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 three...er...“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 www.playground-sf.org