A toast to Berkeley Rep’s Summer Residency Lab: Participants, director talk playwriting program

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David Rodriguez/Staff

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Fourteen black and white chairs are set across the center of the rehearsal hall, facing perhaps three dozen other chairs staggered on choir risers. It’s a noticeably large space — there’s a piano in the back right corner, hidden underneath a blue mat. In the other corner, a few bookshelves hold various miniature set-design dioramas.

As artists and audience members file in, they’re invited to help themselves to complementary toast and a variety of spreads. One toaster is decorated with Cinderella on the outside, and when the toast pops up, it plays a song — earlier that night while preparing for dinner, the program volunteers, called “ambassadors,” argued over whether the song was “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from the 1950 “Cinderella” or one of the themes from “The Nutcracker.” (Inexplicably, it’s from “The Nutcracker.”)

The Toast Talk is a quirky and fairly self-explanatory tradition for The Ground Floor Summer Residency Lab at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre — everyone gathers together, eats toast and talks. More specifically, the playwrights and directors are given the opportunity to open up about their work and the progress they’ve made over the past two weeks.

The nearly 700 applicants from around the world who apply for the Summer Residency Lab are invited to apply with whatever they have — whether a fully completed draft or just the hint of a new idea — and to ask for any resources they might need. Berkeley Rep, which launched the program in 2012, provides stipends, hotel rooms and free dinners to all its participants, who are then invited to come work privately in office spaces and write. They might rehearse parts of their scripts with directors and actors, who the playwrights can request to bring along. It’s a unique opportunity for a playwright at any point in their career, but with only a handful of spots (this year, 22 projects were hosted), it’s also highly competitive.

“We want to make sure we have a variety in content, a variety in form. … We really like when people who may not be traditional theater artists apply,” explained Madeleine Oldham, the program’s director and one of its founders.

A few hours before the Toast Talk, the rehearsal hall looked quite different. There are six chairs instead of 14, each one paired with a black music stand, and there’s a set of peculiar props piled up on the ground, including several palm fronds, banana leaves, pistols, knives and a baby doll.

Six actors are rehearsing playwright Kimber Lee’s latest draft of her unofficially titled “untitled fuck miss saigon project.” Eric Ting, a familiar name to frequenters of Cal Shakes, or the California Shakespeare Theater, is directing.

As Ting runs the first few scenes, he glances over at me a few times, checking to make sure I’m not uncomfortable with the content.

“This is intentionally offensive!” Ting promises me earnestly.

It’s easy to see why Ting might have at first been concerned. The play is assertively offensive — hilariously so — and begs for awkward confrontation. It’s a critique of the tropes in Western entertainment of the helpless and victimized Asian woman (here played by Grace Ng). Lee, who throughout the rehearsal takes notes on her script in bright pink pen, draws upon material from “Madame Butterfly,” “M*A*S*H,” “South Pacific” and other works.

At the beginning of the residency, Lee had about 20 pages of her draft. Now, she estimates that she has between 70 and 80. But she wasn’t required by the program to have any form of a draft at all.

Dealing with artists who are all trying to accomplish different tasks at different paces may seem difficult. Oldham admits that it can be challenging to design a program that’s meeting the needs of everyone, but she sees this challenge as the program’s greatest strength.

“Making art is going to look different. When you make something, it’s not going to look like what somebody else makes, so why should the process look like somebody else’s process of making it?” she explains.

Oldham works out of the literary office. Today she’s wearing a red flannel with sleeves rolled up to show off her impressive tattoos. Her door is always open to the artists passing by, who might be looking to bounce their latest ideas off of her. She speaks lovingly of the ambassadors, and of how amazed she is by their productivity.

The ambassadors, after all, are tasked with some of the most critical assignments. They not only handle all logistical duties, including preparing dinner and shuttling artists to and from the hotel, but are also placed in rooms with playwrights, where they might take notes, obtain props or read stage directions. They aren’t paid for their work, but Oldham notes that it’s a valuable chance for them to engage with the experiences of working artists.

For dinner, the ambassadors prepare a chicken tagine, along with an assortment of pastas and a salad. While the artists wait for the kitchen to open, they gather around the television in the sofa room to cheer passionately during an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The artists at the tables, meanwhile, exchange experiences and memories from the Summer Residency Lab.

I sit with Jackson Gay, who’s directing “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” by Christina Anderson. It’s a play about the history of public pool segregation and the history of recreation being denied to people of color. Gay, who’s wearing a smart black jacket and gold earrings, her glasses sitting atop her dark brown hair, says she thrives on working with new plays. In particular, she loves to adjust her style to meet the needs of each playwright. She feels them out, taking note of their body language and work style, so she can transform her own.

Dinner conversations are interrupted by the start of the Toast Talk. It’s here that the full breadth of unique work is on proud display. Projects range in content and style from a musical called “Salonika” from writer Julia Gytri and composer Avi Amon, to a drama called “Flex” by Candrice Jones, which follows the story of a women’s basketball team.

A few themes slowly come to define the panels — it’s clear that many of the writers drew from intensely personal experiences. Jones recalls playing on a high school basketball team where a player became pregnant nearly every year. Baruch Porras-Hernandez, writer of the self-described “very gay” one-man show “Love in the Time of Piñatas,” draws upon his experiences as a Mexican immigrant and member of the LGBTQ+ community.

For the most part, the writers were able to make good on their promise to transform their ideas into reality, but only, ironically, because they didn’t have to. The greatest gift the Summer Residency Lab gave, it would seem, was the opportunity to do absolutely nothing at all. The freedom certainly was more than many of them expected — some felt they burned out, but most thrived without the outside pressure, plopped within a community of other motivated creatives.

“It’s a process for me and about me. … It’s time, space and a lot of help,” said Jones, who, in the most understated way, summarized the magic of the whole thing.

Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].

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