SAN FRANCISCO: The Abominable Snowman is lonely. Very, very lonely. You can see it in the way the shambling, furry creature stares longingly from upstage at the comic misadventures and romantic missed connections of mortician’s assistant Beverly Onion. Although they live continents apart, both Beverly and the Yeti’s natural habitat is Katie May’s quirky and clever play Abominable, or the Misappropriation of Beverly Onion by Forces Beyond Her Control, now having its world premiere as part of the 20th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works (June 2-July 10) at San Francisco’s Thick House.
The Bay Area theatre company PlayGround is actually 22 years old, but this is the 20th anniversary of its yearly Best of PlayGround festival. The world premieres of the full-length works Abominable and Ruben Grijalva’s Value Over Replacement are presented alongside the six short plays that make up Best of PlayGround.
PlayGround has an unusual model of new-play development. Every summer, writers apply to be part of the company’s pool of a few dozen emerging Bay Area playwrights, some of whom have been in the pool for years. Then each month from October through March, PlayGround announces a topic to the playwrights, who have only a few days to write and submit a 10-minute play on that subject. Out of those submissions, six plays are chosen every month for a Monday Night PlayGround staged reading at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with an impressive array of local actors and directors.
After half a dozen of these monthly rounds, the top 6 of those 36 Monday Night PlayGround pieces are selected for the annual Best of PlayGround, featuring full productions of those short plays for three weeks at Thick House. This year’s installment, Best of PlayGround 20, is running through June 19.
Over the years, the company began to commission full-length plays from writers in the pool, and also from PlayGround alumni. Sometimes those plays are expanded versions of 10-minute shorts previously featured on Monday Nights, and sometimes they’re wholly original pieces. This year staged readings of four full-length works in progress go up June 11 and 19: Bright Shining Sea by Julianne Jigour; 1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson) by Patricia Cotter; Scapegoat by William Bivins; and Like Me by Victoria Chong Der.
The past few iterations of the Festival of New Works have included full stagings of world premieres by PlayGround writers, either commissions or works otherwise developed through the company’s playwright residencies and other programs. There are two such premieres this year, both commissions from writers currently in the pool: May’s Abominable and Grijalva’s Value Over Replacement, running through July 9 and 10 respectively. The latter play, helmed by PlayGround artistic director Jim Kleinmann, takes an in-depth look at professional baseball’s steroid scandal. One of last year’s festival premieres, Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, returned this year for a commercial run at Z Space in San Francisco (the former home of A Traveling Jewish Theatre, built when Kleinmann was that organization’s managing director).
Those commissions have gone on to debut at a wide array of local theatres, including San Francisco Playhouse, San Jose Stage Company, Theatre Rhinoceros, Shotgun Players, Just Theater, and Impact Theatre. Aaron Loeb’s First Person Shooter and Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party both premiered at SF Playhouse, and the latter went on to the New York International Fringe Festival and an Off-Broadway run.
“Every time I go to a theatre conference and people ask me what’s keeping me in San Francisco theatrically, I tell them about PlayGround and I’m met with jealousy—but, like, happy jealousy,” says Abominable author May. “I remember the people in Omaha at the Great Plains Theatre Conference were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to start something like that too!’ It’s just an interesting model of new-play development, developing relationships with writers through these seasons of 10-minute plays, and then taking the next step with them into full-length plays.”
Founded in 1994 by Jim Kleinmann, Brighde Mullins, and Denise Shama, PlayGround initially consisted of simply the Monday Night series. At that time, there wasn’t a writers pool, which was established nine years later, once the initial open submission process became overloaded.
“We had the first two years in partnership with San Francisco State, beginning to develop our programs and figure out what our purpose was,” Kleinmann says. “And then things really crystallized when we moved to Traveling Jewish Theatre. I was the managing director there, and we needed a more accessible home. Then that year, one of our supporters asked me, ‘What do you do with all those short plays? Have you ever thought of doing some kind of showcase?’” That question, Kleinmann notes, would lead to the first festival.
For many years, the festival was synonymous with the Best of PlayGround lineup. “There was this idea of expanding it to encompass more ways we could support new plays and new writers, and it really didn’t crystallize until about 2002 or 2003,” Kleinmann recalls. “We’d moved to Berkeley Rep, things were growing, we had a writers’ company, we commissioned our first full-length plays, and those first commissions needed to be presented in some way, so we added them to the festival,” Kleinmann says. “It’s funny that we called it a festival; we had to grow into it.”
Now the festival is fully grown. “I’m sure it’ll keep evolving,” Kleinmann enthuses, “but we’ve got 46 performances and readings over 6 weeks, involving over a dozen playwrights, 6 full-length plays, 6 short plays, plus the work we do with high school students.”
Indeed, the company continues to grow, and it hasn’t stopped taking on new endeavors. Four years ago, it created PlayGround L.A., a sister program mirroring its Bay Area model but still in its early stages. The Los Angeles branch also started with an open submission model and moved to a writers pool after two years; its Best of PlayGround is one night of staged readings rather than a fully produced three-week run.
PlayGround recently became the master tenant of Thick House, the venue in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood started by now-defunct theatre company Thick Description in 1996. In addition to PlayGround, Thick House is now an artistic home to Crowded Fire Theater, Golden Thread Productions, 3Girls Theatre Company, and other local theatres (including, until last year, Playwrights Foundation). PlayGround plans a major renovation of the space over the holiday season, to relaunch in January with an as-yet-undetermined new name.
“I’ve been with PlayGround for, gosh, I want to say six seasons now,” says May. “I originally came to San Francisco to do an internship at American Conservatory Theater, and my second day at work my boss said, ‘Hey, you should apply for this thing.’ I had no idea what it was, but he knew I was a playwright, and it was the day of their deadline to submit to get into their writers pool. So I grabbed a 10-minute play I’d written in grad school, cleaned it up real fast and sent it in and got into the writers pool with literally no idea what PlayGround was.”
Her first Monday Night PlayGround, she recalls, took place during Berkeley Rep’s world premiere run of American Idiot. “I thought that I’d walked into the wrong theatre, because there were so many people in the lobby,” May recalls. “I had no idea the size of the audience or the amazing talent of the writers pool that I was going to be a part of.”
After her third season at PlayGround, May was offered her first commission for Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which premiered at ACT’s small rental space the Costume Shop in 2013. The next season, PlayGround commissioned Abominable. “They gave it a staged reading in the festival a couple of years ago, and then it was developed at the Lark in NYC last fall,” May says. Neither of her full-length plays are based on previous short pieces, but while May was working on Abominable she penned a 10-minute work using its characters for Monday Night PlayGround. She wrote that piece to help her get through some writer’s block, and parts of that short play made it into the full-length version.
Playwright Kirk Shimano has been in the writers pool for five years, and this is his third time in Best of PlayGround. His short play this year is Boys Beware, set on the first anniversary of the Stonewall confrontation that catalyzed the gay pride movement. The piece takes its title from the “educational” movie reels shown in schools in the early ’60s that warned children to beware of homosexuality, and part of the play takes the form of one of those antiquated public service announcements.
Shimano recalls that, even though only six plays are selected for each Monday Night program, his first submission made the cut.
“That happened to be the Steve Jobs night, so my very first play was one with different anthropomorphized Mac icons, like the beach ball and the trash can,” he says. “That’s really emblematic of one thing that I like about PlayGround: They’re very drawn to plays that are interesting ideas, and it’s always an interesting challenge to try and take a topic and find a way into it that might not be obvious. I think the format really lends itself to opening yourself up to trying new things.”
Two of Shimano’s pieces were picked that year, and the other, Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos, would go on to Best of PlayGround; it also got turned into a short film that debuted in the PlayGround Film Festival that was part of the Festival of New Works for a couple of years. “They put out a call for directors,” Shimano says, “and I was really fortunate in that Amy Harrison, who was a director/producer, basically just took my play out of a pile and said, ‘Hey, I want to make this into a movie!’” One of May’s plays, Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero, was also made into a film, which won best animated short in the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival and screened in the New York City International Film Festival this past winter.
Now Shimano’s working on a full-length piece that expands on his short play from last year’s Best of PlayGround. “Working with PlayGround really makes me feel like I don’t have to limit the scope of what I’m hoping to do,” Shimano attests. “As local independent theatre people, there’s always so much pressure to constrain ourselves, and make things smaller, and be realistic about things, and that’s definitely a good skill, but it’s also good to have another force that is pushing more for potential. I think the film festival is a great example of that. It’s not really a direction that I was thinking of going on my own, and being part of PlayGround brought this opportunity straight to me.”
The mix of short plays alongside Boys Beware in Best of PlayGround this year demonstrates the variety of fanciful directions in which those monthly prompts can take the writers. Madeleine Butler’s The River God is a playful look at drought and the threat of water privatization told in the form of a fairy tale. Patricia Cotter’s I’m Really Sorry About This involves a meddling Siri giving a young wife unsolicited marriage advice. Karen Macklin’s Ophy’s Apothecary explores what happens when tragic literary heroines get some vocational counseling instead of being left to their fates. Digging Ditches in Fresno by PlayGround newcomer Isaac Ontiveros is a touching portrait of a mother and daughter, both nurses, having one last heart-to-heart chat on the mother’s deathbed. And Josh Williams’s The Lunatics imagines what might have happened if the lunar landing really was secretly filmed on Earth.
One thing PlayGround writers always talk about is the thrill of friendly competition, seeing how the same prompt inspires their colleagues to go in very different directions.
“Being part of a writers group of really talented people pushes you to be better,” says May. “I enjoy the competitive element of Monday Night. It’s fun sitting down to write a 10-minute play knowing who I’m up against, because it really pushes you to bring your A-game.”
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance arts journalist based in the Bay Area.