STEM studies will step on stage at Berkeley Rep
By Lou Fancher
It's time to redraw the human genome.
To reconfigure the entire genetic material of human beings, the San Francisco-based playwrights' incubator known as PlayGround is steaming into STEM at 8 p.m. Jan. 26 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Bearing a gang of top Bay Area actors and an acronym so familiar it may soon abandon its parenthetical addendum (science, technology, engineering and math), six 10-minute original scripts selected from plays written in four-and-a-half days by 48 invited playwrights will plow into "The Human Genome Project."
Sound crazy? Sounds like the once-a-month, Monday Night PlayGround series that has been bringing raw, script-in-hand readings of short new plays to Berkeley for 11 seasons. (The 21-year-old series originated at San Francisco State University.)
The six plays selected for Monday Nights are curated by PlayGround's artistic staff and a panel of theater- and theme-savvy experts.
Audiences become quasi producers by voting to determine the People's Choice Awards; the plays that are then considered for inclusion in the annual Best of PlayGround Festival. PlayGround has staged over 700 short and 54 full-length plays by more than 200 local playwrights.
Each Monday Night event follows a theme, and Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann says the annual Math Night has developed more than 300 original short plays and is the series' most popular.
"More works from those nights make it into the Best of PlayGround than from any other evening," Kleinmann says. "And more of our film festival short films have come out of Math Night evenings than any other topic."
Kleinmann says Math Night is amazing, because it tips "write what you know" on its ear and thunders with palpable possibilities as playwrights alternatively get hung up and fling aside what can be unfamiliar terrain.
"The topics in the past (Math Nights) have occasionally been quite dense and it can take a while for the playwrights to really understand the concepts and then begin to think about how to theatricalize them," Kleinmann says.
To assist in the process, PlayGround hosts a topic prep session with experts (for the playwrights) and provides links and supporting materials (also available to the public) at playground-sf.org/topic.
Kleinmann says David Eisenbud, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (msri.org) first approached him about creating a dedicated Math Night in 2003. "Viscous Circle" was the first topic and over the course of 11 seasons, "Strange Attractor," "Patterns of Chaos," "Fearful Symmetry" and other math topics have provoked and stimulated audiences. He says the mix of traditional theatergoers and mathematically gifted audiences created unusual crosscurrents but also introduced a limitation.
"We always wondered what we weren't able to cover in the fields of science given the limits (of the Math Night) title," he says.
With two kids in school, Kleinmann frequently hears talk about "STEM" and "STEAM" -- adding "arts" to the phrase -- and decided the big (and sometimes small) world of STEM was irresistible and should be broached.
"(It's) a little left brain-right brain pas de deux," he says.
Still shaping the program, Kleinmann is developing a STEM council that will consist of local leaders in the four fields and encourage robust dialogues for pre- or post-show panels and outreach and community partnerships. And with Math Night's popularity possibly overflowing with the conversion to STEM Night, he's also keeping his ear to the ground for expansion beyond one performance. A new collaboration with Planet Earth Arts took their October show in Berkeley to Stanford for a second night, where Kleinmann says the audience provided uniquely different feedback. The contrast was a boon to the actors' and playwrights' creativity and left the organization thirsting for other, yet-to-be explored settings.
"That's been the driving reason for these types of projects," he says. "(To see) how PlayGround can be used as a model to create or build community and explore bold ideas you might not otherwise see in the theater."
People interested in serving on the STEM council may contact Jim Kleinmann at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the PlayGround office at 415-992-6677. The Monday Night PlayGround series runs monthly, October through March. at Berkeley Rep.