Prodigious Playground Promises More Great Theater

by Jean Schiffman

The Bay Area’s largest commissioner of new playwrights showcases more than 44 performances and readings in June.

Katie May wanted to write a play about the Abominable Snowman, although she didn’t really know why. Ruben Grijalva, shocked by revelations of doping among baseball players, wondered what he’d say if he himself were offered an elixir that would help him rise in a competitive field.

The two San Francisco playwrights were commissioned by the city’s prodigious new-play incubator, PlayGround, to write, respectively, the existential comedy “Abominable, or the Misappropriation of Beverly Onion by Forces Beyond Her Control” and the baseball drama “Value Over Replacement.” Developed over the past few years, the two plays are the feature presentations in this year’s PlayGround Festival of New Works, a three-part, six-week event comprising more than 44 performances and readings.

The “Best of PlayGround Short Plays”—sometimes only minutes in length—are all performed on a single bill (June 3-19) and are chosen from PlayGround’s ongoing Monday Night Series. This year’s selections are by Madeleine Butler, Patricia Cotter, Karen Macklin, Isaac Ontiveros, Kirk Shimano and Josh Williams.

In addition, full-length plays by Julianne Jigour, Patricia Cotter, William Bivins and Vitoria Chong Der each receive two staged readings apiece (June 11, 12, 18 and 19).

The Festival is the annual culmination of PlayGround’s ongoing function as an umbrella, explains founder/artistic director Jim Kleinmann, under which independent artists can develop projects about which they're passionate. PlayGround commissions six to ten plays a year (the Bay Area’s largest commissioner of new playwrights, says Kleinmann) and has supported nearly 200 playwrights in developing and staging more than 750 new short plays and 61 full-length plays over its 20-year lifespan. Writers often start out, as May and Grijalva did, by submitting a script for the Monday Night Series. If accepted, from there they might proceed through stages toward a commission. Each year two of those commissions receive mainstage productions at the Festival, and, boasts Kleinmann, “The playwrights own these productions,” which means they get to choose their directors, help cast the actors and participate in all aspects of the production.

Kleinmann dramaturged both “Abomination” and “Value Over Replacement” and was delighted that Grijalva asked him to direct the latter. “I love these two writers. Their plays are quirky and very different from each other,” he says.

“Quirky” might be an understatement when it comes to Katie May’s funny, poignant and entirely original “Abomination.” “I became a playwright partly to write big, meaty roles for women, and this one is particularly close to my heart,” declares May, who has an MFA in playwriting and a host of fellowships and awards; her “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a witty, comic-book-style charmer, was staged at San Francisco’s Costume Shop in 2013. “A few years ago a theater blogger wrote that a lot of women were writing protagonists that are acted upon rather than being in charge of their own story line,” says May. “I wanted to prove her wrong. Rather than telling women not to write those stories, how do we make them work, make them dramatic? I thought, I’m not only going to do it, I’m going to do it to the extreme—I’m going to write a [play in which] a woman’s life is literally taken over by outside forces and being acted upon.” Of course, at the end the character must appropriate her own story.

Thinking about the mythical Yeti, and what he represented to her, May’s mind drifted to the idea of loneliness—“This isolated creature that no one ever sees…maybe the last of his kind, [living in] ice and snow and
a harsh environment.”

When she heard San Francisco writer Mary Roach discussing her book Stiff, a hilarious and harrowing explanation of what happens to our bodies after we die, she was further inspired and began to shape a character, a mortician’s assistant. Maybe this is the play I put a Yeti into, she thought.

To research both the Yeti and mortality, she bought “Stiff”; books about death rituals, Yeti mythology and cryptozoology; poet/mortician Thomas Lynch’s “The Undertaking”; Reinhold Messner’s “My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas’ Deepest Mystery.”

“Abomination”’s hapless, socially awkward Beverly Onion (played by Lisa Morse) inadvertently becomes the guinea pig in a contest between two squabbling, god-like entities, Fate (Nican Robinson) and Luck (Amy Resnick), over who is more powerful. On a sort of off-kilter heroine’s journey, Yeti-obsessed Beverly attends a morticians’ conference and, accidentally, a Star Wars conclave, and by chance ends up in bed with a fellow Sasquatch enthusiast. In a desperate attempt to seize control of her life she treks to Tibet to commune with the Abominable Snowman, who is lingering morosely at death’s door.

“Abominable” was chosen among more than 1,000 submissions to join a handful of other plays read at the prestigious Lark Play Development Center’s Playwrights’ Week in New York last fall and was also a semi-finalist at the equally prestigious O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut. Symmetry Theatre Company, which produced an early salon reading of the play, is coproducing its Festival run, directed by Symmetry cofounder/artistic director Chloe Bronzan.

“I like to make things comedic in unexpected ways,” says May. “But this is a play that at its core is about loneliness, about all the ways people are lonely. I like writing about loneliness—and making it funny—because everyone experiences it.” June 8-July 9, in rep.

In thinking back to the scandal in which some of the star athletes in America’s favorite sport were found to have taken performance-enhancing anabolic steroids, baseball fan Ruben Grijalva became obsessed. Why would people risk their reputations in this way? When he admitted to himself that he might not say no if he were in those circumstances, he knew he’d achieved an understanding of that moment of choice. And that was what he needed to create a play centered on a fundamental argument in which he as playwright must inhabit all sides.

So in creating the characters for “Value Over Replacement”—the central figure, Chip (played by Jomar Tagatac), a retired shortstop, now a respected radio host, whose dirty secret has come out; Chip’s autistic 10-year-old son, Alex, an aspiring ballplayer (Alex, Chip as a little boy and another little boy are all played by Martha Brigham); Chip’s angry wife; and others (six actors playing 12 characters plus radio callers)—Grijalva found he could empathize with all viewpoints.

The play, in development over several years (but one he’d been thinking about since 2007), recently received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award and was an O’Neill Playwrights Conference finalist; in addition to writing plays, Grijalva, who has a B.A. in cinema, has written an award-winning short film, “Shadow Ball.”

To delve into the material, Grijalva studied congressional reports, videos from the era, Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race” and also “Game of Shadows,” both about doping in sports, a biography of Barry Bonds and more. He was especially interested in reading about the science of achievement—how much of it is genetic, he wondered.

In the play, Chip must face family, colleagues and the public, including young people, and decide not only whether to admit the truth, but whether he in fact regrets his past actions. The moral dilemma he faces has vast consequences. Grijalva’s research led him to understand, on a deep level, why Chip made the choice he did, and the internal struggle the character has in order to justify, that choice—or not.

The play focuses on Chip’s personal relationships, especially with his son, who is an unfiltered voice for raw truth; with his wife, who wants him to apologize publicly for the past actions that he’s not sure he regrets; and with the memory of his father, who first introduced him to the game.

At its deepest level, the play is about the tension between our visions of doing exciting things in the world versus our desire to have integrity, live honestly as our best selves, says Grijalva. “Baseball,” he observes, “is a good vehicle for talking about that.

“I don’t think anyone in the story is a villain,” he adds. “I think people in general think they’re doing their best…. I’m interested in ambition, and what people want to do and how they try to get there, and how important it is to define themselves and their legacy in a certain way. Hopefully everyone in the story is trying to do that.” June 15-July 9, in rep.

PlayGround now has a master lease on the 78-seat Thick House in Potrero Hill, and some renovation is scheduled. Kleinmann is eager to use the space to showcase even more local writers, with hopes that plays like these two can have a continued life beyond the Festival. PlayGround alumni like Aaron Loeb, Geetha Reddy, Lauren Yee and others are getting productions in bigger theaters these days, but, says Kleinmann, “Everyone needs a place to go home to. We want to be that place, where writers can go away—and come home.”

June 8 - July 9

Thick House

1695 18th St., San Francisco

(415) 992-6677/