Mathematical Sciences Research Institute

Home > About Us > News > MSRI in the Media > Show

Speed Theater

MSRI + PlayGround collaboration

Sunday, May 7, 2006 (SF Chronicle)
by Sam Hurwitt

You put a bunch of playwrights and mathematicians in a room together, and you'd think they'd have the courtesy to start battling each other like zombie pirates and robot ninjas. But it was more wine and cheese than bread and circuses when the PlayGround writers pool went to visit UC Berkeley's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in early March.

The next day, the playwrights would all have to start writing short one-acts on an as-yet-unannounced topic loosely related to game theory, so they had trekked up to the MSRI roost high in the Berkeley hills on an optional field trip. After a PowerPoint presentation on the game of go by Professor Elwyn Berlekamp, they split into small groups to talk to specialists in the field about what the game of numbers was all about.

"There are five mathematicians and about 20 of you," MSRI director David Eisenbud said, "so ..."

"You do the math," playwright Tom Swift said with a laugh.

How PlayGround works is this: Every fall, emerging playwrights apply to be part of a pool of 36 writers. Once a month the pool is given a topic on a Friday and everyone has five days to write a 10-page play. The scripts are submitted, and two days later a small judging panel chooses six of the plays to be performed in a staged reading on the next Monday night at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

"So it's a 10-day process from topic to script-in-hand to seeing your work onstage," says Garret Jon Groenveld, who was one of the playwrights from the beginning of the nonprofit PlayGround and then became the company's dramaturge and education coordinator. "It's a terrific learning experience, because oftentimes when you write a play, it can take six months to a year to get a reading together with actors, and by then maybe the impulse has passed and you have to figure out what you were trying to do."

At the end of the season, seven out of the 36 plays are selected as Emerging Playwright Award winners for the annual Best of PlayGround Festival, which starts Thursday at Zeum Theater. In addition, two of the playwrights are commissioned to write full-length plays through the PlayGround Fellowship and the June Anne Baker Prize to premiere at the following year's fest. This year will feature staged readings of 2005 winners Aaron Loeb and Geetha Reddy's plays, as well as nine shorts from the 1997 to 2005 selections on display as the Best of the Best of PlayGround, to mark the festival's 10th anniversary.

When PlayGround was founded in 1994, anyone could submit plays on the assigned theme. But a few years ago it was decided to narrow the field.

"It got crazy, where we would have 66 or 76 scripts every month," Groenveld says. "We judge by consensus, so we all had to read that many scripts, and that was impossible to do from Tuesday to Thursday. So we decided to weed it down to a pool of 36 writers. The concept is that we have six months with six slots to read, so conceivably everybody could have one slot. It doesn't work that way -- there are statistically anywhere from eight to 14 people who will never have a script read onstage. Some people get one, some people get two, a few people get three."

Statistics like these are mathematicians' bread and butter, and MSRI has partnered with PlayGround on topics for three years, with Eisenbud becoming the company's newest board member. MSRI sponsors a series of events intended to improve popular awareness of math in society, including talks with Tom Stoppard, Philip Glass, Steve Martin and Robin Williams.

PlayGround, meanwhile, is working on fostering new partnerships with local organizations, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose photography exhibition on the 1906 earthquake inspired last month's play topic.

The previous math-inspired topics, "strange attractor" and "vicious circles," elicited decidedly nonmathematical interpretations, so this was the first time playwrights were given a briefing on the subject before their topic -- "zero-sum game" -- was unveiled. At one table, math wunderkind Aaron Spiegel drew the distinction between the simple games that constitute his area of expertise and anything that might actually be interesting to play, while Reddy looked over in interest from Berlekamp's table.

Elsewhere Eisenbud and playwright Loeb, a video game developer, animatedly explained why computers are better equipped to play chess than go.

"My brain's just exploding with thoughts," Loeb said afterward. "My dad's a mathematician, and I work with people who solve complicated games on a regular basis mathematically, so there's too much to write about."

Reddy, a Silicon Valley engineer, seemed more troubled by the prospective topic.

"It doesn't bother me," she said. "I probably will just avoid it, which is what I did last year. My problem is that the things that I like about math that interest me are not the same things that interest me about writing."

Neither Loeb nor Reddy's script was selected this time around. The March selections included Molly Rhodes' play on a devoted mother's sacrifices, Brady Lea's comedic domestic dispute about cleanliness, Mia Chung's on a couple dividing their mutual possessions, Samantha Chanse's on a troubled Cuban restaurant, Martha Soukup's fractured fairy tale of a princes and a dragon, and Ross Peter Nelson's tale of young elephant seals on the make. Not much math in the mix this time either, but three of the plays featured talking animals. Put that one in your calculator and compute it.

There's a real sense of community among the writers, many of whom return year after year, though not quite as many as the list of past selectees would seem to suggest. It's the people who really thrive on the process who tend to come back.

"We do have writers of definitely varying levels of skill, and having their work produced is an incredible growth accelerator for them as writers," says Annie Stuart, associate director of PlayGround. "So if you run into playwrights who have been produced more frequently, I think it is the act of being produced that helps get them there."

This year's awards were announced April 17 at a benefit gala at Berkeley Rep. Swift and Lea won the full-length commissions as well as being selected for the Best of PlayGround alongside Rhodes and Nelson's zero-sum plays and works by Reddy, Tim Bauer and David Garrett. The rest of the evening featured plays dashed off PlayGround-style by more established playwrights, including Liz Duffy Adams and Carey Perloff, with the 1906 earthquake as the topic the night before its 100th anniversary. The results were just as mixed as those in a normal Monday PlayGround.

"There are some wonderful writers who don't thrive on the process," Groenveld says. "And people approach it differently. What I usually did was look at the topic and say, 'What's the weirdest way I could take this on so I could get picked?' "

It's not just the playwrights who get a rush from the breakneck pace of PlayGround. Like Groenveld, Stuart is one on the rotating roster of judges, but her real work begins once the plays are picked. Between selection and performance, it's her job to cast all the plays and match them up with directors from an impressive pool that includes Barbara Oliver, Lee Sankowich, Jonathan Moscone, Ellen Sebastian Chang and Tom Ross, to name only a few.

"I've been the casting director at Marin Theater Company for 12 years and Center Rep for four, and PlayGround is truly my favorite job," says Stuart, who usually reserves actors for the readings in advance while she's making other casting calls. "I always bite my nails when some playwright needs a 50-year-old Serbo-Croatian woman who juggles. But at the same time, for me, it's an absolute dream because I get to work with actors that I don't know as well. There are very few actors in the Bay Area that have never done PlayGround. ... So many fabulous artistic relationships have come out of work that's happened (here)."

PlayGround may be competitive, but it's anything but a zero-sum game. It's one in which pretty much everyone wins.

Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St., San Francisco. $25-$40. (415) 392-4400,
(415) 704-3177, www.playground-sf.org.

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance writer.
Copyright 2006 SF Chronicle