San Francisco Playhouse launched its “Zoomlets” Series in June, partly as response to the need to keep moving forward despite the Playhouse closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also partly- or mostly- because this is the little playhouse that CAN, a group of theater folk who are creative and who know how to pivot when needed to not only survive but dream up something special and wonderful. The Zoomlets fit this bill.
The Zoomlets are a series of virtual table reads that allow theater fans, as Artistic Director and SF Playhouse Co-Founder Bill English describes it, to be a “fly on the wall” at a virtual first rehearsal. An ingenious concept, these readings give an inside look at the process of how a director and actors work together- without anyone- director, cast, or audience- having to leave their homes.
While each of these one-hour Zoomed events is unrehearsed, there is an order to the process. Directors share their vision for the play and offer inspiration to the actors. The actors then do a reading- the first ever, with cast all together. Then the actors and director discuss their reactions to the text and any goals. What’s truly unique about these Zoomlet opportunities is that an observer is able to give feedback in the chat box scrolling underneath the main screen.
Recently, the SF Playhouse Zoomlet reading featured Genevieve Jessee’s “Walls Come Tumbling Down,” a ten-minute piece with a cast of three with a voice-over for a television announcer (played during the Zoomlet by SF Playhouse’s Bill English). Under the direction of Darryl V. Jones, Dwayne Clay, Leigh Rondon-Davis, and Kenny Scott represent a young African American family who have lost their son to a tragic death. Jones shared that the play was inspired by the events memorialized in the August 4, 2015 KQED article “The Forgotten: Two Deaths on the Streets of Potrero Hill” by Alex Emslie.
“Reminiscent of the tragic deaths of Prince Johnson and Jamar Samuel, this is a Black Lives Matter play,” Jones said, in that it deals with a young man being murdered. “When I read this play,” the director added,”it was only ten minutes, but I felt I’d read so much, so many themes; a simple real-life human event and putting human beings at the core of it all and putting all the pain and suffering of that event into the play.” Jones also shared that he was struck by several themes in “Walls Come Tumbling Down,” especially the two systems of justice and media in the black community and the white community, the destruction of things that relate to the black community, and the lack of involvement in the press or effective maintaining of law and order in these communities. Jones asked each of the cast members to reflect on their roles and to give feedback.
“When we take on a role,” Jones said, “we’re always looking for a way to make it closer- to personalize the role, to relate to it.” Leigh Rondon-Davis, cast as “Vernice,” the mother of the young man killed, said they could resonate with their character. “I am struck with Vernice’s struggle to not let go of her home, this place that is a reminder of death- not just her son’s death, but also of many black boys.” Kenny Scott, cast as Vernice’s husband, “Henry,” shared that he could further relate to “the idea of the one you love and lose being carried with you.” Scott said he’d also experienced the loss of a loved one and then seen the beloved home of that person almost instantly sold and so lost to him, too.
Sixteen-year-old Berkeley High School student Dwayne Clay, cast as the couple’s son, “Jaleel,” shared that he felt he was “reliving the same thing (he’s) hearing on the news,” adding that he thought of himself and of his own mother. “We never know when it’s our last day, our last time,” he said. Clay has known his own difficulties living in a skin color other than white. “I’ve been stopped by the police before, too,” he shared, “and it was very traumatizing.” He brings this experience with him into this role.
The SF Playhouse Zoomlets take place each Monday night at 7:00 pm Pacific Time. The plan for the series is that each production will feature a short 10-20 minute-long script or a scene from newly commissioned plays.
Another wonderful aspect of this concept- in addition to the quality and intimacy afforded- is that one can watch these broadcasts from anywhere. So if you’re in Europe or Asia or wherever, you’re in luck: you can still experience world-changing San Francisco theater at its finest right from your own living room sofa. Check the web site for upcoming readings. If you are a theater enthusiast you will not want to miss this exciting opportunity to see a play being “born.”
©2020 Michele Caprario