Playing with Disruption at PlayGround’s Innovators Showcase

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A couple sits on a loveseat, looking forlorn, surrounded by camera equipment
Kieran Beccia and Lilia Houshmand in 'Home,' by the Forum Collective, being presented in the PlayGround Innovators Showcase (LFK Media)

Here in the Bay Area, we love to tout our “disruptors” and “innovators.” But all too often, the disruptors and innovators who get the most press are based in the tech world. What of the many performing artists, whose practice is also rooted in iteration, problem-solving, and challenging the status quo?

That's the question that PlayGround’s Innovator Incubator has posed for the past three years, and this year’s Innovators Showcase, running Nov. 16-Dec. 5, opens up the conversation to audiences keen to experience the works of our key theatrical disrupters.

In a cross between a fellowship and fiscal sponsorship, PlayGround Innovators receive administrative and producing support from PlayGround over the course of the year, culminating in a collective showcase of new and developing works. For many participants, it’s been an opportunity to found their own companies and trial models of producing and governance that stray from the nonprofit structure that’s proliferated from the 1960s until today. And what with the additional challenges of pandemic producing, these companies have had to truly innovate both their creation processes and their presentations.

A Collective's 'Journalism Theater'

A returning Innovator company, the Forum Collective found a lot of artistic value in their 2020 foray in digital producing, citing broader shifts towards greater accessibility for all as a particular takeaway. So, as co-founder Julius Rea notes, “it was simple to make the decision to create a digital piece and share it in-person and online” for this year’s showcase. Available both as a streamed experience from home and an in-person movie screening experience at Potrero Stage, Home is a two-actor devised piece that centers gender fluidity and “sexuality consciousness,” featuring Kieran Beccia and Lilia Houshmand.

Lilia Houshmand and Kieran Beccia in Home, by the Forum Collective, being presented in the PlayGround Innovators Showcase (LFK Media)

One of the ways in which the Forum Collective is innovating is in its particular focus of “Journalism Theater,” which they differentiate from Documentary Theater and its offshoots. With Journalism Theater the goal is to respond in as close to the moment of a particular trend or theme. For Home they noted that there seemed to be an uptick in coming out and transitioning narratives in the news and among their peers during the pandemic. Co-founder Kieran Beccia connected this to a “growing consciousness of sexuality and gender,” worldwide, and brought this awareness into the rehearsal room and let it influence and infuse the piece.

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Another area of innovation for the group is that of governance. Currently a five-person, multiracial collective, each member serves as the “Director” of a specific area such as literary development, audience development, and production. Additionally they set specific jobs and roles for each project along with timelines, and make company decisions collectively during weekly meetings. This model allows for members to move in and out of creative production and supports them as theater-makers in their other endeavors with flexibility and support.

“Since we are not following a singular artistic voice, all of our programs are all of our ideas together,” Rea elaborates about the Forum Collective’s operations. “Also, everything informs everything. I bring in the structures, timelines, and knowledge from working with other organizations to help smooth out and inform our processes. In turn, I'm able to walk into many environments with a knowledge about shared accountability, community agreements, boundaries, joy, and safety—having developed these practices and environments here.”

Innovating for Survival

Another returning Innovator company is Poltergeist Theatre Project, one of the original companies selected for the 2019 program who have remained participants in it ever since. Co-founded by Chris Steele and Britt Lauer, the company focused initially on “problematic classics,” and their inaugural show, The Julie Cycle, tackled Strindberg’s Miss Julie—reimagining it into something wholly fierce, feminist, and emphatically queer.

Over time, the company has expanded to include new members and new areas of interrogation. What remains the same, Steele offers, is the company's commitment to producing “dynamic new work...particularly with a queer focus on intersectionality.” By expanding their partnership of two to include a wider circle of queer, BIPOC, and trans artists, Poltergeist Theatre Project offers a creative space for a multi-faceted, multi-hyphenate collective to work on projects that fully embrace and center them and their perspectives.

“Trans and queer people innovate for survival,” Steele says. “That's part of what being queer means. Politically standing against an oppressive norm, and finding new ways to exist that give everyone a chance at safety, community, and joy.”

Lavale-William Davis, a.k.a. Coco Buttah, directs this year's Poltergeist Theatre Project production of 'The Black Queer Joy Project,' presented by PlayGround's Innovators Showcase. (Sloane Kanter)

Firmly in the spirit of these “new ways,” this year’s Poltergeist production is a cabaret-style extravaganza: The Black Queer Joy Project, curated and produced by Lavale-William Davis (a.k.a. Coco Buttah), who joined the company in 2020.

“After so many years of doing the same old type of theater, I wanted to be involved in new works, and the telling of stories that don't get told that often in mainstream theater,” Davis reflects. Featuring an in-person lineup of top drag, burlesque, spoken word and musical talents, Davis aims to create a celebratory experience for artists and audiences alike.

Celebrating Heritage, Exploring Identity

For Latinx Mafia, new to the PlayGround Innovator program, the incubator has been a perfect home for them to produce new work and connect with new audiences. A vibrant community of Bay Area-based Latinx theater-makers, the Mafia came together during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns, first as a Facebook group, and eventually as a coalition of over 20 actors, directors, and production crew members.

As an artistic home, Latinx Mafia provides a gathering place (virtual and otherwise) for its creatives to come together and support each others projects in and out of the collective. It also provides visibility for their working Latinx artists—for example, by posting their resumes on their website and boosting their shows on social media. Every month they choose a new “Mafiose of the Month” to interview and feature, celebrating them as whole persons, not just their roles in the collective.

“Latinx Mafia is our familia,” notes Tony Ortega, whose Velorio will be presented in this year’s Innovator’s showcase. “We provide emotional support and encourage one another... We laugh, cry, bicker, and share beautiful moments with each other. It’s all love!”

Cast members of Latinx Mafia's 'Velario,' by Tony Ortega, being presented by PlayGround Innovators Showcase. (Tony Ortega)

A family drama centered on a wake, or velorio, for the family patriarch, Ortega’s foray into playwriting was a way of responding to the COVID-19 shutdown during which he and so many other theater artists lost work and connections. Plus, he admits, he’d begun feeling Zoom fatigue after embracing the platform for readings and shorts. Velorio marks the nascent company’s first official foray into in-person producing, and a way for them to hone their internal and external systems of support.

Like fellow Innovator companies Theatre Cultura, The Chikahan Company, and Native Writers’ Theater, Latinx Mafia’s focus on cultural specificity gives them a way to celebrate their heritage while exploring the many facets of their identities—both a calling card and a mission. For Ortega’s part, he predicts that the nurturing of such work is just the beginning for a new era in theater-making.

“Bay Area Theater is moving in such a beautiful direction,” Ortega says. “Our voices are being heard and more opportunity for BIPOC artists will come of this.” By serving as models for multiple ways to innovate, this year’s Innovator Incubator cohort is poised to build their own paths to success.

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PlayGround’s Innovators Showcase runs Nov. 16–Dec. 5 online and at Potrero Stage. More info and tickets here.