Monday, November 28, 2011

A Teen's Perspective: Monday Night PlayGround

Monday Night PlayGround has to be one of my favorite Bay Area theater events. Ever. Luckily for me, it happens almost every month.

Here's how it works: at the beginning of each season, PlayGround selects a group of 36 local playwrights for their Writer's Pool. Each month, from October through March, the writers receive a phrase or word as a prompt (some of my favorites in the past have been topics like “It Gets Better”, Vaudeville, Kingdom of Number, and Origin Story). Then, the writers have less than five days to write an original 10-page play based on the prompt. And THEN, from all of the 10-page scripts submitted, six are chosen to be performed as staged readings (which basically means that, among other things, the actors will hold scripts as they act). On Monday of the performance, actors and directors gather with the playwrights at Berkeley Rep and have a mere 90 minutes to stage, rehearse, and tech their show. Crazy. But that's part of what makes it so exciting. (For a more in-depth description of the process, look here.)

After this whirlwind of a process, what we get to see as an audience is a very mixed bag of plays. You get funny ones, serious ones, deep ones, playful ones, political ones. Sometimes there's one play in particular that blows you away, and sometimes there are a few. And you never know what to expect...

This month's topic was “pipe dream”, in a partnership with the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, and it gave rise to a hugely diverse and thought-provoking group of plays. Here's a very brief overview of the six “pipe dream” plays:

You Eat What You Kill, by Cleavon Smith, was voted the People's Choice favorite of the night and can be read about here.
Siren, by Daniel Heath, was about a painter, his wife, a surfer...and a mermaid.
The Heartbreak Horse, by Lucia Jacobs, was based on the true story of a horse called Clever Hans.
My Time Has Come, by Jonathan Spector, started as a hilariously melodramatic play-within-a-play, but was then disrupted to reveal the true characters of the people on (and off) stage.
Wasting Away, by Mercedes Segesvary, was about the bleak life of“waste”-shovelers in the sewers.
The Occupants, by Ignacio Zulueta, was a play about (what else?) the Occupy movement.
And, in addition to the six plays based off of the “pipe dream” prompt, we got to see an excerpt from one of the plays that PlayGround commissioned this year – Drive Thru – Open till Midnite or Later, by Mandy Hodge Rizvi.

The Monday Night PlayGrounds are cast from the same actor pool each time, so you get to see a lot of familiar faces playing very different roles – sometimes even in the same night. Last Monday night, for example, actor Patrick Russell played a small-town teenage boy in Drive Thru – Open till Midnite or Later, and later played the horse, Clever Hans, in Lucia Jacob's The Heartbreak Horse. Mick Mize (who played one of the sewage-shovelers in Wasting Away) has also played a wide variety characters in past Monday Night PlayGrounds, not just limited to humans – I still remember his hilarious performance as an old lady's dog in Leah Halper's No More, Too Late, Adieu last November. And both of Up Next's Focus Actors, Elena Wright and Reggie White, are also part of the PlayGround actor pool and appear frequently in the Monday Night PlayGrounds (this past Monday Night, Reggie appeared as Jamie in Cleavon Smith's You Eat What You Kill, and Elena played Cassandra in Ignacio Zulueta's The Occupants).

Though the entire night was enjoyable, and all six plays (and the commission) well written, acted, and directed, the audience's favorite part? “Mick Mize's expression when his nose plug fell in the poo”.

Next Monday Night PlayGround is on Monday, December 19th, with a topic TBA. It costs $10 for students ($15 for general) and will take place at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Pre-show talk begins at 7:10pm; show begins at 8pm. More info at

Like the PlayGround on Facebook and follow them on Twitter to hear more directly about their process and performances!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Internationalist (part 2)

My (heavily edited) interviews with Lauren Bloom, Harold Pierce, Michael Barrett Austin and Nick Sholley (+ their favorite plays). This is the last weekend to see The Internationalist at the Ashby Stage!

Lauren Bloom; photo by Jay Yamada
LB: My name is Lauren Bloom, and I play Irene and Anonymous Woman and Anonymous Old Woman (laughs).

UP: What was your favorite part about this show and what do you think makes this show special?

LB: The people have been really really fun to work with. It’s challenging material and it’s been great to have a group of people who are really skilled and really talented but also really fun and willing to play around and be crazy. The language makes it definitely different. That’s a really different and interesting experience for an audience: to relax to accept that they’re not supposed to understand what’s happening.

UP: When and how did you become involved in theater?

LB: (Laughs) I was twelve, and my mom insisted that I would like it and sent me to an audition for The Sound of Music, a choice she has regretted ever since.

UP: And what has it meant in your life? What keeps you going with it, because it’s not always easy.

LB: Because I can’t stop. I have tried, and it doesn’t work. I don’t know why exactly. I guess it sounds cheesy but I’ve been doing it since I was twelve, so it has become a lot of who I am. The people in my life and my community are all based in theater, so I don’t want to leave it.


Harold Pierce; photo by Jay Yamada
HP: I’m Harold Pierce and I’m involved in the show as an actor [he plays Nicole], and I also wrote the song that Lauren sings.

UP: So what was your favorite part about working on this show?

HP: Finally having it memorized! I’ve never had a harder time learning my lines. So, aside from the pleasure of performing this show, honestly my favorite part was being done with the memorization part of the show and getting to just step up and do it.

UP: I’m curious, were all those gibberish lines written into the script?

HP: Yeah.

UP: Wow.  

HP: When we started the show I wondered why Anne Washburn didn’t just give us a rough framework of what was happening and just let us play together. I think she was right in her choice. Now that we’re performing it, I think it could have gotten sloppy with different audience reactions, because we’ve had very different houses. I think it would really affect how the show ran. But when I was trying to sit down those first couple times and memorize just an endless string of syllables, I thought there was no way.

UP: I am curious about your character work because your personality is very different from your personality in the show.

HP: Well, I’m acting, now (laughs).

UP: It’s hard for me to believe that you were that person [Nicole], because now you seem so different and soft spoken.

HP: Yeah, he’s a very different dude. I don’t know, I don’t work too hard. Seriously, the work on this show was whether I was going to memorize the lines or not. And I think she wrote great characters.

UP: Was it like getting to play with an alter-ego?

HP: I suppose so. I have dark, angry tendencies inside of me that I choose not to play out in my life. I don’t think back to a time when I was angry and use that on stage. I just release it. And so at the end of the night there’s a cathartic experience.

UP: So, what do you think makes this show relevant to young adults?

HP: I think this is a play about politics: the politics of this guy showing up in this strange place and trying to negotiate his way through it. And there’s nothing more hierarchical or more political than high school. I think back to being in high school and it was just a maze.

UP: So, can you give me the one sentence version of how and why you got involved in theater?

HP: I love Jon [Jonathan Spector] and Molly [Aaronson-Gelb]. Period.

UP: And what has it meant to you, in your life. What has kept you going?

HP: I’ll echo something that Lauren said, it’s just the thing I can’t put down. I can’t leave it, and I tried for a long time. I went to a college intending to become an actor and after the first year I decided that I didn’t want to do that, so I left and did everything else under the sun. Then, three years out of college went to this show and I saw this actor on stage, and I thought she was doing a great job and everyone else sucked. I thought, I could do better than those people, and I want to do what she’s doing. And so I started doing it again and dammit I can’t stop. It’s actually something I was thinking about this morning, “This is the last one, right Harold? Because you really need to move on with your life.” But I don’t think I ever will. I think in whatever capacity, I will always be an actor. It’s the thing that you are and the thing that you do, and it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it on the stage or in the middle of the street, it is what you are.


Michael Barrett Austin; photo by Jay Yamada
MBA: I’m Michael Barrett Austin and I am Paul and Simon.

UP: What do you think makes this play special? You helped select it, so what drew you to it?

MBA: Right! Well, the nonsense language thing is really interesting. The playwright went so far as to make up a language and carefully script it. It’s written out word for word, and they’re supposed to memorize it exactly. She even came in during our rehearsals and re-wrote parts of it. To her it was very important how it sounded, and yet she didn’t translate it. So she left it up to the actors to decide exactly what it is they were saying.

UP: So what do you think would make this play relevant to young adults?

MBA: Well, I think that it’s really great when theater tries to do something new. The world of theater, unfortunately, worries a lot about where its audience is going.

UP: When and how did you become involved in theater?

MBA: My first play was when I was ten. It was Peter Rabbit, but it was sort of a class thing that we all had to do. I was the narrator, so I thought I’d be a star. The narrator had a lot of lines, but it turned out that there were a lot of narrators and I was very disappointed. Anyway, I got into it in earnest freshman year of high school and I really don’t know what would have become of me if I hadn’t found this world. I did OK in high school, but I just didn’t really find people that I thought were like me, that I could connect with and communicate with well at such an awkward time. And [through theater] I was thrown in with these people and we got to work together towards a common goal.

UP: Great. What has kept you going through all of it?

MBA: It’s the feeling that you’re making a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s that ensemble thing. What I love about it is putting all these individual ingredients together and coming up with this thing that’s so interesting, that wouldn’t be the same without any one person.


Nick Sholley; photo by Jay Yamada
NS: I’m Nick Sholley and I played Lowell.

UP: And what was your favorite thing about working on this show?

NS: I loved the process of working with other people and watching what they did with the language. They inhabited the world and I got to sort of play in it and be lost in the language. It’s always changing in the way that it affects me. I find that each night it’s a different performance because I come in with a different emotional baseline.

UP: What do you think makes this play special?

NS: It captures, in essence, what it’s like to be in a country where you don’t know the language and you’re kind of left out of the jokes, left out of the stories, left out of what essentially makes for a human relationship in a world of words. Clearly, if it were all in gibberish it wouldn’t be a play, but the fact that it’s written the way it is kind of straddles both worlds.

UP: What do you think in this show would make it relevant to young adults?

NS: It’s about finding your way in the world. That’s sort of a huge part of coming into the world as a person. I also think that, in addition about trying to fit in. It’s also about trying to make your mark in the world.

Plays They Recommend

Lauren Bloom: Measure For Measure. It may be Shakespeare, but it is some edgy, edgy stuff when done honestly. And from a dramaturgical perspective it’s very interesting because of when he wrote it and what the change in the head of state did to art. Just in its bare bones it is a fascinating and really provocative play and it is four hundred years old and it’s all about the Church and sex.

Michael Barrett Austin: I love Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer [he played Mozart]. He’s a really fantastic, smart writer. I also love the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. It’s maybe a little too smart for it’s own good. People make that complaint about Arcadia, but I think with that one he really got the balance right. There is a lot of heart under the intelligence, and it is just so smart.

Harold Pierce: American Idiot! No, I’m just kidding. I thought it would appeal to the high schoolers. I was in a play that no one will ever read or see again and it was called The Hermit Bird. I got to play this podunk kid who may or may not have had a mental disability. The character was completely ambiguous. On the page you just didn’t know what was going on with him. And so I just got to make a human being.

-Saskia Levy-Sheon

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Internationalist (part 1)

Play: The Internationalist
Written By: Anne Washburn
Directed By: Jonathan Spector
Company: Just Theater
Where: The Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA
When: November 4-20

This play is a must-see, whether you prefer funny plays, deeply insightful plays, or plays that make you want to pull your hair out in frustration and scream at the characters onstage. (A review focusing on the plot can be found here).

The Internationalist touches on complex, dangerous, and frightening themes, including class, power, and gender politics. Sarah, the secretary, is alternately ridiculed, screamed at, confided in, and objectified. My favorite moment in the show was when one of the men in the office corners Sarah, accuses her of being schizophrenic, comes on to her, gets turned down, and then screams: “You are so beautiful. So I care about you... Men would be less violent towards women if they had more violence to rescue them from. That’s my theory [long pause] Ok.” He then exits, slamming the door behind him.

The Internationalist beautifully and effortlessly illuminates societal problems without dryly telling us about them. We are left pondering the hard truths of what power does to your mind and how Americans today think of themselves and their place in the world. It’s also hilarious and beautifully written.

I had the opportunity to interview Molly Aaronson-Gelb, the co-founder of Just Theater, and four of the actors in the show. Molly’s interview is below, and the other interviews will be posted separately.

Up Next (UP): Can you tell me briefly about Just Theater and what makes it unique?

Molly Aaronson-Gelb (MAG): Oh, that’s a great question. I think every theater company has something that it brings to the community. Cutting Ball has beautiful set design, and that’s where their focus goes. Aurora: everyone loves working there. They pay all their actors the same, so there’s a lot about the ensemble. Just Theater puts its focus on playwrights and getting new voices heard and doing plays that put some demands on the audience in terms of following the story telling; not to mention relating to the characters.

UP: What do you think it is that makes this play really special? What’s your favorite part about it?

MAG: I love the specificity of Anne Washburn’s writing and the way in which she so easily blends utterly hilarious turns of phrase with greater themes. I think a lot of people leave this play with little quips and then other people are thinking about America’s role as an occupying entity. I like that it plays both ways.

UP: Briefly, how did you get involved in theater and why is it important to you?

MAG: I didn’t really get involved in theater until after college. I always thought I’d be a civil rights and anti-poverty lawyer, and I realized late in the game that maybe I wanted to reach more people and have more discussions than being a lawyer would allow me to do. Education and theater spark dialogue.

UP: Why do you think it’s important for teenagers to be involved in theater and to see theater?

MAG: Well, when I was in high school I started a group called Advocacy for the Arts, where I became a granting body in my high school for people who wanted to go to museums or symphonies, and I would use the money to take my friends to go see plays. I think that in spite of how much information we can get on the internet, it’s narratives that drive how we think about the world and the schemas that we make. I think that theater, as a very visceral story teller, has a lot of potential to help people organize other thoughts. It also has the potential to be messy, and to give people the opportunity to think about what is conflicting in life. And most importantly, when you’re watching a play you suddenly understand the world from someone else’s perspective. And I believe that that empathy is key to social justice.

UP: What’s your favorite play?

MAG: Oh my gosh. Well, how about this. When I was a teenager, the play that blew my mind was Pentecost, by David Edgar, put on by OSF and Berkeley Rep, and that is what made me realize that theater is political. And then one of the first shows I wanted to direct was Far Away by Caryl Churchill. And I still don’t understand it. And I love that one. And then last year with my students I directed The Visit, [by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt,] which is a 1950s German expressionistic play that really questions the way in which we feel the influence of others in society and the compromises we make with our own morality.

UP: Thanks so much.

You can find more information on the Internationalist and Just Theater at

-Saskia Levy-Sheon

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Focusing In on ELENA WRIGHT

Elena Wright
Introducing the second of our two 2011-2012 Focus Actors -- Elena Wright! Elena is a Bay Area actress and company member of PlayGround. You may have seen her as Thuria in The Verona Project at Cal Shakes or Athena in Salt Plays Parts I & II at Shotgun Players. We asked Elena a few questions about her experiences in the theater, and here's what she told us: 

NAME: birth name - Elana Wright, equity name - Elena Wright, it causes lots of confusion...


FIRST THEATER EXPERIENCE: playing Eve in a church play when i was 4. i still remember how much i loved having a part and getting to hold my favorite stuffed cat while onstage.

Elena in Salt Plays Part II: Of the Earth (photo by Pak Han)
FAVORITE THEATER EXPERIENCE: being in Oleanna in college. it was a two person show and the other cast member was my teacher. i learned so much by working with someone who was so committed and professional. The subject matter was incredibly intense, and every night the audience would audibly react to the ending. That was one of the first times I realized how powerful theatre could be, and that i could be a part of something that moves people.

BEST TEENAGE MEMORY: Meeting my best friend. Growing up, i had always felt a little out of place and unique, and it wasn't until freshman year of high school that i met someone who taught me that you don't have to be like everyone else, and in fact, being yourself is way more fun. 19 years later, she's still my best friend.

WHAT KIND OF THEATER EXCITES YOU? Good theatre. Of all kinds. Theatre that requires risk and passion, which can mean anything from new works to Shakespeare, contemporary dramas to farce, classic award winners to experimental physical theatre.

WHAT'S COMING UP NEXT FOR YOU? The season of Playground, where I'm a company member. And looking for the next gig, which is what a professional actor spends the majority of their time doing....

Elena as Una in Blackbird (photo by Pak Han)

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE PROJECT YOU JUST FINISHED? I just closed Blackbird, which is another two-character play with an intense theme. What was interesting about it for me was realizing how much harder acting can get the more you do it and the more you know about how to do it well. When I did Oleanna, I was a very young and inexperienced actor. I used my intuition most of the time, and "felt" my way through it, but in Blackbird, I used equal amounts of skill and sensing. This actually turned out to be much harder, since sometimes, those two things cancel each other out, and are hard to do at the same time. It proved to me that the more you know, the more you have reason to stay humble.

To learn more about Up Next's Focus Actor program, visit our website:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Please Don't Cut the Arts

Some of you who are high school students or recent graduates probably remember the day last year when thousands of California teachers received pink slips. The majority of the teachers selected for the chopping block were the newest and least experienced (i.e. the younger ones that we could actually relate to). At Oakland Tech, one of the teachers given notice was our beloved advanced drama teacher, Ms. Jessa Berkner. Those of us in her class were stunned. Luckily she did not lose her job and she is still inspiring and educating all of her students.

I made this video in an attempt to capture my fellow classmates' heartfelt and poignantly emotional reactions to the news that the arts programs at our school were facing serious cuts. I am sure that many Up Next teens can relate to the feeling that theater is not merely an extracurricular activity but a lifestyle.

The struggle to remind politicians, school board members and principals of the vital importance of the performing arts in schools is ongoing. Feel free to comment and share your stories.

I am far from a professional videographer. This was shot in a classroom with my phone. Please pardon the irregular sound quality and shaky transitions. Enjoy!

-Saskia Levy-Sheon