Theater companies have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, with much programming truncated, postponed, or canceled altogether. Mountain View's Pear Theatre, though, has an in-house secret weapon: The Pear Playwrights Guild.
Thanks to the active group of writers creating original content, and the enthusiasm and experience of new Artistic Director Sinjin Jones, the Pear has come up with a new, innovative production to, as Gov. Gavin Newsom might put it, "meet the moment."
"This Street and The Next", streaming online through at least late July, is what the Pear describes as a "choose your own adventure, hybrid theater piece." Made up of vignettes written by members of the Playwrights Guild, inspired by the current COVID-19 crisis and all the chaos of spring and summer 2020, the show is a series of short videos which have a suggested viewing order but can be switched up, according to the viewers' preferences.
"Now is a more important time than ever to be giving art to people," Jones told this news organization in a recent interview. "And necessity breeds ingenuity."
Once it became clear that the Pear would not be able to do its planned June production of the musical "Side by Side," Jones turned to the Playwrights Guild to come up with something different: a filmed, digital series of interwoven tales inspired and informed by the present reality. Seven writers and Jones, along with the cast members, launched very quickly into a six-week devising process, coming up with stories and characters that are "responsive to the COVID-19 situation but really speak to the strength of the human spirit," Jones said.
With his background in devised theater (the method by which theater is created collectively) as well as independent film, Jones took charge of proposing a basic structure, directed the pieces and served as editor of the project that turned out to be "many small stories that explore this idea of what relationships mean, and the value of those who are closest to us in a time of need," he said.
The tales in "This Street and The Next" represent a variety of perspectives, from a woman determined to hold her dream wedding (quarantine be damned), to a couple trying to have a first date via Zoom, to a monologue from Mother Nature herself and a surprisingly poignant narrative from an adopted shelter cat.
Playwright Leah Halper worked on the "Take the Cake" storyline, about a woman (played by former Pear Artistic Director and frequent star Betsy Kruse Craig) who becomes a successful food vlogger during the pandemic, at the expense of her relationship with her husband. Halper worked in collaboration with Kruse Craig and Jones to develop the character and plot, taking inspiration from Kruse Craig's own kitchen (and dog) and using her relationship to food and cooking to help inform her writing.
"You can work your whole life as a playwright and not get a chance to work on a devised play," Halper mused. "I totally jumped at this chance. It's maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with other playwrights, this incredibly talented director and to involve the actors in really interesting ways. How could you pass it up?"
While the creation of the show was in progress, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country.
"As a person of color myself, it was important to me to in some ways address that," Jones said. "In a couple of the pieces there are some acknowledgements that those current events really shake up the story."
Halper and Jones decided to have Kruse Craig's character undergo some hard realizations about her own white privilege.
"My vlogger had to confront the reality of this movement and the way in which her every day wasn't going to be able to go forward with her ignoring it," Halper said.
Halper appreciates the increased amount of space Jones has given to the Playwrights Guild, and the way he's leading the Pear thus far.
"He really sees the writers as integral to the Pear. That makes the Pear a more interesting place," she said. "The really big theaters are closed; it's the smaller ones that have been so creative. I think he's doing an amazing job."
Because the summer production was originally planned to be a musical, Jones still felt it was important to include music in "This Street and The Next." Keeping with the DIY ethos, musicians Derek Bernard and Drew Weber were tapped to create an original soundtrack.
Bernard, a San Francisco-based musician and voice/guitar/ukulele teacher, said he has some experience in improv, including coming up with musicals on the spot, but has never done something quite like this, so he saw the Pear project as a fun challenge.
He and Weber let the music evolve naturally, as befitting a devised piece, with some vignettes boasting full songs and others incidental music, revising as the show and its themes took shape. One of the most memorable vignettes is "#Roadtrip," in which an Instagrammer, played by Amy Marie Haven, drives across the country and records new songs she's written in response to her travels. "It's not really a 'musical,’" per se, but music suffuses the thing," Bernard said.
The project is an ambitious next step up from the theater company's last venture, which was to film and stream the annual "Pear Slices" production of original one-acts from the Playwrights Guild. The technical results, including trying to use Zoom backgrounds as set design, were mixed.
"We learned a lot from 'Pear Slices' in terms of what works and what doesn't," Jones said, noting that while the "Slices" were written with live staging in mind, everything about "This Street and The Next" was deliberately planned to utilize shelter-in-place conditions. Jones said that he doesn't expect the Pear to be back doing fully live performances before January, and that the health and safety of both patrons and performers are most important. With that in mind, he and his team will be considering more fully digital content, as well as filming live performances with tiny-to-no audiences, then streaming the recording.
While "tech never quite works exactly the way it should," Jones said with a laugh, "I am really excited to deliver something to the Pear audience that is new and unique, simple but beautiful, about the huge scope of experiences people might have."
What: "This Street and The Next."
When: Through July 26.
Cost: $15 ($30 to access backstage pass special materials and behind-the-scenes extras).
Info: The Pear.