Friday, May 16, 2014

FOR LOVE OF THE GAME: An Interview with Ruben Grijalva

Playwright Ruben Grijalva was recently interviewed about his new full-length play, VALUE OVER REPLACEMENT. VOR is one of four full-length plays in PlayGround’s 2014 Festival of New Works. Grijalva’s play—funny, philosophical and poignant in turns—presents Edward “Chip” Fuller, a radio sports personality and one-time major league shortstop. When baseball fans begin to realize that their heroes have been stoked with steroids, Chip is expected to denounce the drugs. Instead, he unleashes a scandal by telling a darker and more difficult truth.
Grijalva earned PlayGround’s Emerging Playwright Award in 2013 for an early, ten-minute version of Value Over Replacement (Ruben is also represented in this year’s Best of PlayGround with another short play, Mr. Wong’s Goes to Washington). He’s not only a playwright and director, but also a filmmaker, with a BA in Cinema from San Francisco State and the award-winning baseball-themed short film Shadow Ball (2007) to his credit.

PlayGround: Tell us about the first incarnation of this play in PlayGround's 2012/13 season. It started out as a ten-minute play inspired by the prompt “PLAY BALL.” How did you happen upon the idea of an unrepentant steroids-user?

Ruben Grijalva: I grew up watching McGwire and Canseco dominate the late 1980s at the Oakland Coliseum and then spent my early twenties watching Barry Bonds from the right field knothole at AT&T Park. As it became clear what was going on with those guys, I, like many fans, went through periods of denial, disgust, and disillusionment. And then I considered: if put in the same position, would I do steroids too? I had to consider the underlying ethical and philosophical questions. What does it mean to cheat? What is fairness? What defines an achievement? Where do my efforts end and the drugs begin?

Here's the lucky part: I already had the basic premise of Value Over Replacement scribbled on a notebook somewhere, but I hadn't started actually writing the play. PlayGround gave me a reason to start.

PG: How was the ten-minute version received? Did you already know that this play had potential to grow into something bigger?

RG: I had always intended to write a full-length play, so the question wasn't whether it could be bigger, but whether I could shrink the themes into a ten minute play. The act of squeezing a fairly big concept into ten pages helped me figure out what the play was really about. The reaction to the Monday night performance convinced me I had found an emotional core. You don't have to care about baseball or steroids to relate to Chip's situation.

PG: How did the PlayGround commission process work for you? What support did you get?

RG: I joined PlayGround for the deadlines. I really need that adrenaline shot of an impending deadline to do good work. There was a moment as the deadline approached when I didn't feel ready to share. Sometimes you need to have a person you don't want to disappoint, and [Artistic Director] Jim [Kleinmann] and [Associate Director] Annie [Stuart] are just the kind of people you want to show up for. And of course, once I was finished with the first act, Jim, Annie, [Director] Graham [Smith], and the cast from the table read provided some great insights that helped shape the second draft.

PG: What challenges did you encounter in developing a ten-minute play into a full-length?

RG: There's a temptation to try to say too much. I spun my wheels on some subplots and stylistic departures that didn't add anything. I got tangled up in all the possibilities for a while, so I put off writing and focused on research. Meanwhile, more stories about contemporary stars like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and Melky Cabrera kept popping up, and every one of them engaged in some kind of parsing. They either claimed to be very sorry, denied the efficacy of steroids, or denied that they'd used them at all, despite extensive evidence. What I was waiting for was a guy brave enough to say, “I did it, and I'm not sorry.” If the first act is about how a generally well-intentioned person can be compelled to cheat, the second act is how they can be compelled to lie. Once I figured this out, the play found the symmetry it needed.

PG: The full-length play introduces several notable new characters, including Alex, Chip's ten-year-old son, described as a "high-functioning autistic." What does Alex’s autism add to your play?

RG: Alex began as a kind of device. I wanted Chip and Emily to have a son with a challenge that they are especially well positioned to deal with. But as the play developed, Alex became a real catalyst. His literal interpretation of certain ideas and his intolerance for dishonesty become driving influences. By expressing a black and white viewpoint in a very grey situation, Alex helps throws the complexity into relief.

PG: Though your play is about moral choices and failings, there doesn't seem to be a villain. Did you make a conscious decision to eschew a bad guy in this story?

RG: Two reasons I try not to write villains. First, I really don't think there are many true villains in the world. The vast majority of people are just doing what makes sense from their perspective.

Second, I try to make each character's argument as fully and honestly as I can because the whole project of narrative is about expanding sympathy. If I can get a sense of where you're coming from, it's a lot harder to judge you. I think this is the chief virtue of fiction, drama, and cinema, at least the good stuff. It widens our circle of empathy and helps us appreciate the depth and complexity in others’ experiences.

PG: What's next for "Value Over Replacement"?

RG: I definitely want to work toward a full production. I'm also currently attempting to adapt the short play into a short screenplay.

PG: What’s your next big writing project?

RG: I feel compelled to move quickly on a feature screenplay called Great. It's an intimate portrayal of early adopters of radical life extension—the first people to reach 130, 140, 150 years of age. I am fascinated by the possibility, and how/if radically longer lives might change the way we think about life, the universe, and everything.


VALUE OVER REPLACEMENT will be performed as a script-in-hand staged reading at the PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House (1695 18th Street, San Francisco) on Sunday, May 18 at 2pm and again on Sunday, May 25 at 12 noon. Admission is free ($15 suggested donation) and reservations are not required though encouraged. For more information on this or any of the other full-length staged readings in this year’s Festival or to reserve your tickets, visit

Ruben Grijalva earned his BA in Cinema from SFSU and helped start the fitness-entertainment company Virtual Active. Works include the award-winning short film Shadow Ball (2007), the full-length play Foresight (2010), and the short play Value Over Replacement, which featured in the Best of Playground 2013.


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