On the rise

The Best of PlayGround Festival, now more than a decade old, nurtures exciting, emerging talent
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Cass Brayton's The Boy Who Did Not
Listen To His Mother

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Even when times are shaky in San Francisco, it's a fine time to head to PlayGround. At the upcoming 13th annual Best of PlayGround festival — which rides into the Thick House on steadily mounting popularity for an unprecedented four-week run beginning May 7 — a ticket will get you a lot of theater, in terms of quantity, quality, and novelty.

Since 1996, the annual festival has drawn from the best work presented in PlayGround's signature short play contests — a monthly challenge (from October through March) to develop a 10-minute script in four days around a given theme ("When Pigs Fly" served one time), with winning scripts getting staged readings by leading Bay Area acting and directing talent in Monday Night performances at Berkeley Repertory Theater. The festival, meanwhile, gives the cream of the yearly crop (those earning PlayGround's Emerging Playwright Award) fully staged productions, again with the collaboration of the finest Bay Area directors, actors, and designers.

This unusual mix of fresh, untested (or just emerging) talent on the page and seasoned professionals on and off the stage means there's really nothing else quite like it in Bay Area theaters, and it remains a crowd-pleaser. Attendance at Monday Night performances broke all records this year, notes artistic director Jim Kleinmann, who founded PlayGround in 1994 with colleagues Brighde Mullins and Denise Shama.

But it's also been a marked success in the underlying mission of developing new theatrical voices and strengthening the theater community as a whole in the Bay Area. (A recent Theatre Bay Area Magazine article listing the region's 13 top emerging playwrights included no less than eight PlayGround alumni.) Kleinmann says the inspiration for PlayGround came from a playwriting exercise developed by his old teacher at Brown University, renowned playwright Paula Vogel, but has steadily expanded to include several commissions for full-length work from PlayGround writers. This year's five commission winners will have their work presented in staged readings as part of the festival. The thrust throughout has been to nurture craft in the context of encouraging ties between new and seasoned theater makers.

"It certainly has evolved," Kleinmann says. "As the number of writers increased over time and the writers started to have longer-term relationships with PlayGround a couple of years into the Monday Night format, we added the festival, [which] became a really important showcase." These festival playwrights would have their works published too in a PlayGround anthology, making them available to readers and theater companies elsewhere. Still, a few years later Kleinmann and colleagues began work on new avenues of support.

"We'd always hoped that if we could discover these writers and worked to nurture them, midsize theaters would take them under their wings," he says. "That wasn't happening as quickly as we might have hoped. So we found there was a need to bring writers to another level [with the commissions], where they would be able to be supported in their full-length work."

It's a formula that has paid off with writers and audiences for more than a decade. Among the other enticements of new work in this format, there's a serious vicarious thrill that goes with seeing actors of the caliber of a Stacy Ross or Jim Carpenter, under direction of a Barbara Oliver or Chris Smith, assay work by a gifted but still-developing or even unknown voice. In addition, "there's no question it creates a dialogue about their work and [the actors and directors] become champions for their work," Kleinmann says.

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