September 12, 2008

ACT, Berkeley Rep, Magic Theatre Among Local Troupes Embracing Newer Plays

By Pat Craig

THEATER IS STUCK with the bad rap of being the dusty repository of previous centuries' art.

On one hand, you can understand it -- while audiences are eager to see something new on TV or at the movies, they tend to lust for the tried, true and familiar when they plunk down significant cash for theater tickets.

The bright lights of Broadway typically announce as many revivals as new shows, and community and regional theaters around the country know the best way to boost the bank account is to serve up a hearty season of old chestnuts.

Now, though, that may not be enough.

Theater, that long-suffering fabulous invalid, is putting on a new, very contemporary face -- at least in parts of the Bay Area. In some cases, theater companies are tossing away tradition like yesterday's playbill.

"I don't think you can automatically schedule the classics and expect people to come anymore," says Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre Company, which has a dozen authors working on new plays under commission, and plans to have commissioned 50 new plays within the next decade. "The world has shifted enough and people have been exposed to the top 50 plays of all time enough that they want to see plays that reflect the political urgency of the time."

A fresh example is "Yellowjackets," a new play about racial tensions at Berkeley High School commissioned by Berkeley Rep and now in its world premiere production at the theater. And there will be much more new and often local to follow.

Taccone sees this as the culmination of many years' efforts at Berkeley Rep to seek out and produce new plays that reflect current realities in society, culture and politics. It's a trend he has noted throughout the country, but is particularly evident in the Bay Area.

"Of course, the thing is, the Bay Area has always been a place that celebrated innovation, a place where a lot of people come to take risks in every part of their lives," he says. "So the Bay Area is ripe for this kind of trend."

San Francisco's Magic Theatre in Fort Mason Center has devoted its past several seasons almost exclusively to new works. Berkeley's Shotgun Players seeks out either new plays or ones to adapt for contemporary audiences. The recent political comedy "Ubu for President" was a new adaptation that played at John Hinkley Park in Berkeley during the summer, and the upcoming "Vera Wilde" is a new musical by Seattle playwright Chris Jeffries.

In July, Central Works produced "Midsummer/4," a new play by Gary Graves, based on "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, doesn't go as far as Taccone in issuing a death sentence for the classics. Indeed, classic plays, such as last season's revival of "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," will continue to have an honored place in the ACT lineup.

But a glance at this season's ACT schedule shows few familiar titles and only slightly more familiar names. The season opens Wednesday with the West Coast premiere of a new Tom Stoppard play, "Rock 'n' Roll," a huge hit on Broadway last year. Perloff set her sights on it four years ago when Stoppard showed her a rough draft of his play about revolution in the former Soviet satellite of Czechoslovakia.

"I knew then I wanted to do it," says Perloff, who has developed a knack for finding works that play with a burning relevance when they open here, or has benefitted from unusually fortuitous circumstances. "When we began rehearsals for 'Rock 'n' Roll,' Russian troops went into Georgia."

In the past few years, there have been similar connections with unfolding events. When the theater presented Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot," about racial identity in South Africa, it opened at the same time people were talking about Barack Obama's not being "black enough." It's probably happenstance, but it makes a point about theater, Perloff says.

"Theater is a living organism and scripts are a blueprint for production; they are never written in stone," she says. "For new generations, great plays are reimagined time and again."

That new look at old work is also in evidence with ACT this season. Perloff had been thinking about John Guare's play, "Rich and Famous," for a project involving the company's conservatory. When she contacted him, he told her he'd been thinking about reworking it.

"But he said he hadn't done it, because no one had been talking about a revival," she says, "so this gives him the opportunity."

And when ACT opens "Peter and Jerry," a new play by Edward Albee that is a prequel to his "The Zoo Story" from the '50s; it will show a master artist looking back at an extremely early work. The new show should give additional insight to the two characters, Peter and Jerry, in "Zoo Story," a chilling account of a chance meeting in a park between a quiet man and a disturbing stranger who may turn violent at any moment.

"What is so great about this is not only are major, well-known playwrights generating new material as they live into their 70s and 80s, but they are also going back to revisit their old work," Perloff says. "This, to me, is nothing to be sneezed at, that they are able to go back and remember their original impulses and react to them. To me, this is something very moving and fascinating about these old masters going back and re-examining their works from an earlier time."

ACT's 2008-09 lineup also includes new plays. "The Quality of Life" is a show set in the aftermath of the Oakland Hills fires, dealing with loss and survival; the production follows the play's world premiere in Los Angeles. "War Music," an adaptation by Lillian Groag of Homer's tale of the conquest of Troy, is an ACT commission and will have its world premiere here. Jose Rivera's "Boleros for the Disenchanted" is the latest work from the author of "Brainpeople."

Producing new works is a bit more difficult for smaller professional companies such as Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, says artistic director Tom Ross.

For a small theater to get rights to new shows and world premieres, they have to find a way around ACT and Berkeley Rep locally, or do some crafty programming, as the company has with the West Coast premiere of Strindberg's "Miss Julie," in a new adaptation by Mark Jackson, who also directed Aurora's amazing production of "Salome" two seasons ago.

Fundamentally, though, programming a theater season is an inexact science, where you simply hope for the best. While audiences indicate they are generally happy with the job Aurora is doing, there is no consensus in the annual surveys taken by the theater, Ross says.

"They'll say do more new stuff, don't do new stuff. Do more Greek tragedy; don't do any more Greek tragedy. Stop doing drunken Irish plays," Ross says. "Or they want more Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. So what we try to do is present a couple of modern classic playwrights, two classics, a West Coast or Bay Area premiere and hope people like what they see."

Originally published by Pat Craig, Contra Costa Times.

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