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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

In the Zoom Where it Happens: PlayGround Launches A Digital Theatre Festival

Tuesday, May 12, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nicole Gluckstern

As PlayGround’s 25th Anniversary season draws to a close, its spring programming continues forward, albeit with a virtual twist. Forced by shelter-in-place to cancel upcoming live performances at its Potrero Stage location, PlayGround has quickly adapted to the change in circumstances, combining its previously-scheduled showcases into a five-week festival of livestreamed content, from May 11 to June 14, which the company has dubbed Zoom Fest. Including the Best of Playground showcase, the Young Playwright’s Project, a theatre “town hall,” and the Groundbreaker series of world premiere plays, Zoom Fest is an ambitious foray into the still-developing digital frontier. Not content to stream pre-recorded video footage from past seasons, PlayGround is instead exploring digital distribution as a way to deliver brand new content to its audiences.

In its push to discover how the live theatre experience can be most closely replicated online, PlayGround has committed to producing every play scheduled in the festival as a live, albeit Zoomed, production. PlayGround’s artistic director Jim Kleinmann notes that while the digital component of the performance adds a layer of challenge, most of the roles on the production team remain the same as in seasons past. There’s a design team hard at work sourcing props, and designing virtual backgrounds, sound, and lights. Individual actors are being provided with technical support—and in some cases, hot spots, mics, and green screens—in order to enhance their ability to participate fully in the digital arena. Every performance will even have a “house manager” to welcome the audience and get them settled in. 

Featured shorts include Dear Santa by Nic A. Sommerfield. Photo by Mellophoto.

“We’re trying to push the boundaries of what a Zoom experience can be,” Kleinmann emphasizes. All that will really be missing is the commute—and, of course, that familiar proximity to the performers and fellow audience members which is not so easily replicated.

 This absence notwithstanding, audiences can expect to experience real-time, rehearsed, off-book performances featuring many familiar faces from PlayGround’s robust acting community. As with the in-person format, the emphasis will be on the new works being presented. Everything, from works written by Bay Area high school students to premieres by nationally-recognized playwrights, is being adapted to the Zoom format without being expressly written for it. The company hopes that these plays will still be able to receive fully produced, live performances in the future, just as so many PlayGround playwrights have received over the years. 

Theatre companies who are still figuring out how to move forward with digital presentations in these challenging times may view a viable model in PlayGround’s negotiation of contracts with SAG-AFTRA for the actors involved with the festival. Kleinmann points out that although negotiations would normally have been conducted with Actors’ Equity for the in-person productions, it quickly became clear to both parties that a virtual theatre festival did not fall specifically under Equity’s purview. 

 

The festival will produce Safe House by Geetha Reddy. Photo by Nina Ball.

Fortunately, PlayGround had been working with SAG-AFTRA since 2011, when the company launched its film festival, and was able to negotiate a supportive contract for this innovative venture. A key difference from an Equity contract is that SAG-AFTRA covers everyone involved in the production equally, whether they are union members or not, thereby guaranteeing the almost 200 artists working in the festival a decent paycheck—whether they be actors, designers, playwrights, or directors.

That spirit of inclusion infused the changes Playground made to this year’s casting and ticketing. Rather than hiring a small ensemble to perform all of the Best of Playground plays, the company cast each play individually, giving work to the maximum possible number of actors. Even so, tickets have been priced low (from free to $15) to reflect both the limitations of the still-developing distribution model of livestreamed new works, and PlayGround’s push to make this festival a model of an accessible experience.

“We’re looking at the digital platform not as a one-time substitute per se, but as a way to ensure accessibility for the art form,” Kleinmann explains. “This whole situation has shown us how we can work on accessibility, make that a much higher priority, and hopefully build greater participation, from artists and from audiences.” On a digital platform, PlayGround is able to invite actors and audiences to take part from all around the country, including folks who—either for transportation reasons or physical limitations—have been unable to attend the live performances for several years.

With so many to choose from, it’s hard to narrow down the highlights of Zoom Fest. Each evening will have its built-in audience, and draws will certainly include works by PlayGround luminaries such as Aaron Loeb, Geetha Reddy, and Rachel Bublitz. But beyond the big names, what Zoom Fest reflects are the many diverse directions that PlayGround has traveled over the years. From shorts curated from the last sixteen years of Monday Night Playground submissions, to highlights from the nine years of film festivals, to developmental staged readings of commissioned works, every lineup represents a piece of the overarching PlayGround mission to support the development of the American theatre’s next wave of new voices.

Aaron Loeb's First Person Shooter. Photo by Zabrina Tipton.

In that vein, the centerpiece of Zoom Fest is certainly the world premiere productions of new full-length works by Garret Jon Groenveld and Genevieve Jessee, which will premiere at the end of May and the first week of June. Groenveld’s Disbelief, playing May 30 and 31, is a modern-day retelling of the Cassandra myth, and Jessee’s The Rendering Cycle (June 6 and 7) is a cycle play of ten short plays, inspired by August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle. Closing out the festival with a flourish, the 24th annual Best of Playground (June 13 and 14) gathers the top six scripts submitted to this past season’s Monday Night Playground, giving each its own moment to shine on the virtual stage. It won’t be the same as gathering in the same space with all of the artists—but it will be a live experience, and a welcome innovation for the theatre-starved.

As it could be a long time before theatre-makers can produce and perform their work in traditional stage settings, PlayGround’s Zoom Fest is an important experiment in building out a digital component for companies who want to keep creating in the meantime. Recognizing the model as an enhancement of, not a replacement for, the live theatre experience, Kleinmann hopes that PalyGround’s efforts might inspire other companies to take on the challenge of continuing to produce new work while navigating public health concerns the social distancing paradigm.

 “I really see PlayGround as a laboratory for the theatre experience.” Kleinmann concludes. “We’re hoping people will learn from what we’re doing, and that we’re going to keep learning [too].”

 Zoom Fest runs May 11 to June 14. For tickets and more informations visit: https://playground-sf.org/zoomfest/

Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl