The play "The Elephant," by Alice Pencavel, began life as a short story and is now in rehearsals as a theatrical production, with a mini-run scheduled for Memorial Day weekend at Palo Alto's Dragon Theatre. It also represents a big step along the road of a young playwright's career.
Pencavel caught the theater bug early. While growing up in Menlo Park, she started telling stories through cartooning, and acting with Peninsula Youth Theatre in Mountain View and other groups. At Menlo-Atherton High School, she was a member of the Lunatics improv troupe.
Although Pencavel earned a bachelor's degree in acting from Ithaca College in New York in 2007, her minor was in writing, and she knew playwriting would become a focus of her theater career. It helped that she'd had several of her plays produced in Ithaca, including "I Work At Noah's Bagels," inspired by a distasteful summer job.
"I hated it," Pencavel says, sitting in the Dragon audience before a rehearsal. "So I took the chaos of working there and made it into stories." She grins, recalling a lightbulb moment: Unpleasant things can be much more bearable — and comprehensible — when you make them into art.
"Life," she adds, "is otherwise structureless. It doesn't have a beginning, middle and end." Once she started taking notes on the chaos around her, "I discovered that I had more creative power."
After college (and a work-exchange program in New Zealand that yielded even more stories), Pencavel returned to the Bay Area and interned with TheatreWorks' New Works Program, seeing new scripts that came in and helping organize critiques of them.
She also started working as a stage manager at the Dragon Theatre, which gave her a connection with Dragon managing artistic director Meredith Hagedorn (who plays the wife in "The Elephant"). While Pencavel is renting the small Dragon theater to put on her play, she's able to offset some of the costs through work exchange.
This evening, Pencavel is in her role as director, overseeing a rehearsal with assistant director/stage manager Ashleigh Hill.
In one scene, Hagedorn and Michael Champlin, who plays her husband, are fighting over the elephant. He can't see it, but she can. (Meanwhile, Jessica Hemmingway, playing the elephant, hovers at the back of the stage in gray sweats and a hat with floppy ears and a trunk.) It's a moving scene, exploring the different ways people handle grief — and the way a relationship can be sorely tested in its wake.
Somehow, the couple manage to have a sweet reminiscence about their early days together. They remember a cramped apartment and better times, and then they share a kiss. At just the right moment for comic effect, the elephant loudly crunches on a handful of peanuts.
In another scene, Aubrey Rawlings, playing a psychiatrist, contributes laughs to what could have been a more biting scene about the ego of the medical profession, grandly swirling his lab coat around like a cape.
The careful mix of emotions is part of what drew Hagedorn to act in "The Elephant." Initially hesitant because she was already in another show (Dragon's current production of "Anton in Show Business"), she read the script and signed on.
"It's such an interesting premise and extremely powerful with a great many levels," she says after rehearsal. "My character is definitely on an emotional roller coaster, but with the comedy the doctor and the elephant add, the character can't get bogged down in the sorrow."
It's been a quick rehearsal period, and the three-night run is short for a play, but Hagedorn says those factors are actually good things. "The fact that we're working so quickly ... has allowed us to really dive in and not waste any time in our explorations. That is the key to the magic of this project."
Overall, the play will run about an hour and a quarter. The set will feature paintings by Menlo-Atherton High School graduate Scott Cooper, who is creating images based on the play. Pencavel has also enlisted musicians to perform afterwards. The Windy Hill band will play bluegrass on May 28 and 29, and singer Megan Keely will perform on the 30th.
Then Pencavel heads back to New York, which she calls "the theater epicenter." She'll be pursuing a master's degree in playwriting at the New School, continuing to tell more stories.
Pencavel is very aware that she's not telling these narratives on her own. While writing can be solitary, drama is a collaborative art, and a play can't come to life without being passed on to a theater company.
"It's like writing a letter and then sending it away," Pencavel says, but finds no sadness in this. "Then the actors and director, it's their story. I'm always surprised at how easy it is to let it go."
What: "The Elephant," a new play by Alice Pencavel, followed by live music
Where: Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto
When: May 28, 29 and 30 at 8 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $15.
Info: Call 650-804-5987 or go to www.dragonproductions.net/activities/outside-rentals.html.