The question seemed rhetorical at first. Playwright and Mime Troupe emerita Joan Holden fixed the audience with her owlish gaze and challenged them to name a new full-length, fully staged comedy that had been recently produced by a Bay Area theater. There was some shifting in seats as the attendees at the 27th annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival thought about it. Stand-up comic and writer Doug Holsclaw, one of the other panelists chosen to talk about subversion in comedy, craned his neck expectantly, as if expecting a flood of answers.
And there was silence.
A woman in the second row finally piped up with "They just did Noises Off [at the San Jose Rep], and it was a huge success. There's a lot of comedy."
"Noises Off is twenty years old," Holden and Holsclaw said virtually in tandem. And suddenly, a discussion that had meandered gently around other issues became intensely focused on the problems playwrights have getting their comic works staged. Surely it couldn't be true. Don't we see comedy all the time? Could the discussion merely have reflected the bias of four people getting hit by the same budgetary blues facing every artist in California? But it's true, particularly in the large houses, and particularly in the East Bay.
Study recent season listings, and it becomes clear that large houses are not producing new comedies. Dramas with comic elements, sure. Time-tested comic works by playwrights such as Shakespeare, Ionesco, and Shaw, or adaptations of classic works such as Charles Mee's loose adaptation of Aeschylus (Big Love) and the forthcoming Geoff Hoyle take on Georges Feydeau, For Better or Worse, yes. But for new, long-form, nonimprovisational comedy in the East Bay, audiences have to turn to the small or amateur houses.
Berkeley Rep managing director Susie Medak was incredulous when she heard this hypothesis, but as she sifted through the past two seasons she agreed that the Rep's last new full-length comedy was Big Love -- back in 2001. Only one of the seven shows in the new season will be a comedy. Between 2002 and 2004, three of the Aurora's ten plays were comedies, and only one -- Michael Frayn's Alarms and Excursions -- was remotely contemporary. Walnut Creek's CenterRep does a little more comedy (it's putting up Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile this season), and while CalShakes does a comedy or two a season, the company's mandate pretty much ensures that the playwright has been in the ground for quite some time. The midsize Shotgun Players once again bucks the trend by not only doing new comedies, but doing farces (such as their production of Molière's The Miser), which we virtually never see in the East Bay. Transparent did new comedies -- and now it's gone, after two and a half seasons.
Perhaps the dearth is not immediately obvious because we do have some very funny things going on. We've had Hanifah Walidah and Sia Amma bringing their racy, socially relevant pieces to the Black Box and La Peña. The Berkeley Rep has hosted several comic one-person shows in recent memory -- notably Karen Finley's The Distribution of Empathy, Josh Kornbluth's Love and Taxes, Sarah Jones' Surface Transit, and Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years. But other than the Jones piece, these shows tend to be second-stage shows; they fill in dead spaces and are minimalist in their staging.
We're also up to our ears in comedy improv, both short- and long-form, as Robert Avila documented in the June 2 Bay Guardian. Two week-long improv festivals now grace the Bay Area, and the East Bay scene is blossoming with such groups as Pan Theater, Delta City Improv, East Bay Improv, and the veteran Oakland Playhouse Improv Troupe.
And then there are the community houses, which often seem to do nothing but comedies, or musicals, or some combination thereof, with a mystery thriller thrown in for good measure once a season. But the comedies all have stellar track records and are rarely very challenging.