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Snake Ladies, Pirates, and Roaches-Oh My!

Risk is This... The Cutting Ball New Play Festival

Elaborate set designs, bizarre costumes, and actorly chicanery are all very nice, but there's a lot to be said for leaving something to the imagination. That's why I opt in favor of the reading, that magical act galvanized by the alchemy of storytelling. It makes me hearken back to those wondrous days when my mother would read me a bedtime tale and the story would gradually undergo gleeful interruptions and bizarre revisions. Being a child who was always inclined to make things up as I went along, I still believe the "what happens next" mentality isn't quite possible when theater gives us exactly what we want, on a silver platter with an apple in its mouth. A reading leaves us with something to envision, and everyone contributes to the story somehow when the invisible veil between performers and audience is torn.

Risk is This...The Cutting Ball New Play Festival, is an annual event that places the very process of workshopping and publicly presenting a play at its center. Founded in 1999, The Cutting Ball Theater Company is the epitome of Bay Area experimental theater, and continues to create work that's poetic, bold and visually compelling while blowing the top off of tired ideas that dictate what performing should look like. With an emphasis placed on revising classics through language and images, Cutting Ball receives hundreds of submissions from across the world for Risk is This, but only three are chosen. Through the process of revision, a team of actors and designers explore performance strategies that will bring the scripts to life most effectively. The plays are workshopped one by one every week, and at the end of each week, the process opens to the public with two free staged readings, a discussion with the playwright, and design ideas for a potential future production. Rob Melrose, the founder and artistic director of Cutting Ball, explains that "each play gets five days of rehearsal and three design meetings. The process is fun and free but invigorating and intense at the same time."

Melrose envisioned Risk is This as a way of addressing a noticeable lack of venues for unconventional theater. The festival toys with non-naturalistic works that experiment liberally with form. "We all have a common language for realistic work because we all live in reality. With non-naturalistic plays, however, each play creates its own rules, its own reality. So even if a play is good, it is not as easy to talk about as a bad realistic one. This very fact causes a lot of good but challenging plays to be overlooked. An artistic director said to me once, 'I sometimes wonder if the next Waiting For Godot came our way, if it would land in the reject pile.'"

The plays to be workshopped this year are Snakewoman, an opera libretto by Eugenie Chan; Wet or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes; by Liz Duffy Adams; and Infestation, by Payne Ratner. "Infestation is one of the funniest and darkest plays I have ever read; I just loved it. Wet is fantastic and is the third in [Liz Duffy Adams'] travel plays. Snakewoman is imaginative and huge. I love the writing and also am very interested in opera and in Asian theater traditions- and this was a chance to explore both," Melrose muses. With characters and scenarios ranging from a woman in epic-age India who is turned into a three-armed, three-breasted snake creature as punishment for her promiscuity (Snakewoman) to female pirates in search of a utopian island called El Mirago (Wet) to a socially inept man haunted by aliens and his mother's love interest, an exterminator named Leon (Infestation), the plays take performers, and audiences alike, on a rollicking, whimsical journey into the campy annals of myth and language.

With an unlimited (imaginary) budget, designers and actors are free to envision the sorts of productions they'd be interested in churning out. "Sometimes at the end of the process, we decide that not only do we love the plays, but that we could produce it effectively even with our realistic budget. Other times another (larger) theater company comes to a reading and decides that they like the show and have the resources to produce it," says Melrose. The malleable nature of Risk is This is further reflected in post-play discussions with audiences when viewers are invited to make design and content suggestions about future productions. "Our audiences tend to be very bright and drawn to material that is a bit edgy," Melrose asserts. Two out of three workshopped plays from the last festival were developed into full-length productions: Trevor Allen's Chain Reactions was directed by Rob Melrose at C.A.F.E. and Kevin Oakes' The Vomit Talk of Ghosts was featured at The Exit Theater.

Personally, I like razzle-dazzle as much as the next theater-goer, but I can also appreciate meager appurtenances. Thinking back to the days of bedtime stories, I still marvel over how powerful my mother seemed as she invoked strange and beautiful worlds through her words. And when it comes to the fantastic, no spectacle has quite managed to capture my imagination like those wondrous moments spent tucked beneath my Miss Piggy bed sheets. Much like those readings, the magic of Risk is This arises from the imprint of the spectator's wonder - and that's truly entertainment, folks.

Remaining performances in Risk is This... The Cutting Ball New Play Festival:

Wet or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes, February 27 & 28 at 8 pm Infestation, March 5 & 6 at 8 pm
Both performances will be followed by a discussion with the playwright.

The Exit Stage Left
156 Eddy St. (between Taylor and Mason)
Ticket Information: (415) 419-3584
FREE! ($10 suggested donation)

The Cutting Ball is proud to be a fiscally sponsored project of Intersection for the Arts.