Drama a la Carte

The East Bay's theater community nourishes its own at the Playwright's Cafe.

More even than Marilyn Monroe or classic bar glassware, my friend Vicki loves theater — seeing it, making it, writing it. One afternoon last year, I got to sit in her movie-poster lined living room, eating hot cheese puffs and reading what she swore was the most important role in her latest play — not one of the embattled sisters, or the autistic girl who opens their hearts, oh no. I got to be the stage directions. I’d like to think I brought a certain vivacity to the role, perhaps even the fire and commitment I’m always looking for in other, real, actors, but it’s hard to say. I was reading cold, for one thing, and Vicki spent most of the reading with her eyes closed, listening to the rhythms of a work she was only hearing spoken aloud for the second time.

In its own way — surrounded by martini shakers and Marilyn, fingers greasy, listening to the rustling of Xeroxed pages and discovering the characters Vicki’d been living with for a few years — the afternoon was every bit as exciting as seeing the finished play might be. We wore no costumes, handled no props, and had exactly one professional actor in the room, but we were part of the alchemy that is playmaking: the sensation or question that gets transmuted into an experience that can be shared with an audience; brought from nothing to life.

The scene in Vicki’s living room, while it may vary in the particulars, would be a familiar one to those who have gritted their teeth and finished their play. It’s very difficult to make a play without hearing it read aloud at some point; for many writers, an informal or staged reading can make the difference between whether a piece gets submitted, rewritten — or shelved. But even before the kind friends or practicing actors are pulled together and handed their scripts, there’s the often-lonely and rather paradoxical work of getting dialogue on paper. Writing is slippery work; sometimes it helps to have other people around to help you wrestle it down, support your efforts, assure you that your ideas are interesting enough to expose to audiences — which is where classes, workshops, and groups come in.

There are several places in San Francisco where playwrights or playwrights-in-training can go for help, whether it’s to take a class or hear their work read: the Playwright’s Center of San Francisco, Unconditional Theatre, PlayGround, the Marsh, Venue 9, and the Theatre Artist’s Conspiracy all hold readings, and there are quite a few excellent playwriting teachers and programs available in San Francisco. Unfortunately the pickings are thinner over here, so four years ago, Berkeleyite Steve Lyons — fed up with the commute and preparing for a coming child — decided to start the Playwright’s Cafe. At first the group met at the (now-defunct) Footlights bookstore on Solano; these days they rent one of Berkeley Rep’s rehearsal spaces. Lyons came to playwriting in part because he was a collector (“I was keeping a journal that was full of snippets of dialogue, mostly comedy; I was keeping this journal for years and years, and I loved to go to the theater, and I thought maybe I could do something with this”), and partly because he saw a great need. “Getting feedback is difficult to do. You can have your friends read the play, but after the first draft you start to feel funny about it.” Once the play is written, there are other challenges, especially a limited number of outlets for the work. As Lyons notes about the classes he was taking in San Francisco, “At breaks, all the students would get together and complain about how hard it is — getting read, getting produced.”

So something like the Playwright’s Cafe can be a godsend — and an inexpensive godsend at that. Ten bucks gets you into a monthly meeting that features a guest speaker of local (and often national) prominence. The first hour is dedicated to the guest speaker’s presentation (which usually includes a writing exercise that develops one of the guest’s themes), the second to scene work, the third to discussion of a previously submitted Play of the Month. January’s meeting will be this Thursday night at seven, in the Berkeley Rep’s Rehearsal Room B (2041 Center St.). The guest speaker, Karen Hartman, is the award-winning writer of Gum, Girl Under Grain, and Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl. Hartman, who is also teaching a playwriting class at the Rep’s Nevo school, will be talking about how to draw inspiration from outside sources — writers are encouraged to bring magazine or newspaper articles that inspire them in some way.

The list of past guests is impressive: playwrights Ellen Sebastian Chang, Will Dunne, Dorothy Bryant, Octavio Solis, Prince Gomolvilas, Anne Galjour, Joan Holden, Charlie Varon, Adam Bock; artistic directors Tony Kelly (Thick Description), Barbara Oliver (Aurora), Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep), Lois Grandi (Playhouse West); and playwriting instructors, literary managers, and dramaturges from all over the Bay Area. Upcoming guests will include playwrights Tony Kushner, Lillian Garrett-Groag, and Jeff Raz; artistic directors Timothy Near (San Jose Rep), Chris Hardman (Antenna Theatre), and Patrick Dooley (Shotgun Players); and critic Robert Hurwitt from the Chronicle. Lyons is grateful for the help his guests have offered; as he says, “The national people have been so great — [Terrence] McNally is a sweetheart. I’ve been blown away by how giving people in the theater world are, how gracious.”

You may have caught work that had either originated or was developed in a Playwright’s Cafe meeting; Sarah DeWitt’s Last Smoker in Berkeley and Andrea Mock’s Brain in a Box have both been produced at Speakeasy, and some members of the group have had work featured at SF’s Playlab. Lyons finds that the group helps him focus his energy. “I’m starting to think more locally — it’s so much more enjoyable to be involved with the development process. If your piece gets selected in a competition or a contest, you may not be able to go to where it’s being developed — it may not be feasible [to travel].” Not being involved in the development process means for Lyons that he “sit[s] in the audience like any audience member, except that I get more embarrassed than a regular audience member if people don’t laugh at the jokes.” In an effort to keep the work close to home, the Playwright’s Cafe will soon join a handful of East Bay groups (Many Rivers Theatre Project, Transparent Theater) that stage readings; Lyons plans to use local actors and directors (who will receive a small stipend).

In addition to the monthly meetings and the staged readings, Lyons has created an excellent Web site, www.PlayCafe.org, which is meant not just for playwrights but actors, directors, crew, and audiences. PlayCafe is divided into three sections: one for networking and discussion, one for actors, and one for playwrights or the playwright-curious. Visitors to the thoughtfully designed site are encouraged to share their thoughts on local shows, post news of auditions and competitions, and scan the résumés of local actors. (Actors post their résumés for free, with a small additional charge if they want to include a photo.) There are extensive listings of classes, teachers, workshops, organizations, and recommended reading. There’s even a section where people can leave their own reviews of theater, so “people can comment on pieces that are being ignored by the media, or express contrary views to those in the media.”

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