The Sandbox Series

That  “gorgeous ‘in-between’ phase of play development that is not often seen by the public” is one way Bill English, Artistic Director of SF Playhouse has described their Sandbox Series of bare-bones World Premieres.  Neither a full production nor a staged reading, the Sandbox Series offers a rare experience for both the playwright and the audience.  From the beginning, the mission of The Sandbox has been to promote new works utilizing top-notch directors and actors, in presentations with limited design elements and limited promotion (primarily online), thus reducing the costs and risk of each production.sandbox-logo-300x185

Founded by Bill English and Susi Damilano in 2003, The San Francisco Playhouse has been described in the New York Times as “a company that stages some of the most consistently high-quality work around.”  That description is embellished by the local San Francisco Chronicle: “…and with its bold Sandbox Series, it’s become a player in developing new works as well.”   SF Playhouse recently moved its main stage season to a larger theatre at 450 Post Street (the 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel), with the first of its current Sandox Series now playing in the same building as its old home in the more intimate Tides Theatre at 533 Sutter Street.

Now in its fifth year, The Sandbox Series is still SF Playhouse’s lab for new work, but has significantly matured from its original 50-seat black box space.  Looking back over the works chosen to be presented in the Sandbox Series over the last four years, there is a wonderfully eclectic mix of drama, comedy, music and varied subject matter.  The common threads seem only to consist of local talents, small casts and simple staging.  There appears to be a fairly consistent quality element  too, based on reviews.

Just over two years ago, local playwright Lauren Gunderson was commissioned by SF Playhouse to write a play for the Sandbox Series. The result, a play entitled Bauer, is based on the historical figure who was imprisoned by the Nazis as a degenerate artist and whose work was the reason for the building of  the Guggenheim Museum.  As recently as February of 2013 it was slated to be part of the Sandbox Series, but when the SF Playhouse 2013/2014 main stage season announcement came out in May, Bauer was a main stage play.  In a recent email I theorized to Bill English that Gunderson’s play was moved from the Sandbox Series to the main stage season probably because 1) it was such a good play and 2) her star was shining so brightly these days they were confident she could fill the house. (See my earlier post “The Gunderson Effect” for more about this wonderful playwright and her very quickly growing career.)  English confirmed my theories and said “It just got so good, we couldn’t resist.”  But, now that I’ve actually seen my first Sandbox Series play, I don’t think that first reason distinguishes it much.

On Saturday, I saw my first Sandbox Series play, Ideation, by Aaron Loeb and was wowed.

Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray in "Ideation" photo by Jordan Puckett

Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray in “Ideation”
photo by Jordan Puckett

My favorite description of the play appears in a review by Adam Brinklow in

In this dark comedy/suspense thriller/thespian’s jungle gym, four high-powered, alpha-type business consultants are called in for a secret meeting on a big new project. At first it sounds like they might be plotting a new Holocaust; then we find they believe they’re actually designing a triage contingency that could save millions of lives; and shortly after, they start to question whether they really know what they’re working on at all, and a trapeze act of paranoia, recrimination, moral crises and uncomfortable truths ensues.

I leave it to professional critics to write theatre reviews, but for me and all four of my companions – 2 Boomers and 2 Millenials – Ideation knocked it out of the park.  Perhaps it was selected for the Sandbox Series partly because it had a small cast and could do well in a small theatre with a simple set and no costume changes, but none of us felt in any way short-changed by a lack of flashy production values.  They were spot on perfect for the play;  the acting and directing were great; and the writing was smart, new and thought-provoking.  If this is what the Sandbox Series is all about, I want never to miss one of their shows.

So, I no longer believe that because Bauer is good they moved it to the main stage.  Clearly, the Sandbox plays are very good too.  Maybe great.  They may be more about newer voices (although Aaron Loeb is well known now to SF Playhouse audiences) or riskier works.  In an interview with Nicole Gluckstern for San Francisco Bay Guardian earlier this year,  Bill English talked about some of the philosophy behind the Sandbox Series and certainly struck a chord with me with these thoughts:

“If theater is to continue to be a part of our culture and thrive into the future, it is essential to develop new voices. Playwrights are the prophets of our culture, with sensitive antennae poised to see, hear, and feel the essentials of being alive in our time and to translate those insights into stories that give us much needed perspective on our lives. We need them and our Sandbox program is our commitment to nurture these voices.”

Yes.  This is a beautifully articulate explanation of one of the many reasons I so love new plays.  I am grateful to Bill English for saying it, and for helming the Sandbox Series and proving it with each new production.

Ideation is almost over —  if you juggle your schedule and check online asap you might be able to get tickets to one of the few remaining performances before it closes December 7.   If you’re in the Bay Area, you should try.


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