Culinary innovation and a focus on sustainability are a big part of Bay Area culture, so it's no surprise that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has taken up food as the theme for an ambitious series of performances the company has commissioned. The performances won't be ready until next year, but I recently got a look behind the scenes at the creative process.
Eighteen playwrights are crafting unique short dramas with a wide diversity of themes, from fad diets to the hardships that migrant farmworkers face. At least two San Francisco-based playwrights, Octavio Solis and Lauren Gunderson, are letting the theme of food take them inwards, towards narratives that contemplate self-doubt and self-realization.
Octavio Solis' one-act play Scarecrow opens on a barren piece of land, where a tired farmer fights off despair at the failure of yet another season. Danny desperately wants to grow organic crops and is struggling to understand why his good intentions aren't bearing fruit: "Carrots like dead baby fingers," laments Danny in the current draft of the script. "Clay for broccoli. Tomatoes lacking all life and juice."
Playwright Solis hails from a family that once farmed land in Mexico, but he has never tilled soil himself -- yet. He and his wife, Jeanne Sexton, dream of starting their own organic farm in Oregon, where they've already bought land. But first they must learn more about farming. The Berkeley Rep commission is pushing him deeper into this process, Solis says, through field trips and hands-on research that inform his writing.
Photo: Niku Sharei
Extensive research was not required, Solis notes, for him to discover the back- and heart-breaking nature of farming. I accompanied the author on a visit to Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, where we walked in the shade of olive trees and breathed in the scent of lavender blooms as chickens pecked at our feet. Solis talked at length with the farm's owner, Alexis Koefoed, about her pastured chicken operation. "Farming is physically hard work," Koefoed told Solis. "If you don't love it, you can't do it. You will resent every moment you're on this place."
Koefoed went on to describe how she lost an entire year's work when another farmer brought a virus onto her farm, most likely on the soles of his boots. Not long after, hundreds of Koefoed's birds sickened and died. She recovered from that setback and went on to garner top Bay Area clients like Chez Panisse and Prather Ranch Meat Company. But last year Koefoed had to shutter the poultry and egg portion of her farm when grain prices rose during a drought in the Midwest. Koefoed is now looking to retool and diversify her business to keep the farm afloat.
Photo: Niku Sharei
Solis' research and play examine the challenges many small farmers face, but they also plumb his own anxieties. At one point in his script, a character called Thin Man mocks the farmer, Danny: "Family? What good are they now? Except to remind you of your failure. Of how they didn't get new clothes this year 'cause you needed to pay your water bill."
Solis says he's "always intrigued with those stories of darkness and despair and distress," which tap into his own fears as a farmer.
50th wedding anniversary of Lauren Gunderson's grandparents; courtesy Gunderson family
Lauren Gunderson's play opens in a very different setting, a kitchen where a mom and her teenage daughter confront each other over a coconut cake. "No one feels like a party, everyone is angry, everyone is sad," says the teenaged character, Jamie, in the script's current version. "So why are we kidding ourselves?" Her mother replies, "We stop and mark these days because they are fast gone."
In Gunderson's play A Cake, several generations of women come and go, while the cake stays in the center of the stage. Depending on the situation, the cake is seen as a gift, a reproach, a test and even a way to snag a husband.
Like Solis, Gunderson conducted hands-on research to inform her play. She asked her sister, a pastry chef, to show her how to bake a cake from scratch. Donning aprons in the kitchen of her flat overlooking Coit Tower, Gunderson and her sister Kathryn sifted flour and measured sugar and talked about their grandmother and mother.
"Food for me is so intimately about family, history, and memory," says Gunderson. "It never leaves us, it never goes very far away."
When the plays are ready, Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone envisions a multi-day series of performances that will include meals and audience participation. One of Taccone's ideas for a title is "All You Can Eat." The Berkeley Rep is looking at fall of next year as a possible premiere date.