Rapid-Fire Drama Tackles Disruption

by Jean Schiffman

New 3Girls Theatre play examines the way we deal with sexual issues, power and other topical struggles in the workplace.

The name—3Girls Theatre Company—is a bit of an inside joke. Playwrights AJ Baker and Lee Brady, and writer/director Suze Allen, are not “girls.” Nor were they in 2011 when, knowing how difficult it is for women playwrights to get their work staged, they cofounded the San Francisco company to produce and promote new plays by women who, like themselves, are “in their prime.”

Now artistic director Baker’s latest play, “Disruption,” makes its world premiere at a moment in the national zeitgeist when the word disruption itself has become the mot du jour as—among other tears in the fabric of the status quo—women have taken on old societal battles with a renewed fervor.

Baker’s rapid-fire drama starts in medias res: an anonymous whistleblower has threatened a mega-million-dollar lawsuit against a Silicon Valley biotech company that’s about to go public with a new metabolic miracle drug; he’s claiming inaccuracies in the drug’s clinical trials. But immediately things escalate: the whistleblower is discovered to be former employee Laszlo (Timothy Roy Redmond), and suddenly he’s also claiming sexual harassment—by the CEO, Dr. Andrea Powell, or Andy (Sally Dana). Andy, along with her chief of staff, Cris (Heather Gordon) and her lawyer, Vivian (Nancy Madden), are reeling. Manny (Louis Parnell), the retired judge they’ve hired (at $1,000 an hour) to mediate, remarks, “It’s what we now call a Harvey Weinstein claim.”

Faced with this dilemma—Laszlo promises to go viral with his accusations unless he’s paid off—Andy gasps, “Your Honor, we need to put our heads together. Do we have time for a break?” Replies Manny, “Absolutely. All the time in the world.… Let’s say, 15 minutes.”

The freight-train-like speed of the mediation is true to life, says Baker. As a full-time lawyer who represents CEOs in her own, two-person North Beach firm, she knows whereof she writes. “The mediation context is a very high-pressure world,” she explains. “You have to fix things in one day. It’s exaggerated here, [but] so many times, you’re there until midnight, under incredible pressure.” The goal is to avoid a formal legal process. She chose that timeframe, which conforms to the Aristotelian concept of the unity of time (the action should take place in no more than 24 hours) to explore a subject that has always fascinated her. “Because I represent both men and women, I see how situations play out very differently depending on gender,” she says. “As in every other part of our society, women face a different set of standards [than men] for the same thing.… I see it every day. So I wanted to look at a high-powered woman CEO”—one whose fate and the company’s fate are intertwined. “What would that look like inside as she tries to fix it?”

As time runs out, and with her chief of staff (who’s acting strangely evasive) and lawyer at her side, Andy desperately tries to understand Laszlo’s shocking accusation. At the same time, she must keep the trust of the board president (an unseen male voice on speakerphone) and save her job, the company and the product she believes in.

As she developed the play over the past two years through 3Girls staged readings, says Baker, she discovered that the characters had their own ideas, and the more she learned about them, the more layers of disruption emerged. “I saw how the entire story was a riddle,” she says. Then, as she was polishing the script, the #MeToo movement erupted on a national scale. “I was already feeling that it wasn’t quite clear in my mind what was going on [in the play],” she continues. “[But] when MeToo started up, it all snapped into place exactly what the issues were…how Andy felt all the forces were aligned against her. …Laszlo’s attack on Andy is all about using social media to take your case to the public. For someone like him, the MeToo movement is the perfect place to hang your hat.” She and director Parnell retained the plot but tweaked the lines to bring the dialogue into an electrifying present.

Longtime San Francisco theater artist Parnell has been Baker’s collaborator almost from 3Girls’ inception. He has directed all of Baker’s previous plays with the company, appeared in several and directed all but two of the company’s productions altogether.
He reads the scripts from a dramaturgical viewpoint, advises her on changes. Of “Disruption,” he observes that it’s a very talky play, set in a conference room and a smaller room, yet he’s a movement-oriented director who likes to keep actors physically active. As Baker’s 11 tense scenes zip past, he plans to avoid static sitting-in-chairs visuals. “Louis has such an incredible sensibility about what makes good theater,” Baker remarks.

“This is a disruptive period for women, and for that matter for men,” she goes on, “the way we deal with sexual issues, the way power grows and is handled in the workplace.” Her hope for “Disruption”: that it will contribute, in its own small way, toward the formation of a new mental image for all of us. In the future, when we hear the word CEO, she wonders, “Will we picture men in suits at the table—or these very dynamic women?”

April 7 → 28

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