGround from writers Trevor Allen, Cass Brayton, Erin Bregman, Geetha Reddy, Diane Sampson, Tom Swift and Malachy Walsh.

Event: Best of PlayGround 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays
Date: Thursdays - Sundays, May 5 - 29 (Friday, May 6th, press night)
Time: Thurs. - Sat., 8pm; Sun., 7pm
Location: Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Tickets: Best of PlayGround: $25-$40 (general), discounts available for students, PlayGround subscribers and members, and groups of 10 or more. Thursdays, May 5, 12, 19, and 26 are Pay-What-You-Can performances; Pay-What-You-Can tickets go on sale one hour before the performance, first-come first-served, subject to availability.
Staged Readings: $10 suggested donation at the door
For tickets call (415) 992-6677 or on-line at
Information: Jim Kleinmann, Artistic Director; 415.704.3177;

Performance Schedule
• Best of PlayGround 15 - All seven short plays are presented at each performance, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm (Sunday evenings, May 15, 22, and 29, are followed by post-show discussion with festival playwrights)
• Staged Readings:
Sunday, May 8, 2pm: A Bid to Save the World by Erin Bregman, directed by Jon Tracy
Monday, May 9, 7pm: Naked by Diane Sampson, directed by Chris Smith
Sunday, May 15, 2pm: Stiff Competition by Cass Brayton, directed by M. Graham Smith
Monday, May 16, 7pm: A Marriage by Tom Swift, directed by Lee Sankowich
Sunday, May 22, 2pm: Book Club! The Musical by Geetha Reddy, directed by Jessica Heidt
Monday, May 23, 7pm: Christina Walters by Malachy Walsh, directed by Mina Morita
Sunday, May 29, 2pm: Valley of Sand by Trevor Allen*, directed by Rick Lombardo
* A co-commission with San Jose Repertory Theatre

PlayGround Benefit & Awards Night

PlayGround will celebrate this year’s Festival playwrights at the annual PlayGround Benefit & Awards Night on Monday, April 11th at the Claremont Hotel, with special guests Tony Taccone, Jonathan Moscone and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, and special musical guest Christopher Winslow. Previously announced guest Sarah Ruhl has withdrawn due to health reasons. The event features a talk with Taccone, Moscone and Nachtrieb, a silent auction, reception, three-course dinner and live entertainment. For more information on the PlayGround Benefit, visit

Young Playwrights Project: Spotlight on Next Generation

PlayGround spotlights the next generation of talent with the Young Playwrights Project. Earlier this month, PlayGround announced this year's contest, open to Bay Area high school students: to write new ten-minute plays inspired by the topic “Vaudeville” (this was also the topic for the March Monday Night PlayGround). The students have until April 18 to submit a script. The best four plays will be read as special “curtain raisers” May 19-22 of the Best of PlayGround Festival. For more information and guidelines, visit

For more information, contact Caroline Anderson, Marketing Manager,, 415-704-3177.

Photo credit: Brian Herndon, Jomar Tagatac and Liam Vincent in Alex Moggridge's The Audition, directed by Tracy Ward, part of the 14th annual Best of PlayGround Festival. Photo:

Theatre is Dangerous to Young Minds

First, congrats to the selects for the 15th Annual PlayGround Festival.

This is My Body by Daniel Heath
Calling the Kettle by Brady Lea, music by Christopher Winslow
Ecce Homo by Jonathan Luskin
Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero by Katie May
See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. by Evelyn Jean Pine
Escapades by Mandy Hodge Rizvi
Frigidare by Arisa White

I missed two evenings this year, so I'm looking forward to discovering those plays at the festival. And looking forward to seeing what directors do with the work I did have the pleasure of taking in on the evening I did go. (For the record, I made 4 of 6.)

Kudos to all.


Several weeks ago an article was posted on this blog about Aaron Loeb’s “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party.” Apparently, Arizona’s “Goldwater Institute, Citizens Against Government Waste” feel that the $2351 the Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe has received for supporting the production of the play is a waste. Why? The article quotes the organization: ““Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party”… features a teacher in Honest Abe’s hometown who encourages students to debate the sexuality of the “Great Emancipator.” That’s fine for the several thousand folks who pay to see a Stray Cat show each year. For the millions of Arizona taxpayers who are offended by the organization’s programs, however, being forced to support something that violates their sensibilities or morals is an insult."

The end of that last sentence came to mind when I learned last week that Fremont school trustees had rejected the inclusion of “Angels In America, Part One” in the 12th Grade AP supplemental reading list.

A few years ago, “Bastard Out Of Carolina” was rejected by the same organization.

Among the reasons for the rejection of Kushner’s play are (apparently):
• the play is thought to make fun of some people’s belief systems
• the play makes some people feel their belief system is not being tolerated
• the play might make some students uncomfortable
• teaching the play might be disparaging to an ethnic race or a specific organization or a religious belief
• the play uses the “F word” and “Yiddish profanities”
• it stereotypes religious and political beliefs
• it doesn’t have a hook to “shine through the toilet talk”
• it’s divisive in a school district that’s worked hard for unity
• tolerance in the play is “limited to sexual activity”
• the play offers no tolerance for a diversity of ideas and thought

Looking at this list, culled from the news article cut and pasted below, you’d think the play is an anti-religious, profanity laced, ethnically divisive, politically motivated orgy of sorts.

I’ll have to admit, this is not how I remember the play. Yes, it’s been 10 years since I read it, but what I recall is a play that is a big and ambitious; a play where characters from a variety of backgrounds struggle with the truth of “who they are” versus what history and the world-at-large asks them to be. What we see are the consequences visited upon those who are intolerant to their inner selves by conforming to the outside world’s needs. After a lifetime of persecuting others, Roy Cohn cannot admit his own homosexuality. Joe struggles throughout with figuring out how his religious heritage and his sexuality fit together (or don’t). Joe’s wife Harper sinks into mental illness as a way of dealing with Joe’s sexuality and the shattering of her idea what she thought her marriage was.

I'm pretty sure that the play has an angel and ghosts and which seems to suggest there is a God and a heaven and that we all have souls - pretty standard Judeo-Christian stuff here.

I think you’d have to intentionally misread the play to think that it’s a piece promoting intolerance versus a piece about intolerance; that it makes fun of belief systems versus questioning the beliefs that the characters have been taught to hold dear at all costs; that it says “indiscriminate sex is okay” versus suggesting that hiding your sexuality (from others and yourself) can be deadly (to others and yourself).

It made me wonder if the people passing judgment on the Advanced Placement reading list could actually pass an Advanced Placement class. After all, comprehension and the ability to analyze and discuss ideas are among the criteria I recall being tested on when I took the AP exams before college.

To some of the other charges, well, I know there was profanity, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing a 17-year old in Fremont hasn’t heard before. Unless they live in some bubble where radio, TV, internet and contact with other people is prohibited – which I suppose isn’t entirely impossible. Of course, there is that charge about “Yiddish profanities”. Perhaps the word “schmuck” is used? I’m at a disadvantage here because, 1) It’s been a long time since I read it and 2) I don’t have Kindle to download the portion of the play that Bruce (see article below) apparently was able to get on his e-reader. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that “schmuck” isn’t one of the 7 words the FCC bans from TV, so how profane could it be?

I’ll also agree that the play will make some students uncomfortable. Particularly the ones who live in the aforementioned bubble where radio, TV, internet and contact with other people is prohibited. But I’d like to add that Chemistry 101 made me very uncomfortable. While no-one banned it, it turned out, like many AP classes, to be elective. I dropped it after a week.

On the other hand, as a parent, I know what it’s like to struggle with the desire to protect a child from harmful or even challenging material. As my kid is 3 and a half, that means banning Sponge Bob from the house. In fact, all commercial television is off-limits. This might make me a prude. But earlier in his life, when we were given Teletubbies videos, I hid them in a sock drawer.

However, I do hope that when my kid is 17, he’s so into reading that it doesn’t really matter what school board thinks about “Angels In America” or “Huckleberry Finn” or “Catcher in the Rye” – or whatever it is that’s deemed “divisive” and
“intolerant” and “disparaging.”

If I’m really lucky, my kid will be so damn rebellious that when the school board does reject something, he’ll makes a point of reading it. In front of the school.

I read this first in the Contra Costa Times.

FREMONT -- School trustees are embroiled in another controversy over censorship and tolerance after they rejected the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America Part One" for the 12th-grade Advanced Placement supplemental reading list.

Five other books were approved on a 3-2 vote late Wednesday night, after board President Bryan Gebhardt and trustee Ivy Wu refused to support any materials until the selection process is improved.

In a separate vote, "Angels in America" was rejected 4-1. Trustee Lara York voted in favor of the play, about the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era New York, but trustees Larry Sweeney and Lily Mei said it is unsuitable for high school students. The board rejected Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina" in 2009 and again last year for the same reason.

Sweeney denied that the play is being banned or censored, saying the question is whether it should be required reading.

"If you, as a parent, want to take your child to see the play or you want to see the play or anything, I have absolutely no problem with that at all," he said. "But I think when we're requiring reading and there's a group of people who feel that they are being targeted -- we've heard people talk tonight about tolerance and acceptance -- and there's a group of people who feel very much that their belief system is not being tolerated, and in fact is being made fun of."

Mei also said she doesn't want students to feel uncomfortable with a required textbook.

"I would not recommend any book that's disparaging to any ethnic race or any specific organizations or religious beliefs," she said.

York said that while she is concerned that people in the community feel attacked by the play, the AP class is there for students to challenge themselves.

"I don't see a controversy of having students who may have different beliefs than what's being brought up in this book, or any other book that they might be reading in our classes, and for them to be led in a rich dialogue by our highly qualified teachers to flesh out what their position is," she said.

It's not the first time Fremont trustees have found themselves accused of censorship.

In 2009, Mei, Sweeney and Wu said the book "Bastard Out of Carolina," which tells the story of a girl beaten and raped by her stepfather and includes scenes of masturbation, was inappropriate for high school students. The following year, York also opposed it, saying the book should not have been brought back before the board so quickly.

Before a book is recommended to the school board, it must be approved by the English Curriculum Committee, a group consisting of the district's English department heads, and then by the Secondary Schools' Textbook Adoption Committee, made up of teachers, administrators, parents and a school board member.

Superintendent Jim Morris said district officials are going to look at what other schools are doing and bring back some revisions to the board.

"We understand that we have a process in place that is a less than perfect process, and I think this example brings to light some of the improvements that we need to make," he said. "The current process is not only cumbersome, but I'm not sure that it really gives us a satisfactory result."

"Angels in America" is a seven-hour play in two parts by Tony Kushner. It revolves around two New York couples and their friends and family who deal with disease and death during the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s.

The first part, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," received its world premiere in May 1991 in a production by the Eureka Theatre Co. in San Francisco. The play debuted on Broadway in 1993 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year.

HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play in 2003, adapted by Kushner, directed by Mike Nichols and with a cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. It won five Golden Globe Awards and 11 Emmy Awards.
The book has been in use by the College Board since 2009 and appears on the AP test as a supplemental reading option.

Four years ago, Encinal High School in Alameda became the second high school in the state to stage a production of "Angels in America." Gene Kahane, the English teacher who directed the play, said they performed a 3 1/2-hour version, having edited out some of the language and nude scenes, and it went off without a hitch.

"We didn't have a single complaint," he said. "People stayed to the end; there was a standing ovation every night; people were in tears every night. They recognized that there was beauty in the story and there was truth."

Kahane, who has taught for 28 years, including 15 at Encinal, said he wouldn't hesitate to study the play in class. "You don't win the Tony award and the Pulitzer Prize, as this has done, without having some significance," he said.
"Seniors in high school, and especially AP seniors -- they not only need this kind of stuff to look at, but they want it, too. They don't want anything watered down."
Anthony Newfield, an actor who has performed on stage, film and television, urged the board to adopt the play as part of the curriculum.

"I saw 'Angels in America' in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre in its first-ever production," he said. "It was astonishing. I had not seen anything like it before or since. It deals with issues in America, how we live as Americans, who we are as Americans. It deals with the diversity of America, with Mormons, Jews, Christians, blacks, whites, straights, and yes, even gays."

Laura Saponara, communications director of the ACLU of Northern California and a graduate of Fremont schools, also encouraged the board to approve the play.

"Intellectual freedom means access to information and ideas, and the right of students as well as adults to entertain a full range of diverse ideas," she said. "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended precisely for this kind of conversation. It was intended to protect against the tendency to guard against ideas and characters that are perceived to be so dangerous that they must be somehow barred or made off-limits to learners," she said.

Others, though, were offended by the play and said it is inappropriate for high-schoolers, even those in an honors class.

The Rev. Bruce Green of Centerville Presbyterian Church, said a fellow member of the Afghan Coalition board complained about the play, and Green said he downloaded a sample on Kindle to see what the fuss was about.

"Just from the sample, I couldn't believe that such a profane and obscene book was being considered as a high school textbook," he said. "The little bit I read of this book, it was kind of like I was being offered a filthy cup covered with the F-word and even introducing me to new Yiddish profanities. I was looking for the hook, something that would shine through the toilet talk and engage me to pay the $8 and download the whole book. Instead, the filthy cup was filled with sour milk. It looked bad and smelled worse to me."

Carol Zilli, a teacher for more than 30 years, said the play is "sordid curriculum" that stereotypes religious and political groups.

"Divisive is the primary word that comes to my mind, divisive in a school district that has worked hard for unity," she said. "I find that going backwards. Tolerance (in the play) is limited to sexual activity. It is not evidenced in this book that there's tolerance for diversity of ideas and thought, and you can't have a diverse culture without acceptance of diversity of thought and religious beliefs."

Ann Crosbie, parent of two children who will be attending Washington High, said she wrestled with the issue but ultimately decided to support adopting the play.
"Some parents feel that their 17-year-old child shouldn't be exposed to inappropriate language, but this isn't the first book approved for AP English with dirty words," she said. "Is this book just smut? Historically, they haven't awarded Pulitzer Prizes to smut."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Playwrights Tell Mat Smart Why He Failed

Malachy is right, the HowlRound blog post by Mat Smart caused quite a kerfuffle in the theatre blogosphere and on Twitter. (And by the way, if you want to follow some really great theatre conversation, check out the 2AM Theatre blog and follow the #2amt hashtag on Twitter.)

I thought I'd add to your reading list and direct you to some of the online responses playwrights wrote to Mat Smart.

Playwright Kari Bentley-Quinn takes issue with several of Mat's arguments about "lazy" playwrights.

Playwright JC Lee wrote two responses to the HowlRound blog post.

And Youngblog, the official group blog of Youngblood had two posts by two of their playwrights contributing to the conversation.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mat Smart tells you why playwrights fail

Uh, I really am trying to post on the blog only once a week, but since last Friday, there's been some wild craziness in the theatre-blogosphere worth bringing to your attention.

Of course, you may already know, but on the blog (which you should look at regularly, by the way) published as "The Journal of American Voices New Play Institute", Mat Smart (you may recall his play at the Magic, THE HOPPER COLLECTION, from a few years back), has written a provocative piece on why playwrights fail.

You'll find good follow-up and links on Isaac Butler's - always an excellent source for independent thought on the theatre world (though somewhat/loosely NY-centric).

Then there's this fire-bomb from the Collective Arts Think Tank that says flatly you're not a professional if you're not paid for your art. Which technically is correct, but I wonder it's a little, uh... well, you come to your own conclusions.

Read 'em. And weep.

Pictures below for color.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A must read.

You might have seen Theresa Rebeck's plays at the Magic.

She's also a novelist. And a television writer.

The other day, she had a few words about the state of new play production and women in the theatre.

You should read it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Play I Didn't Write

So, my wife’s in bed and my son is snoring like a 90 year old man and I’ve just finished my PlayGround play. I’ll read it again tomorrow morning over coffee, and send it in, but already I can see that it’s not quite the play I started out to write.

That play that I didn’t write still lurks in my mind like a familiar stranger… and it involves a pack of wild monkeys dancing to ABBA and the Bay City Rollers singing “Saturday Night” and ends in an aquarium where the squid makes friends with the tuna fish and the sea otters are missing. And in between, aliens are lost on the escalator and so they ask what time it is. And when the clock strikes 2, all the cowboys in town jump out of the whore house windows and run down the street naked while the Harlem Globe Trotters make their way into the Catholic Church to hide their revolvers under the pew cushions where a band of wandering merry makers will sing to the moon and make a boy named Kevin pine for a red-haired lass whose teeth glow in the dark like fluorescent pearls and whose mom owns a cow that makes chocolate milk. But that doesn’t mean the roses won’t be delivered for the funeral because that cow can speak French and knows a thing or two about Sanskrit and enough to warn you that an albatross is only bad luck if you wear it around your neck.

Yep, the play I’ve written is nothing like that at all. But someday, I will write it. I surely will.

Friday, March 11, 2011

PlayGround Takes a Roadtrip

On April 6, PlayGround is sojourning south to San Jose Stage Company to see the World Premiere of Lolita Roadtrip by Trevor Allen. Roadtrip was the inaugural recipient of the New Play Production Fund, which gave San Jose Stage Company $15,000 to produce the show.

Excerpt from an interview with Trevor Allen on his new play, Lolita Roadtrip

(Originally posted on December 8, 2010.)
PlayGround: What first gave you the idea for Lolita Roadtrip?
TA: The road that led to the play that became Lolita Roadtrip was a circuitous
one and could probably form the basis of its own play-- but someone else

would have to write it because I'm too busy trying to finish another play.
But here is the bullet-time, high-speed-camera recap version. Several years
ago, I came across an odd piece of information online while I was doing
research for another play that said something like this, "In 1941, Vladimir
Nabokov found and identified this previously unknown subspecies of
Lepidoptera in the Grand Canyon while traveling across country from New York
to California to take a teaching position at Stanford. It is brown in color,
rather than pale blue, his fondness for the blues is of course well known.
The holotype resides in the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate park." I
immediately knew I had to write a play about how Nabokov found this
creature! Other than a ten page play entitled, "Nabokov's Moth," which
thankfully never saw the light of day, nothing came of it. I just filed the
idea away in my "ideas" pile, which takes up a ridiculous amount of memory
on my ageing laptop. Fast forward a few years to when I was pitching the
required three play ideas to Playground for a possible commission. I think
I'd already pitched two of the ideas when I received my first commission for
Tenders in the Fog, and I was desperately casting about for a third one and
came across my proposal for a Sloan Foundation grant, which for reasons I
won't go into, I had not submitted. So this third idea stuck and of course
it was the one that PlayGround picked. So my original idea was to write a
play about Nabokov's 1941 roadtrip. The working title was Nabokov's American
Blues or a Lolita Road Trip. Which after I created the outline, got
shortened down to just Lolita Roadtrip. But I have to say, the play that
grew out of that initial impulse was completely different from the one I had
originally conceived. One never knows what will eventually come out of a
PG: Lolita Roadtrip is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s real-life journey from New
York to Stanford. What research did you do to write the play?
TA: Well, yes and no. The original idea came from an account of that trip
which I read, and the roadtrip in my play, which forms the narrative spine,
is based on the route that Nabokov and his family took. I researched
Nabokov's life. Read a few books about him, his wife, Vera, and Dmitri, his
son. But I quickly decided that I didn't just want to write about these
historical figures and the actual trip. Which was not very dramatic. So a
lot of my research went out the window and now they only appear in one
scene, the "Grand Canyon" scene, which is sort of a fever-dream flash back.
However, I chose to create a fictional character, Julia, who would retrace
that 1941 roadtrip with a young man. As I wrote both tracks, slowly her
modern story began to take on a life of its own and I became much more
interested in telling a modern version of Lolita with the gender roles
reversed. So, I reread Lolita because I hadn't read it since High School, and
that was for an assignment about the evils of censorship and banning books.
I didn't get a very high grade, as I recall, because at the time I was
acting in a play and cramming lines late into the night, so I didn't finish
the book and relied on my knowledge of the Kubric film instead. Which if
you're familiar with, you know it's significantly different from the
novel. I never made that mistake again! That book informed my play in terms
of mood and tone, but again, the story in Lolita Roadtrip is completely
different and not based on Nabokov’s Lolita at all.
PG: Was there anything surprising or exciting that you discovered as you did
your research?
TA: When I received the PlayGround commission in the fall of '08, I had also
received a Djerassi Playwriting Residency. So for a month I had the gift of
time to literally sit on top of a mountain and read plays, do research and
write Lolita Roadtrip. It was also at this time that the economy fell apart
and I lost my job of 8 years. I was very glad to be able to focus on a new
project under circumstances which made the transition to "full time
playwright" (which sounds so much more positive than underemployed) a lot
easier! I read a lot of Nabokov. It was amazing. Pale Fire absolutely blew
my mind, I mean, just from a structural point of view, it's a masterpiece. A
light bulb went off and I knew that I wanted to have a similar "surprise"
element in my play, a real "aha moment.” But not in the "Mousetrap" way.
Where it will work best on an audience who doesn't see it coming. I hope
I’ve succeeded. The difficulty is, once an audience knows... it changes
everything. So, we’ll see if it works.
PG: Tell the truth: did you know what “lepidopterist” meant before you
started researching Nobokov?
TA: Ahem... yes. No, really, I did. I could even pronounce it. I just couldn't
spell it. Post-research and a few years later now I can even spell things
like Cyllópsis Pertepída Dorothéa, the Latin name of the butterfly that
Nabokov found and which makes a cameo in my play. Fortunately, I don’t have
to pronounce that onstage. ;-)

Read the rest of the interview.
Read the entire script of Lolita Roadtrip.
See Lolita Roadtrip with PlayGround.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party: Pork Project, Bad Idea or Misuse of Power?

Aaron Loeb  Makes the List!
Arizona's Goldwater Institute, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), and Arizona State Senator Steve Pierce yesterday released the 2011 Arizona Piglet Book, featuring "$1.4 billion in fraudulent, wasteful, and often downright silly mismanagement of taxpayer dollars."  Near the top of the list? An upcoming production of Aaron Loeb's Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party at Tempe's Stray Cat Theatre!  Originally commissioned and developed by PlayGround in 2007, Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party premiered to audience and critical acclaim in December 2008 in an SF Playhouse production directed by Chris Smith, winning a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for "original script."  It was named "Outstanding Play" and "Best of Fringe" at the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival in a co-production with BlueRare Productions, SF Playhouse and PlayGround, and had its off-Broadway debut last summer.

Aaron Loeb's Abraham Lincoln's
Big Gay Dance Party!,
at SF Playhouse (December 2008),
directed by Chris Smith and featuring
Brian Degan Scott, Velina Brown, Joe Kady,
Lorraine Olsen, Sarah Mitchell, Mark Anderson Phillips,
and Michael Phillis. Photo: Zabrina Tipton.
Quoting from the report:
"When government gets involved in art funding, tax dollars can go to support endeavors that many would consider to be odd, questionable, racy, and inappropriate. One such organization is the Tempe-based Stray Cat Theatre, which received a $2,351 grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts this year—a portion of which came from the wallets of state taxpayers.

The playhouse’s hallmarks are their risqué productions, often replete with nudity, cursing, blasphemy, and gore, including “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party,” which features a teacher in Honest Abe’s hometown who encourages students to debate the sexuality of the “Great Emancipator.” That’s fine for the several thousand folks who pay to see a Stray Cat show each year. For the millions of Arizona taxpayers who are offended by the organization’s programs, however, being forced to support something that violates their sensibilities or morals is an insult."

Odd? Sure. Questionable? Well, of course.  Racy? We hope so. Inappropriate? It's theatre, right?? We offer our heartfelt congratulations to Aaron and Stray Cat Theatre for this (dubious) honor!  By the way, the show runs in Tempe May 20-June 11, 2011.  Get your tickets now!  We hear they're going fast!!!

For the full details and a copy of the 2011 Arizona Piglet Book (a true keepsake!), visit the Goldwater Institute's website.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Shakespeare's Shorts

A few years ago I started a video project asking random folks to read Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 aloud. Some people were terrific readers. Some not so terrific. But they were always interesting to me. The one above has proved to be the most viewed. I'm pretty sure the animal-factor has something to do with that.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

“A Play Is A Poem Standing Up.”

Federico Garcia LorcaI love that quote.

Sounds like something a poet would say. In fact, one did.

I always thought of Federico Garcia Lorca as a poet. It wasn’t until I started playwriting that I learned he was also a playwright.

I like thinking of a play as a poem standing up, as a poem that’s come to life—not just in the bodies of the actors, but in the visual imagery on stage, in the soundscape, in metaphor, in language.

And after reading Malachy’s blog post on openness, I’m reminded of another way a play is like a poem.

When I was getting my MFA in poetry we always had two classes every semester, one of which was a poetry workshop. Every week students would bring in a poem and we’d read it aloud and then discuss it.

At first this was a bit intimidating. I didn’t have a Literature background, hadn’t really studied poetry before and some of the poems were hard for me to understand. Most weren’t traditional narrative poems, most were experimental and language poems.

I had to learn to be open. To encounter a poem on its own terms.

I’d start with the visual space the poem occupied on the page. Then I’d look at the language. The word choice. Line breaks. The images the poem conjured. Lyricism. Sound. Rhythm.

And this is that other example of how a play is like a poem. Sometimes you have to just encounter a play on its own terms. You have to be “open,” as Malachy put it. You have to let the experience of the play wash over you because sometimes a poem or a play is about a feeling. About bringing you to a single moment, an emotional revelation.

And the only way to arrive at that experience is to be open and willing.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Open Here

Okay, you’re a writer. And it’s the Monday night for PlayGround and you’re sitting in the audience watching a show that does not have your piece in it. Yep, that’s right, this month, like many months, your 10-minute play has been passed over. And now you’re there to see what has been picked.

Depending on the kind of person you are, the kind of writer you are, the kind of audience member you can be, this will either be a good evening or a very difficult one. Because you will either sit there and ask, “I wonder what’s going to happen tonight?” Or you will fold your arms as a small thought burns through your mind: “I wonder what's going to happen tonight. Let’s just see.”

One way is the way of generosity. The other is the way of what I’ll call self-serving anti-curiosity.

And you don’t need to be a writer at PlayGround to find yourself at this fork in the road. You can just as easily be sitting in an audience at any theatre in the Bay Area, or the country, facing the exact same two choices - whoever you may be. After all, as an actor, you can be thinking: “I would’ve made better choices.” As a director, you might think, “I would’ve staged it in a more interesting way.” And, even as an audience member, you might think, “I could’ve thought of that myself.” And while all these things can always true, they’re quite simply unhelpful. And, for me, anyway, when I’m feeling that way, I usually need to do something else, because theatre is not for the unkind or the small-hearted.


I have an MFA in playwriting. As a student, I was lucky enough to work side by side with 5 other very talented writers. We were taught using sense memory exercises based on Fornes' work. These exercises were done by all of us, every week. That is to say, in-class writing.

Honestly, when I learned this was to be the way of the program, I balked. I had a lot of professional experience already as a writer. I felt "writing in public" was a big waste. My reluctance wasn't helped by the dictum that we were to type exactly what we'd written down each week and bring it to the following class where it was to be read out loud by the playwrights before the next in-class exercise was started.

After just one week of it, I was ready to quit. It was only because I'd come such a long way to do the MFA that I decided to give it a try - and not just a college try. An honest-to-god "surrender to it" commitment to see if it would work. Or how it would work. Or what it would do. No preconceptions. No judgments until after it was over - which, in this case, meant sticking with it a year.

One of the ideas behind the exercise was, of course, to just get us writing. Another was to get us to trust our first instincts in writing. But along the way, there was an unintentional side-effect. I began to see how many different ways there were to solve a problem that differed from the path I took. Not that I always loved what I was hearing. But since we were discouraged from critiquing work in part due to its truly embryonic nature, I searched for ways to listen differently.

I found myself asking questions instead. Why were they doing that? What's happening underneath? What's the rhythm saying?

It lead to an openness that was useful when working in a collaboration class in which we were tasked with writing a short play a week and fully producing it the following week. The work was always wet and fresh. But it also came with a formal weekly critique. You'd think it would be a free-for all, but the professor, a director, created an atmosphere where questions were asked about how to discover the rules of a piece without overanalyzing it and trying to make it something it wasn't. And since I knew what kind of work this professor/director created, I also knew that there was plenty of work that she never would've made and that aesthetically rubbed her the wrong way. But it never showed. Never. And it became our job to arrive at the theatre prepared to experience, not as experts, but as participants who were privileged, honored, respected. It was a pretty amazing thing to be part of.

It was – and is – an openness.

It’s an openness that leads to more interesting conversations about the work than we currently get from the critics in most of the press where aesthetic opinions about what is good and bad is often being pushed. (Just take a look at any Isherwood review in the Times.)

It’s an openness to ideas and methods that are different from your own. An openness that requires understanding that if you have an idea of what you think theatre should be, you need to set it aside long enough to see what other people think theatre should be. (Or perhaps any piece of art for that matter.)

Theatre is very hard to do well, under even the best circumstances. It's a difficult way of life and a hard choice to make when everyone you know in law or technology or medicine is making 6 figures and buying nice coffee tables. But we shouldn’t make things harder for ourselves with ideas about what should be on stage and what shouldn't be. Or why we think it’s important to take stances against this kind of genre or that. Or feel we need to justify what we think is good by rejecting what is offered on any particular night.

Or put a little differently: I know I certainly need to do my best to remember that, whether I’m chosen or not, when I sit down in the theatre - any theatre, and the lights come down, the choice about how difficult or interesting the evening is going to be is as much my responsibility as anyone else's. Maybe more.