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Ten Minutes in Five Days

PlayGround's speed-playwriting challenge has resulted in some surprisingly intriguing short works.

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Some playwrights struggle for years over a single work, fixing and fussing. Then it might get into the hands of theater companies like those in Russia, where a production can be rehearsed for a couple of years before it ever makes it to the stage. Not so for the intrepid playwrights, directors, and actors involved in PlayGround's Monday Night Series, which fosters emerging talent by forcing writers to work very, very quickly.

On the second Monday of each month, a topic is announced -- this month, it was "I've Been to the Mountaintop," a line taken from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The writers then have five days to write a ten-minute play. PlayGround artistic director Jim Kleinman chooses six of the submissions and turns them over to local directors, who in turn choose actors from a pool selected by the casting director. If the actors are lucky, they'll get their scripts the Friday before the plays are staged, and have the weekend to go over their lines. They need that time, too, because they'll only get an hour and a half of rehearsal and, at least officially, a ten-minute tech rehearsal.

Every PlayGround season, 36 writers are chosen to form the playwright pool. While some are pros, many are not: This year's pool includes computer programmers, actors, and video producers. The directors and actors, on the other hand, are largely seasoned professionals. This month's directors included Center Rep's Lee Sankowich, CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone, and the inimitable Joan Mankin, and many actors whose names will be familiar to East Bay audiences, such as Scott Capurro, Kerri Shawn, Robert Sicular, Craig Marker, and Ron Kaell.

You might expect from the limitations of the form that the resulting work would be, well, dull. I have to admit that after years of attending staged readings in Minneapolis, I had a vision of a row of amateurs sitting stiffly in chairs and reading awkwardly from tightly clutched scripts. What a pleasure, then, to see what professionals can do with the material. Although the actors are indeed holding their scripts, they're getting a lot of emotional juice out of them. One even used her script to great comic effect, sultrily throwing it, and that of a fellow actor, to one side as she began a seduction. The directors are on top of it too; these little plays have blocking, light and sound cues, and music.

There are other surprises in the Monday Night Series, including the opportunity to see actors getting a chance to do something different. In January, that moment belonged to Chris Ayles. Every time I see Ayles, he seems to be playing someone's kindly grandfather, king, or buddy, but I have yet to see him at the center of a story. In Evelyn Pine's Perfect Endings, he read the part of Dave, who is watching his wife slowly slip away in a nursing home. Dave meets a young woman who convinces him to come campaign for her candidate. As he is transformed by the experience, much to the shock of his dutiful adult children, we get to see Ayles tug with cheerful suggestiveness at his pants -- a sight we might never see in a regular, full-length production. He's still warm and benign, but seems to be having more fun than usual.

A Monday night with PlayGround also means you get to hear a diversity of language. This month the plays ranged from naturalistic (especially in Jonathan Luskin's hilarious, biting Care Not Cash) to more exploratory (Unto Oneself, by Michael Lütz, which had more of a jazz rhythm), to bombastically silly ("Mommy, tell me the story of Goldilocks and the military-industrial complex," begs a child in Aaron Loeb's Monkey Business). Some single lines by themselves beg for the writers to take their plays further: The little boy saying, "Mommy, your narrative structure is struggling under a top-heavy high concept," for example, and "I like my children. Basically," and "Let my ears go, willya, Marty?" and "I'm not frowning, it's the Botox." And finally, a kite in Geetha Reddy's Kite Aerial Photography saying indignantly, "I'm no German party favor."

Even when a moment in one of these plays doesn't work, the ideas are intriguing. A kite longs to be let out farther than her emotionally locked-down owner will let her go. A man climbing a mountain encounters six other hikers -- or are they aspects of his own personality sent to challenge him? The wife of a wealthy art dealer has an epiphany about her life that she can't explain, no matter how hard she tries. There's a freshness and audacity to the work, probably as a result of its spontaneous production, for which January's audience filled the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater more than halfway, an impressive turnout for a Monday-night staged reading. And there seemed to be more discussion afterward than there usually is after a play. While this can certainly be chalked up to the fact that the unfinished pieces have more quirks to dissect than your typical polished performances, it also seems that the audience feels an engagement in the process of making the plays.

The Monday Night Series is just the most visible of several PlayGround projects that support the emergence of local talent. Every year, the group ends its October-March season with a Best of PlayGround festival. Recently PlayGround began publishing the year's winners in book form, which are available through its Web site, and it has inaugurated cash awards for outstanding new talent. PlayGround also offers classes in playwriting that can be taken individually or as a series. The class scheduled for February 9 features a guest lecturer, Theatre Rhinoceros artistic director and playwright John Fisher, who is known for such antic outings as Medea: The Musical! and last season's Impact premiere Queer Theory. For more information about getting involved with PlayGround, or to apply for its 2004-2005 writers' pool, visit PlayGround-SF.org

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