Friday, May 04, 2012

Best of PlayGround... the Backstory

Lights up on the interior of a small theatre, some time shortly after the first public performance of a respected festival of short plays by new writers. The Artistic Director sits alone in the now-empty house as the crew put away the props, turn off the light board, and clear the stage. The Production Manager approaches the Artistic Director.

PRODUCTION MANAGER:        Any notes?

ARTISTIC DIRECTOR:           (Long pause as he considers his response. He turns to the Production Manager and begins to grin slowly as he responds.) None…

Lacking in dramatic tension?  Perhaps, but this scenario is the dream of Artistic Directors world-wide, from the time of the first organized performances to today. We strive to leave the drama (or comedy, as the case may be) on the stage.  And last night, before a capacity crowd, we did exactly that! The 16th annual Best of PlayGround Festival marked its first preview last night and, while the official opening night is still a day away, it was a satisfying culmination of more than eight months of work, beginning last September with the selection and announcement of the 2012-13 PlayGround Writers Pool, including eight first-time members.

From October through March, the thirty-six writers generated 177 original short plays inspired by assigned topics that ranged from ICON (marking the passing of icon Steve Jobs) to HEROES/HEROINES (as part of our third annual Musical Theatre Night) to BAY AREA STORIES. Thirty-six works were selected and presented as staged readings before capacity crowds on third Mondays at Berkeley Rep. And, in late March, the festival selections were announced. Cleavon Smith’s O’Neill-inspired You Eat What You Kill; two selections from Musical Night - Garret Jon Groenveld’s Medea retelling, Childless, and Ignacio Zulueta’s Meet the Breeders; Kirk Shimano’s mathematics-infused Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos; and three works from the final Monday Night PlayGround of the season inspired by the topic “Bay Area Stories”: Mercedes Segesvary’s Room for Rent, Genevieve Jessee’s Ships in the Day, and Robin Lynn Rodriguez’ Hella Love Oakland. Six first-time festival participants, including three writers in their very first PlayGround season, and one veteran celebrating his seventh Best of PlayGround appearance (though his first musical, I should note).

Then the REAL WORK began! Over the last month, we assembled a team of more than thirty playwrights, directors, actors, designers, stage managers, and technicians to help realize the seven stories and numerous characters created by our festival playwrights. The cast and crew met on April 16 for the ceremonial first rehearsal and read-through – a unique opportunity to hear all of the works at one time, something we would not get a chance to repeat until just prior to public performances.  And then over the next two weeks, casts for individual plays rehearsed with their directors and playwrights, identifying the setting, creating the blocking, and finding the nuances that may have been missed in the original Monday Night PlayGround staging. Plays were edited, scripts were sent to our Publications Director (Cass Brayton, himself a member of the Writers Pool and two-time Festival participant) in preparation for the publication of our twelfth annual compilation of festival works, and the actors went “off book.” And over the past four days, we’ve loaded all the production elements into the theatre, hung the scrim (the sheer black curtain that sits in front of our cyclorama, allowing us to create solid blackouts or – when light is projected on the cyc and the scrim becomes transparent – a bold screen of color), and worked through all of the technical elements and final tweaks in the theatrical performances… all leading up to last night’s first preview.
There’s a lot that goes into producing a play, from the time it is first conceived to the time it is fully produced and shared by an audience. Rarely is that cycle completed in just eight months. But that’s part of what makes the PlayGround experience so special… providing writers and audiences the chance to share in the development and production of new work in an accelerated environment, eight months or less from page to stage.  Of course, without the final ingredient – YOU, our audience! – we can’t possibly succeed.  For like the proverbial “tree in the forest,” a play can’t really be said to exist until it is seen, heard and experienced.  And if last night is any indication, I can safely say: You won’t be disappointed!

The 16th annual Best of PlayGround Festival runs May 3-27, 2012 at Thick House. To purchase tickets, visit or call (415) 992-6677.

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