Bay Area culture has always had a soft spot for variety entertainment. From handbills and newspaper reviews of the period, we know that Gold Rush–era San Franciscans and their nearby neighbors relished their evening of Shakespeare—and they liked it even better if management threw in some sequin-sporting acrobats and a dog act to round out the bill.
The Bay Area definitely has its share of festivals, each using its own version of the variety-show format to showcase a range of artists, activities or products, usually linked by some unifying theme. Almost every weekend features a wealth of theatre festivals, film festivals, music festivals, stand-up comedy festivals and dance festivals, not to mention art and wine festivals, food and wine festivals, chocolate and wine festivals, and just plain wine festivals. The “theatre festival” category itself has its own subgenres (i.e., Shakespeare, devised or ensemble work, Butoh, etc.), but no matter the category, especially successful festivals strike a good balance between the event’s unifying context or theme and the diversity of its content—feeling not too sprawling or confusing, and not too limited or rigid. At its very best, a festival can crackle with the contagious, collaborative excitement that Jessica Holt, artistic director of Three Wise Monkeys Theatre Company and its Bay One Acts Festival, calls “festival energy.” Achieving this balance relies largely on festival producers focusing on a central mission or purpose, gathering participants who invest in this purpose, and organizing the festival’s logistics and resources to realize that purpose.
Our community’s theatre festival scene features an encouraging number of fests dedicated specifically to new plays. A “new play” is a special thing, these events all agree—although that’s about where the agreement ends. While the “new play theatre festival” category might sound limiting, Bay Area fests actually range all over in terms of philosophy, purpose, process and final presentation. A look at some prominent and/or promising local new play fests reveals major differences in how they function. Each producer’s philosophy about theatre influences the purpose a given festival is designed to serve. (Collaboration? Craft? Career advancement?) A festival’s purpose, in turn, shapes the process by which it attempts to deliver its highest-priority means of support to participating artists—and different processes, of course, lead to widely varying final presentations. In fact, the degree of contrast between these festivals, both philosophical and logistical, raises questions about what a “new play festival” actually is—which relies, as it turns out, on what it is for. So what is a new play festival for?
Jed Goldstein and Kareem Abdul Jabear star in "Bearnice" by Derricka Smith,
at PianoFight's ShortLived festival of new plays.
Photo: Chris Alongi
Philosophy and Purpose
The reasons that spur a given producer to found a new play festival are often linked to deeper philosophies about what theatre can or should be. This is true of some major Bay Area new play fests, like the Bay Area Playwrights Festival (BAPF) and the Global Age Project (GAP); the founders created these festivals to address what they perceived as a lack in the Bay Area’s—or the nation’s—theatrical ecosystem. According to festival producer M. Graham Smith, the Aurora Theatre established the Global Age Project (auroratheatre.org) in response to what it perceived as a crisis of content; too many new playwrights simply were not engaging our changing world in their work. “Following 9/11,” he says, “the theatre was receiving all these scripts that took place in the ’90s, which seemed to be a lifetime ago, an era that didn’t fit with the shift in consciousness that seemed to have occurred. We wanted to challenge writers to address the world we live in now, and to imagine the future.” As a consequence, the Global Age Project has “now” as its primary criterion; in order to be considered for the annual February festival, plays must be set in the year 2000 or later. And though plenty of submissions do deal with science and/or technology (and a lot of them deal with the future of sex), addressing specific themes is by no means a requirement. “Any aspect of life today is a valid theme for a GAP play,” says Smith. With 230 scripts, on average, vying for four festival reading slots each year—some of which lead to subsequent full productions on the Aurora main stage—it seems like the GAP has been successful in stirring up writers’ interest in addressing questions of “now” in their work.
The case of the GAP, however, is pretty unique in the Bay Area, where an established theatre starts a festival to address a lack it perceives in what writers are doing. Far more often, it’s the work of independent artists reacting to a perceived vacuum in the existing system of theatre companies. BAPF and its home organization, the Playwrights Foundation (playwrightsfoundation.org), were also founded in response to a lack—but in this instance, it was the playwrights’ lack of access to production. Thirty-five years ago, San Francisco director Robert Woodruff found himself frustrated that so many playwrights whose work he found compelling found no way to get their plays staged. The regional theatre system we take for granted was much newer, and most of the smaller theatre companies we consider part of the new-play landscape didn’t yet exist. Amy Mueller, current artistic director of BAPF and the Playwrights Foundation, puts it this way: “Robert Woodruff was very involved with vanguard writers like Sam Shepard and Ebbe Smith, and he wanted to get them produced. And he couldn’t get ACT or the Magic to return his phone calls. They weren’t interested in these writers yet. So he decided, ‘I’m going to start this festival; I’m going to produce this work.’”
This festival’s founding philosophy—that theatre is at its best when capable playwrights doing interesting work can have that work professionally produced—has heavily shaped its purpose: to develop and publicize high-quality scripts through a workshop process leading to a high-profile public reading, and ideally selection by a professional theatre for production. This goal, understandably, prioritizes the individual playwright’s career over other considerations; moreover, it has led to the creation of numerous other vehicles for playwright support within the organization itself, such as commissions, residencies and teaching opportunities.
Rebecca White in "The Killing of Michael X, A New Film by Celia Wallace" by Cory Hinkle,
at the Playwrights Foundation's 2010 Bay Area Playwrights Festival.
Photo: Richard Ciccarone
In contrast to these philosophically-driven origin stories, however, PlayGround’s Best of PlayGround festival (playground-sf.org) and PianoFight’s ShortLived festival (pianofight.com) were founded by artistic directors who simply saw an opportunity—or an impending disaster—and stepped in. In the case of PlayGround artistic director Jim Kleinmann, the now-yearly festival wasn’t even his idea. He had founded PlayGround in 1994 at San Francisco State University as a nonprofessional company; writers wrote and submitted 10-minute plays on a monthly schedule over the course of a season. From the start, Kleinmann was passionate about supporting these new local writers; the company committed to giving the five or six best short plays each month a full production. But it wasn’t until Kleinmann was able to move PlayGround to A Traveling Jewish Theatre (where Kleinmann worked as managing director) that he began thinking about next steps. It was 1996, the new space was more professional and comfortable for both audience and artists, and the writers’ pool was getting bigger and generating a greater number of high-quality short scripts. According to Kleinmann, it was an early PlayGround supporter (whom he admits with a grin was his mother-in-law) who asked him, “What do you do at the end of a season when you have 30 to 40-plus short works written? Have you ever thought about highlighting and showcasing the best ones?” Realizing that this idea was right in line with his goals of supporting early-career writers, Kleinmann began the Best of PlayGround festival the very next year; it now runs every May. Its guiding philosophy seems to be twofold: that theatre is at its best when promising new writers have the opportunity to develop both their careers (through exposure and productions) and their creative relationships in the theatre community. Its purpose is consonant with that of its parent organization: to support new local writers by providing and/or advocating for professional full productions of their work, and to help writers build strong creative relationships with directors, actors and each other.
Rob Ready of PianoFight, producer of the ShortLived new play festival, had the opposite motivation for founding the festival: a total lack of material and an empty theatre to fill. “In all honesty,” Ready admits, “we had taken over the Off-Market Theaters—this was the around the end of our first year doing that—and we had a rental that was supposed to go in and do three months, and give us some time off. But about a month before, they basically bailed. So we had to come up with something that would fill three months in that theatre that would continue to generate audiences and interest our company. So we came up with this competition format.”
The ShortLived festival, which was first produced in 2008, is currently on hiatus after a three-year run while PianoFight builds out its new space at 144 Taylor. Once the dust settles, however, Ready affirms that another ShortLived fest “will be the first thing we do in that space.” Although ShortLived was generated essentially to stave off impending disaster, it evinces a very strong and specific artistic philosophy: that theatre is best served by fostering active, honest dialogue between artists and audience. This perspective has clearly determined the purpose of the festival: to offer a set of full productions of new short work in a context that fully engages audiences. Of course, plenty of companies and festivals strive to “engage audiences,” but ShortLived’s structure virtually guarantees it. The entire festival is an audience-judged competition, with a significant prize for the winner: a commission to write a full-length original play for production the following season. “I think that the hole in the market that [ShortLived] fills is that it really puts the power in the audience’s hands, and it lets them curate, which is rare. If they hate something,” Ready says, “they can just say, ‘We hate this.’ And we’ll hear it.”
Organizations and their philosophies also change over time. The Bay One Acts festival (BOA) was founded in 2001 by Richard Bernier, Dawson Moore and Aoise Stratford’s Three Wise Monkeys Theatre; the original purpose of the festival (bayoneacts.org), according to current artistic director Jessica Holt, was “to provide local production opportunities for emerging and experienced local playwrights.” However, Holt has intentionally refocused BOA’s purpose since she took the reins in 2009. “It has always involved partnerships between companies,” she says. “But I felt like the real contribution that we could make was to create basically a one-month festival that brought these companies together in a conversation about what it means to collaborate, and what it means to create new work—to really have an experience where we’re all standing around the metaphorical water cooler and swapping ideas about what it is we do.”
BOA’s underlying philosophy, then, includes the idea that theatre as an art is best served when practitioners learn from each other. This guides the current purpose of the festival: to provide a forum for each of its “producing partners” (participating theatre companies) to showcase the company’s unique process and aesthetic, while building relationships with the other BOA producing partners that are based on creative exchange.
Sarah Moser, Siobhan Doherty, and Molly Holcomb in "A Three Little Dumplings Adventure"
by Megan Cohen, at the 2011 Bay One Acts Festival.
Photo: Clay Robeson
From Process to Product
But how does the “artistic philosophy” rubber hit the road of festival structure and logistics? Script selection—which plays are considered and how they are chosen—is a primary strategic component of a festival’s process. The Best of PlayGround, BOA and ShortLived festivals focus strictly on new scripts written by local playwrights; none of these festivals consider scripts by writers living outside of the nine counties of the Bay Area. These companies share artistic philosophies that emphasize the value of community in helping writers develop high-quality work. PianoFight’s Ready offers, “Before, we had plays from all over the country submitted, but we decided in year two that it was going to be a locals-only affair. Because oddly enough, there aren’t a whole lot of open-submission [festivals] for locals, not that actually stage them.” Holt observes that the BOA festival “felt like a real opportunity for us to come together as theatre artists every year and, instead of having a conference where we all sit around a panel and talk about what we do, to actually get an opportunity to create work together.”
For PlayGround this focus on relationships has led to policies where previous years’ participants are actually given preference over newcomers. Each year, PlayGround accepts 36 writers into its “writers’ pool.” In most cases, alumni are invited back; this year, 29 writers from the previous season’s pool of 36 elected to return, meaning that 90 would-be participants were competing for seven slots. Members of the writers’ pool write one 10-minute play per month in response to a thematic prompt, from which six entries are selected for production in the “Monday Night PlayGround” series, held once a month at Berkeley Rep. At the end of the six-month season, PlayGround staff select the plays for Best of PlayGround from the collection of all 36 Monday Night scripts. The festival also involves a second-tier component that provides commissions for full-length plays to select alumni; each script receives 16 hours of rehearsal time, dramaturgical support and a single public staged reading on a weekend afternoon in May, while the main festival program of short plays runs in the evenings. Jim Kleinmann explains: “We saw that the value of what we could offer was going to be about long-term cultivation and relationship, and helping a writer build a body of work, not just one or two short plays, not just one or two full-length plays.”
Both the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation and the Global Age Project, on the other hand, select from a nationwide pool of playwrights, and have even considered scripts written by overseas writers. This openness resonates with the GAP’s primary purpose as a vehicle for rewarding playwrights who address contemporary issues, in keeping with its philosophy that theatre is best served by increasing its relevance to our current culture. BAPF also has an open submission policy. Artistic director Mueller said, “We solicit from U.S. writers only. This year we did get play from another country, though, so there’s no rule about it. Basically, if the writer writes in English, that’s fine.”
A final interesting note on national versus local selection: none of the locals-only festivals ask playwrights to pay a fee to submit their work, while both of the national-level festivals do. Festivals have various reasons for asking submission fees; the most common is that the money allows the festival to offer the selection committee a stipend in exchange for reading each year’s 200–500 scripts, which both the GAP and BAPF do. Another oft-cited reason has been to “thin the herd” of submitted scripts down to only serious writers when a festival has gotten so popular that the submissions threaten to overwhelm the selection committee’s resources. Mueller disagrees that this second reason is a factor: “Professional writers don’t tend to submit scripts to festivals where they have to pay—so it’s almost the opposite.” Both national festivals allow for fee waivers under certain circumstances, and Mueller especially voices her dislike of the fee requirement in general: “I feel philosophically that we shouldn’t charge a submission fee of any kind, but it’s hard to replace those funds. So I’m working towards weaning us off of it.”
Another huge component of how new play festivals realize their purpose is how they structure the creative process and the final presentation. Once the scripts are selected, what mechanism roars into action that “develops” the play and results in the performance we see? Some festival producers are more than happy to present the results of the artists’ labors as unstaged or minimally staged readings with volunteer actors at music stands, while some producers pride themselves on delivering full productions with paid directors and actors, memorized lines and basic (but striking) costume, scenic, lighting and sound design. As we’ll see, it’s not just a question of financial resources; it’s a question of priorities. All of these Bay Area festivals have developed different creative processes, culminating in different final presentations delivered to quite different audiences.
Aldo Billingslea and Carrie Paff in "Collapse" by Alison Moore
at Aurora Theatre's 2011 Global Age Project festival.
Photo: David Allen
The Global Age Project engages a selection committee each year to read through the couple hundred scripts and narrow the choices down to a short list of 16 plays for the festival’s four reading slots. At that point, the directors engaged by the festival are asked to submit a short list of the scripts that most excite them, from which Aurora artistic director Tom Ross selects the final pairings. The priority is finding a good match between script and director, which makes sense given the purpose of the festival; the GAP ultimately selects plays that are intended to make a contribution to not just local but American theatre, and one step toward that is encouraging directors to invest in the plays and advocate for them. From selection to presentation, the script receives eight hours of rehearsal, with the director taking the lead dramaturgical role; because the selection process is so rigorous that the four final plays are generally quite polished, and because the rehearsal time so brief, the festival doesn’t place great emphasis on major-surgery script development. The substantial stipend that the festival awards the four selected playwrights is a strong motivator for applying to the GAP, as is the chance of actual production: “At least one play from each year’s festival for the past three years has gone on to be a main stage production at Aurora, which is so rewarding” says Smith. The GAP’s final presentation takes the form of a set of four free staged readings, of the classic music-stand format, as well as a fully staged “anchor production” of another play, which has either ascended through the festival-reading ranks or been hand-picked from outside the fest for its quality and relevance to the festival’s focus on issues of the present and future.
BAPF works much the same way in terms of selection; its selection committee reads through up to 500 plays and recommends a short list of finalists, from which artistic director Mueller makes the festival selections. A unique part of BAPF’s selection process includes consideration of the writer’s demographics when reading and rating; writers of color, emerging writers and local writers are identified for the committee’s information. Once the scripts are selected, the playwright is provided with a director, a cast, a dramaturg, 20 hours of rehearsal time and two semistaged public readings for a paying audience. Script development is an integral part of this festival, and playwrights are typically expected to make use of the rehearsal time and dramaturgical support to work on the script. Finally, since the festival’s purpose is to get the selected scripts seen by theatre professionals who are in a position to pursue a production or coproduction of the work, BAPF designates one weekend “industry weekend,” which draws a number of local and nonlocal artistic directors, literary managers and other theatre decision-makers.
At the other end of the spectrum are BOA, ShortLived and Best of PlayGround. In all three cases, the producers select the festival plays and choose the directors, although BOA’s “producing partner” model means that Holt is selecting an entire company as well. All three festivals deal chiefly in short works and deliver full productions of these works rather than staged readings. The main festival program of all three festivals, however, owes a great deal to their successful adaptation of the variety entertainment model: each offers an evening-length program of six to 10 wildly varied performance pieces, many of them comedies; they capitalize on eye- and ear-catching design and a quick pace to enhance the performances’ impact; and they emphasize community and collaboration, increasing both artist and audience investment in the final presentations. ShortLived in particular has a format that generates that precious commodity of “festival energy”; each audience member is given a score card at the beginning of the program, on which they rate that night’s shows. At the end of the night, Ready says, the score cards are a mess, with scribbles and scratch-outs so dense they’re sometimes hardly legible.
This populist method has gone awry, however. “On closing night in year one, we announced the wrong winner,” Ready admits of the 2008 ShortLived fest. At the end of the festival’s very first season, amid the excitement, the final night’s score cards had been miscounted. The error was discovered only because a PianoFight company member, Jeremy Mascia, decided on a whim to take a breather from the closing-night revelry and recount votes. To his surprise, and the company’s chagrin, Daniel Heath had actually won by a single point, over the playwright whose name had just been announced to the popping of champagne corks. “And what’s so strange about that,” says Ready, is that because each season’s winner gets a commission for a PianoFight production, “that that led to [Heath’s play] ‘Forking!’, which we did up here and in L.A., and that led to ‘A Merry Forking! Christmas,’ which we’ve done for the last three years, which led to a bunch more collaborations with Daniel, and all that came out of literally a drunken recount on closing night.” No vaudeville comedy could have done better. High drama, wild comedy—no acrobats or dog act required.
Of course, the San Francisco-based festivals discussed here represent only a slice of the thriving Bay Area new-play festival scene; numerous recent articles and popular buzz suggest that the Bay Area is on the upswing as a “hot” place for new playwrights and new plays. Seek out a few fests this summer, as artist or audience member, and you may well get in on the ground floor of what will someday be recognized as the new-play paradigm shift in American theatre.
Laura Brueckner is associate editor for Theatre Bay Area and director of new work for Crowded Fire Theater.
Michael Phillis and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White's "Frigidare" at the 2011 Best of PlayGround Festival.
Photo: mellopix performance
New Play Festivals in the Bay Area: