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Seven brave new works draw packed houses by the Bay.

SAN FRANCISCO: At the beginning of Tearrance Chisholm's Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, an actor with a police badge (Myers Clark) told us to take out our cell phones and "please turn your ringer to its highest volume."

"This story is unimportant," he continued. "So if your phone rings, answer it." He pointed out a "laugh" light, instructing the audience to laugh when it turned on--and only when it turned on. "Laughing when the laugh light is off makes you a racist."

It was a provocative opening to a provocative play. Hooded, a devastatingly disturbing and grimly funny look at the endless microaggressions that make up everyday racism in American society, proved to be a powerful and electrifyingly original work, even as seen in a staged-reading format, directed by Jessa Brie Moreno with a terrific cast of Bay Area actors.

Hooded was among seven plays offered at the 38th annual BAPF, which is produced by Playwrights Foundation. It ran through July 26 at Tides Theatre. Also on the roster: On a Won-derverse, Geetha Reddy's play about a routinely overlooked female physicist who creates a miniature universe in her lab; Welcome to Fear City, Kara Lee Corthron's look at the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in the 1970s; The Revolutionists, Lauren Gunderson's feminist comedy about four real-life women trying to literally keep their heads during the French Revolution; Galilee, Christine Evans's play about the environmental devastation of the Great Barrier Reef; Read to Me, Brendan Pelsue's drama about a terminally ill boy writing letters to strangers; and #julys by Sam Lahne, about a neglected Jewish boy anonymously starting an anti-Semitic conspiracy website.

After a frenzied week of rewrites and rehearsals based on the reactions from that first round of readings, those same seven plays were performed again in staged readings, with various workshops and panels in between.

"What I love most is the time--that it's spread out the way it is," Gunderson says of the process. "Having an intense week of rehearsal and a reading, and then another week of rehearsal and another reading, I really think is the closest thing to a rehearsal for a production that you can get with a reading."

For her that's especially helpful, because The Revolutionists is slated for a premiere at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park early next year. This comedy bursts with clever quips; Marie Antoinette is a character in it, and pretty much everything she says is priceless.

The two weeks of staged readings are, of course, only the public face of a much lengthier process of work on the plays.

"Once we decide which plays we're going to work on, we connect with the writers, we talk about what their goals are for the festival, and try to focus on what the playwrights really need to push their plays to the next logical step in the plays' development," says Amy Mueller, Playwrights Foundation's artistic director for the past 15 years. "For some people, that means a complete rewrite, and for other people it's a polish. Some people are looking forward to productions they already have booked, and other people are interested in getting their plays to a point where they feel comfortable submitting them, or they want to actually attract a producer to the work. Everybody's got different goals."

Mueller says she also takes care to match playwrights with directors and dramaturgs, usually from the Bay Area's robust talent pool, as well sharp casts of local actors to bring the plays to life. The gathering begins with a retreat where the directors and dramaturgs come together and listen to the playwrights read their own plays aloud. "I read my entire play, all the parts, which is harrowing and really fun," Gunderson says.

Both the festival and Playwrights Foundation itself were founded in 1976 by Robert Woodruff, a cofounder of San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, who would go on to become an acclaimed director nationally and internationally, eventually serving for five years as artistic director of American Repertory Theater. The very first festival included a play by Sam Shepard, who returned to the festival in 1983. Woodruff would later direct the world premieres of Shepard's seminal works Buried Child and True West at the Magic Theatre.

Some time after Woodruff left in 1984, the format of the festival changed. Other new-play festivals that had arisen around the country were using the staged-reading format, Mueller noted, "and Playwrights Foundation, due to budgetary constraints, took on that format."

The list of playwrights who have developed work through the festival over the years is staggering, including Nilo Cruz, Annie Baker, Anna Deavere Smith, David Henry Hwang, Holly Hughes, Naomi Iizuka, Katori Hall, Philip Kan Gotanda, Mac Well-man, Anthony Clarvoe, Romulus Linney, Maria Irene Fornes, Erin Cressida Wilson, Brenda Wong Aoki, Bill "Reverend Billy" Talen, Marcus Gardley, Liz Duffy Adams, and Samuel D. Hunter--as well as many others currently emerging as forces to be reckoned with. Indeed, most of the names above weren't well known when their work appeared at BAPF, and discovering the next major writers is precisely what the festival is about.

In selecting plays for the festival, Mueller says she always aims for a mix of national and local playwrights. "We will never, ever do a festival with less than two local writers," she said. Of the three playwrights returning to the festival this year after participating in past fests, two are local--in fact, San Francisco's Gunderson and Burlingame resident Geetha Reddy are both resident playwrights with Playwrights Foundation. The third returnee is Australian-born playwright Evans, who isn't based in the Bay Area but has strong ties to the local theatre scene.

Most of the BAPF plays were selected from more than 500 submissions, though Reddy's play had already been spotted outside the BAPF process as part of a co-commissioning/producing partnership with San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater. In addition to working out the usual assortment of tics in the script, the festival is taking the unusual step in the case of Reddy's play of trying out some design elements intended to represent the creation of an artificial universe onstage.

"I had the idea that the universe itself would be kind of a character in the play, and we've always just read the stage directions for it," Reddy says. "But getting a chance to see some of the design elements incorporated, and seeing how it affects the relationships with the actors onstage and adjusting the play accordingly, has been a really important part of the last week of work on the play."

Another departure from previous years: Seven plays is one more play than usual.

"This year we had a little extra money, and we fell in love with the other six plays," Mueller explains. "We felt they complemented each other in a really interesting way and they were very different from each other. We looked at the needs of each of the plays, we looked at the number of actors that were going to be necessary, and realized that it was not going to cost us that much extra money to add a seventh play this year. We decided to go for it."

After many years at Thick House in the relatively remote Potrero Hill neighborhood, this year BAPF has moved to Tides Theatre in the heart of the Union Square theatre district, which is the former home of San Francisco Playhouse and the recently announced future digs of Custom Made Theatre Co.

Mueller is excited to see how the more central location may aid in the important work of getting these new plays seen. As high-profile as the festival is in the new-play development world, it's easy for a staged-reading festival to fly under the radar of theatregoers. As Gunderson puts it, "As a local, you kind of forget that this incredible thing is in your backyard."

Judging from the packed houses at Tides for the first few readings this year, however, BAPF is doing a good job of getting the word out to those still thirsty for new work in a city that's bursting with it.

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Title Annotation:NEWS IN BRIEF; Bay Area Playwrights Festival
Author:Hurwitt, Sam
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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