Bay Area Playwrights Festival Stays Online for 2021

Before returning to live crowds, the influential fest brings a slate of surreal new streaming offerings.

Scanning the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation’s roster of alumni is to peruse a who’s-who of contemporary theater icons. Founded in 1976, the organization has served as an incubator for the likes of Sam Shepard, David Henry Hwang, Anna Deavere Smith, Marcus Gardley, Jonathan Spector, and Jackie Sibblies Drury.

But BAPF has never been preoccupied with polishing trophies for its past accomplishments. Rather, the foundation has always kept a watchful eye on the future of the artform — with the aim of cultivating new talent and homing in on novel ideas.

One such idea recently came to the foundation by accident. When the pandemic shut down all live venues last year, BAPF didn’t hesitate to move their annual writers showcase — Bay Area Playwrights Festival — online. In the process, they discovered something surprising and encouraging.

“[The Foundation has] found that having our readings online has increased access across the nation for those who can watch these new plays and become interested in working with the playwrights,” says Jessica Bird Beza, the organization’s executive artistic director and host of this year’s festival — also online. “Last year, being online brought an almost 400 percent increase in theatre professionals attending. This year, we’ve seen another 50 percent increase from last year. When we are back in person, we are hoping to be able to keep an online presence as well, as it helps serve our playwrights more deeply with more people across the nation being able to see their work.”

This year’s lineup of readings includes a collection of five plays — all by BIPoC playwrights of various gender identities — for which looking ahead is just as important as looking back. The setting of each script runs the gamut from a post-apocalyptic future (Human Museum by Miyoko Conley) and a Japanese-American internment camp (Supposed Home by Sam Hamashima) to a 2003 pop music reality show (Tiger Beat by Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin) and a modern-day family magic shop (The Problem with Magic, Is by Johnny G. Lloyd). A common trait of the scripts is they all involve characters contemplating the future as they struggle to come to terms with their past.

Despite this similarity, Beza insists that this wasn’t deliberate in selecting the lineup. “[W]e are looking for stories that are innovating in who is being written about and how, as well as what will resonate with what is going on in the world right now,” she says. “We don’t initially try to select based on a theme, but we find that often the plays speak to each other and themes reveal themselves. Each of the plays in the 2021 Festival also speaks to generational trauma and healing in their own way.”

“The ‘fantastical elements’ are pretty normalized for me,” says playwright Sam Hamashima (they/them), whose WWII-era play, Supposed Home, incorporates archetypes and tropes of contemporary animé. “This is the way I write. There are times where playing with time and fusing animé and theater are challenging, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Tiger Beat author Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin (they/she) agrees. “I love theater that diverges from the norm,” they say. “Writing that pushes the boundaries of traditional Western storytelling is thrilling to me, as is the simultaneous deployment and dissection of trope.” At one point in Garvin’s play — which follows a multi-ethnic early-aughts girl group — the narrative takes a hard left into “meta” territory and focuses on the playwright attempting to finish the script.

“I hope that the audience might recognize their own lives in the metatheatrical mechanics of the play — that the navigation of identity and values are certainly ingrained in the writing process, and also in many of the daily machinations of our lives[.]”

The playwrights also seem to agree that the diversity of this year’s roster speaks to how the foundation is seeking out new talent.

“One thing that excites me most about this group of writers is that it’s both a diverse group of artists in terms of background, but also in terms of writing style and perspective,” says The Problem with Magic, Is author Johnny Lloyd. “Programming a festival is like programming a season, and it’s an honor to be put in conversation with artists who are pushing boundaries each in their own unique ways.”

Beza adds, “I think having a diverse roster is the bare minimum that arts organizations can do and should be the norm and not the exception. The real hard work is about building a culture and systems that support safety, and the diverse range of needs that each playwright has.”

Lloyd’s play, about a Black- and family-owned magic shop threatened by gentrification, can’t help but draw parallels with how the foundation’s location of San Francisco has spent the last decade pricing out diverse and eclectic residents and artists. The Mountain View-raised Garvin minces no words in saying that “the continued gentrification of the Bay Area [is] deterrent to making new work.”

“This is my home,” she continues. “I love the area’s coasts, rolling hills, redwoods and palms, and the strong community of artists fostered here. I’m resistant to the changes I see happening in my hometown area, particularly as they relate to the construction of commercial buildings, the destruction of our unique ecology, and the ways in which so many people in all professions get priced out of our area.”

All the writers express gratitude to the foundation for the opportunity it presents, and Beza is optimistic about showcasing the literal and figurative “value” of writers moving forward. As she explains, “We just went through a strategic planning process and articulated our highest value as radically centering our playwrights. This challenges us every day to not only focus on the work that is selected, but how that work is supported, and include the playwright’s voice in that process.”

2021 Bay Area Playwrights Festival

July 16 – 25 | various running times

Online | $5 – 175 |

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic.

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