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BWW Interview: Lauren Yee & Jim Kleinmann of PLAYGROUND ZOOM FEST Celebrate the Development of New Works

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BWW Interview: Lauren Yee & Jim Kleinmann of PLAYGROUND ZOOM FEST Celebrate the Development of New Works
Aaron Loeb's "First Person Shooter" was presented as a Livestream reading as part of "PlayGround Zoom Fest."
Shown here is the 2007 SF Playhouse-PlayGround world premiere co-production,
featuring (L-R) Sung Min Park, Chad Deverman, Craig Marker, and Kate del Castillo.
(Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

PlayGround, San Francisco's renowned theatre development lab, is currently in the midst of hosting the nation's largest fully digital new play festival, PlayGround Zoom Fest. Already running and continuing through June 14, 2020, the ambitious five-week online event gathers leading voices in American Theatre including Lauren Yee, Jonathan Spector, Aaron Loeb, Geetha Reddy, Kent Nicholson, acclaimed actors, theatre journalists, designers, and more from across the country, to present and discuss a panoply of new works and celebrate PlayGround's 25th anniversary. Coordinated under a groundbreaking agreement with SAG-AFTRA, the livestreamed festival is also providing paid #FairWage employment for more than 140 actors, which is especially needed during the COVID-19 crisis.

PlayGround Zoom Fest transforms PlayGround's popular Festival of New Works into an online program of more than 30 real-time livestreamed performances, including three fully-produced Zoom Premiere Presentations, as well as readings of new works, films, and roundtables, for more than 50 distinct offerings. Most performances are offered free of charge, with tickets for the Zoom Premiere Presentations offered as low as $15. For a detailed schedule, link to reserve access to streaming events, and purchase tickets to Zoom Premiere Presentations, visit playground-sf.org/zoomfest.

BroadwayWorld caught up this week with PlayGround's Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann and the much-in-demand playwright Lauren Yee in separate phone conversations. Yee is just coming off a huge success with the New York run of her newest play, Cambodian Rock Band. She participated in PlayGround's Writers Pool as a young playwright and will be part of the festival's Zoom Town Hall panel on June 8th. In conversation, Kleinmann is naturally loquacious and detail-oriented, while Yee tends to be more direct and concise. Talking to both of them is like getting a mini-master class in playwright development. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

BWW Interview: Lauren Yee & Jim Kleinmann of PLAYGROUND ZOOM FEST Celebrate the Development of New Works
Jim Kleinmann, Artistic Director of PlayGround

Jim, you're currently in the thick of things with PlayGround Zoom Fest, which sounds like a massive undertaking. How's it going?

JK: It's going well. We are now almost dead in the middle of the festival. We just finished the first two weeks, which was really a love letter to PlayGround history, the best of the first 25 years. We'd gotten some special funding from that before the COVID crisis began and we then pivoted when we found out we would not be able to do any of the programming in our theater, and included that in this much larger festival. Now we're heading into what would normally be the core of our New Works Festival where we are only developing and premiering work that's never been seen before. We start out with a few developmental readings of full-lengths which are, we hope, some of the future premieres from both PlayGround and other theaters in the community, and then we have two full-lengths which will premiere, one this week, one next week.

We close out with something that is kind of a signature program, "Best of PlayGround," a celebration of short plays by some of our top new writers. It's often for many of our writers the introduction to production, to collaboration, to not just a reading but a full off-book, and it often is a launch point for them. We've had writers like Lauren, who was still in the Bay Area when she came through PlayGround so that was part of her early experience.

Lauren, how did you originally connect with PlayGround as a young playwright?

LY: I just knew PlayGround was a hub for emerging playwrights, and it was a way to meet a lot of people. I think the first PlayGround thing I saw, I ushered for them once, and that was probably in high school. Then when I got out of college, I was back in the Bay Area, and I was just like I want to be around people who do theater so I thought it was a really great way to do that. So then I joined their Writers Pool for a year and it was just really a great experience. Whether or not you had a piece [that got produced], you got to go to the performances and meet everyone. There was just this sense of community that I really appreciated.

BWW Interview: Lauren Yee & Jim Kleinmann of PLAYGROUND ZOOM FEST Celebrate the Development of New Works
Playwright Lauren Yee
(Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

Finding your voice as a playwright and then establishing an actual career in theater seems incredibly daunting to me. How did your experience at PlayGround help you with that?

LY: It introduced me to new collaborators and to other playwrights. Playwrights really love hanging out with each other cause there's someone else who understands what you're doing. It really just created this great community of people.

Jim, what are your memories of working with Lauren?

JK: Lauren had already had some opportunities that had come her way when she was still very young in the Bay Area. She grew up here, she had connected with Melissa Hillman at Impact Theater and they produced one of her first full-length plays, Ching Chong Chinaman. We'd heard about that and then she heard about us, and we were looking at being a resource for writers who, you know, sometimes the doors weren't open, or sometimes the doors were starting to open but they still wanted to be part of a broader community.

Unlike some of the writers, say like Aaron Loeb who spent 10 years working through the short form with PlayGround, Lauren came in for a much shorter period. She was with Playground I think for about two years and I remember the first part was sort of learning how to write in the short form as opposed to the full-length and trying to tell these stories where you had a clear sense of a beginning, middle and end in only 10 minutes. The first year, I don't think she had any plays selected for the Monday Night Series. She was part of the community, she was having the opportunity to have her work read, she was getting feedback, but she didn't yet get a play onstage with us.

Then the second year she wrote this play Giving Up the Ghost. I clearly remember it was a play that felt very much of her generation, about twentysomethings who might have been perceived as just a slacker generation. They've got great education, they've returned home, they're living with their parents and they're not interested necessarily in pursuing a traditional career. This was an issue that she told me she was experiencing with some of her friends and was hearing some people saying they were just not feeling motivated to follow some path. And, you know, it creates tension with the families, it creates tension for the kids, so she wrote a little 10-minute piece, we ended up picking it for the Monday night series, and we then did it in Best of PlayGround.

It got a full production and then she was selected to receive the June Anne Baker prize, which is one of our commissioning programs, for a distinguished female writer representing a gifted new comedic or political voice. It's turned into a really amazing family or cohort of the most distinguished up-and-coming women writers that have come out of the Bay Area in the last 18 years. Lauren wrote a full-length commission in which she adapted that 10-minute piece and turned it into a beautiful full story and then we were able to partner with Impact Theater co-produce that play. In many ways it's really an early style for her, but I love the fresh comedic voice, the way she understood the family dynamic and the generational issues.

So those are some of my early memories of Lauren. It's certainly been wonderful following her success and knowing we played maybe a small part in providing her some support and giving her some sense of the community that's out there. PlayGround is a place where we hope that writers know they can start with us and they can always come back. We try to be a place where writers can come at different stages in their career and we adapt to their needs. It might be your first commission, but it also might be your mid-career commission when you feel like there are things you want to try that you're not being given the opportunity to try in some of the other regional theaters. We certainly hope to have a continued connection to Lauren, but as I said, it's been really wonderful to watch her trajectory and success and to see the impact that her work is now having nationally.

One of the coolest things about Zoom Fest is that you're able to pay something like 140 actors who otherwise would be out of work, via an agreement you reached with SAG-AFTRA. Jim, how difficult was it to negotiate all that?

JK: It wasn't as difficult as you would imagine. We had a history with SAG-AFTRA because even though we're primarily known as a theater company we had started developing short films adapted from the plays that we curate going back about ten years. So we knew SAG-AFTRA, we knew some of the agreements they had, and that some of our artists were already having some success with the new media agreements doing work on the internet. When this situation happened and we realized that Equity was not yet in a position to consider livestreaming as a performance option, we knew that SAG-AFTRA had some structures in place. We reached out and they were very responsive. They were like "Ah, you want to do a livestreaming event. OK, great!" And we told both sides, so Equity knew and SAG-AFTRA knew.

Lauren, you're one of a number of Asian-American Playwrights whose profiles have really taken off in the past few years, which has been so great to see. Any thoughts on why that's happening now?

LY: I think over the years there's been a lot of companies like East-West Players and Mai-Yi Theater Company, who've been doing the work and putting the effort into training those actors. So now you can do one of my plays, you can do "Cambodian Rock Band" where they're all playing instruments. You can find actors who not only can do the parts, but are great at it. And it's not just the companies that are focused on kind of culturally specific work. It's like the ACTs and the Berkeley Reps out there that are interested in the work that for a long time was being done by, say, an Asian-American theater company.

When you look at other Asian-American Playwrights right now, do you see similarities in your work?

LY: Sure, in the way that I think you can draw parallels between any two pieces of writing. I think more than anything that I'm just seeing a real diversity of stories, of perspectives, of things that people are interested in, of styles. There's just an abundance of different kinds of stories, which is amazing.

I'm curious, Lauren, about what it's like to be a working playwright in the time of the COVID crisis when everything is in limbo. In your case, there you were in the midst of a notable success with Cambodian Rock Band in New York and then the run was curtailed. As a theatregoer, I worry "Did I miss it? Will it ever come back?" Do you have any worries as a playwright that Cambodian Rock Band won't ever come back, that 6 months or a year from now, we'll all just move on to the next thing?

LY: I have no idea. I've done my piece in creating it and it had this great run. I think it's least up to me whether it gets to see the light of day again. I hope so, but it's more up to you guys than me! [Editor's note: Good news for Bay Area theatregoers! Subsequent to this conversation, Berkeley Rep announced Cambodian Rock Band will be part of its upcoming season.]

On a brighter note, what's the best thing about being a playwright? What's the best part of your job?

LY: I think it's if we do a good job and work really hard, we get to see other people. The majority of my work is done alone in a room, not talking to people. And then for me the first day of rehearsal is the reward. You get other people [to collaborate with], you get like a prop artisan who's making this prop and figuring it out because you wrote it down on a piece of paper.

You seem to be a really prolific writer. What are you working on now?

LY: I think I'm just trying to figure out what's next. The past two months have thrown all the theaters and artists for a loop. Like at first everyone thought Broadway would be down for a month and then, well, you gotta cancel until September. I think everyone very responsibly is trying to sit and wait and figure out what it means, which is something you have to do. But I don't know, I don't know what's next.

And Jim, after Zoom Fest ends on June 14th, what's up next for you?

JK: We're looking at a couple of things. One is what the reality will be not just for PlayGround, but for about a dozen different nomadic theaters that use our space, Potrero Stage. We run this theater as a space dedicated to new works. There are companies like Crowded Fire and Golden Thread that are resident companies there and Playwrights Foundation does their annual new works festival there. Then there's a lot of really young, up-and-coming companies that do their first play or their second play with us and so we're trying to figure out what we can do next to support these companies and to adapt Potrero Stage to be more supportive for digital work. It could be a situation in which there's no audience allowed, artists are just allowed to start coming together to rehearse in person because we know that's a very intimate experience and so what could we do to allow them to rehearse onstage and to then have the ability to broadcast that, livestreaming? I have to say I personally prefer the livestream experience because to me it's closest to live theater. I like the danger that's inherent in the actors performing it right there and then.

When this is all over we probably will consult with other theaters that are looking to get on the digital platform. We want to be a resource to both the local and the national community, but we also hope that we can modify our theater in a way that makes it better suited to support theater companies that may not be allowed to have their audience back in or can't have their full audience in.

And then I'd say the last part of that is that we've learned a lot in doing the Zoom Fest about being accessible, and not just sort of the basics but learning there were people who couldn't come to our theater because they couldn't go out at night or because they were having hearing issues when they were in the theater. We're looking at whatever PlayGround can do, whether it's online or using our theater and digital support systems to make sure that we are far more accessible in the future than we were even a year ago. That could include closed-captioning, signed performances, and audio description as well as just making sure that people who can't go out or who can't get public transportation to get to the theater can still experience the show. That needs to be part of our discussions with the unions, our discussions with the artists.

I don't think we're going to make more resources out of it. Our ticket prices have either become free or have dropped to the lowest they've been in 20 years - $15. We're not making more ticket revenue on any of this even as we try to increase attendance, but what we are finding is that we have seen increased accessibility for our community. Mostly that's in the Bay Area, but we hope that over time it'll make it easier also for other new work developers and producers who want to see works but can't get to the Bay Area, who might then be able to experience the work and decide to program those writers. So we hope that's part of the future after June 14th.


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