Playwrights Festival Incubates New Works

by Jean Schiffman

Six works-in-progress are featured at 2017’s Bay Area’s Playwrights Festival, which celebrates its 40th year.

New York playwright Clarence Coo is wondering exactly what the 19th-century artist/scientist/hunter John James Audubon is doing in his new play about contemporary loneliness, “The Birds of Empathy.” He’ll be exploring that dramaturgical mystery as one of six playwrights selected, from among about 500 submissions nationwide, to participate in the 40th Bay Area Playwrights Festival (BAPF).

The Festival, the nation’s oldest and most prominent of its kind—helping to develop new work by emerging and mid-career writers—was established by Robert Woodruff, who directed the work of a young Sam Shepard.

Over the course of a few weeks, the plays are presented, twice each, as staged readings; in between readings, the playwrights’ development work continues.

Coo, an award-winning playwright, brought an earlier play, “Belle Province,” to the BAPF in 2013 and says he made many breakthroughs during the process. The idea for “Birds” emerged when he first found himself listening to avian song during a nine-day silent writers’ retreat and wondering what they were saying to one another—after which he became a dedicated birder. He says he is fascinated by the way humans anthropomorphize animals. “I never really thought it would lead to a play,” he adds, “but after a year of birding it just sort of happened—I had to write it.” The main character is a socially awkward gay man whose life is in crisis and who wants to take flight himself. 

Prolific San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson was America’s most-produced living playwright last year and is also a BAPF alum, having developed “The Revolutionists” here in 2015. Now resident playwright at Marin Theatre Company, she’ll bring “The Fatales” to this year’s Festival; it’s about an all-woman pop group. “It has a girl-power froth to it,” she says, “[but] underneath you get a sense of something darker going on.” She wrote the first draft, with songs, in a fit of a rage during a week of particularly horrific violence against women worldwide. “This experience women have, of joy and empowerment… that’s stripped away in life or death ways all over the world—I can’t make sense of that,” she says, “so I decided to write a play that doesn’t make sense of it.” She adds, “I want to get us laughing and engaged in the way that comedy can, and journey together toward harsher realities.”

Another BAPF alumnus, Bennett Fisher, brings a thriller, “Damascus,” to the mix this year. “It’s about faith and belief,” he explains, “and the moments when someone undertakes a radical change.” At the Festival, he expects to further finesse the plot’s suspense element and to go deeper into the interaction between the two main characters: a white kid who bribes a Somali Muslim immigrant van driver off-route between Minneapolis and Chicago. A highly theatrical look at terrorism, the play is not, he emphasizes, about the idea of terrorism—it’s about how human beings on both sides of such a large global issue view one another and comes from a very personal perspective. “In all my writing… I want to find a way for the audience to move past judgment to empathy,” he says. Currently a playwright in residence at Victory Gardens in Chicago, he is also a company member of Campo Santo and Cutting Ball Theatre.

Among this year’s other playwrights, all based in New York, the youngest is Nilan Johnson, who is also an actor. The idea for his new play, “Endangered Species”— described as “an Afro-surrealist futuristic legend”—came to him when he found himself thinking, “What if, to survive, black culture has been literally boxed away?” He created a dystopian world for his play in which “there is no color, no individuality—but plenty of standards and rules.” The brotherin an African-American family has been banished to the basement. When his little sister discovers him there, he takes her on “a crazy journey toward blackness,” says Johnson. He has worked on “Endangered Species” with several companies so far but this will be his first chance to work with actors who are age-appropriate for the older roles. An admirer of adventurous playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Tony Kushner, Johnson comments, “I’m not interested in another mama-on-the-couch play. I want to write with all the freedoms I can.”

Mona Mansour’s plays have been staged all over the country, including at the Public Theater. She is the current winner of the Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award; in applying for it, she proposed what turned out to be “We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War,” co-presented at the Festival with San Francisco’s Golden Thread. “I was really curious then and now, about how the notion of identity can be different for different family members,” she remarks via email. “While I consider myself very much Arab-American [father Lebanese, mother American], I am not sure I could say the same for my siblings.” What, she asked herself, does it mean to be culturally hyphenated, to be “half” something? In the play, set in San Diego, an Arab-American aunt and her nephew explore “identity, family and allegiance.” Mansour is especially eager to work with director Evren Odcikin, who emigrated here from Turkey; she thinks he understands very well the aunt character’s pull toward “home.”

Award-winning playwright and screenwriter Hilary Bettis, story editor on the FX series “The Americans,” wrote “Magic City” in response to Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” with which (and with whom) she has a passionate love-hate relationship. “I always felt that [aristocratic] Miss Julie is equally a victim [of societal constraints] and that Strindberg’s own anger at women got in the way of humanizing her as much as [her male servant] Jean,” she says. “I wanted to give all three characters an equal playing field.” In her version, set in Miami, “John” is a first-generation Afro-Cuban; his fiancée, the servant Christine, a Venezuelan immigrant; and Julie a real-estate mogul’s daughter. The three bare their “souls and scars and sexuality and fear and the entire human condition, in one night,” Bettis elaborates. She plans to explore the characters’ physicality at the BAPF and also to polish up the different dialects of Spanish that comprise some of the dialogue—a second-generation Mexican-American, she is working with translators.

Amy Mueller, longtime artistic director of the Playwrights Foundation, which produces the Festival, observes that many of the participating playwrights of the past—not just Shepard but Annie Baker, Marcus Gardley and Nilo Cruz—have become the eminent writers for modern American theater. “They ask theater to stretch into new territory and they ask audiences to accept subject matter that is sometimes uncomfortable, using humor, tragedy, poetry, playing with structure and with how a story is actually told,” she says. Now more than ever, she adds, the Playwrights Foundation is dedicated to the entire future of theater. 

July 13 → 23

Bay Area Playwrights Festival

Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco