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Preview: New Play Cafe's Simply Sci-Fi

Kevin Six oversees a rehearsal of the New Play Cafe's Simply Sci-Fi at the Big Kitchen Cafe.
Beth Accomando
Kevin Six oversees a rehearsal of the New Play Cafe's Simply Sci-Fi at the Big Kitchen Cafe.

Close Encounters And Strawberry Shortcake

Preview: The New Play Cafe's Simply Sci-Fi
Preview: New Play Cafe's Simply Sci-Fi
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando previews the New Play Cafe's Simply Sci-Fi at the Big Kitchen Cafe.

HOST INTRO: The Big Kitchen Cafe is known for its home-style cooking and desserts in a cozy setting. But starting this week you’ll be getting more than ice cream with your brownie sundae. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes you to another dimension with the New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi. CAFEPLAY 1 (ba).wav 3:55 TAG: New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi runs Thursdays and Fridays through August 30th at the Big Kitchen Café in South Park.   This week, the Big Kitchen Cafe is contemplating pricing for a new menu item: time travel. TIFFANY: It’s like a gazillion dollars to go into the future. KEVIN: I like that it’s on the menu and that it costs a lot. But don’t worry, going back to the past will be a whole lot cheaper. You have to act quickly, though, because time travel is only available for the next three weeks as the restaurant plays host to the New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi, a tasty collection of six new ten-minute plays. Kevin Six co-founded New Play Café. He says audiences will have plenty to savor. KEVIN SIX: They can expect good food, they can expect original new theater written by San Diego playwrights, and to have the plays performed right in their laps. Attendees may have a hard time distinguishing the wait staff from the performers, and actors may literally brush elbows with you at the counter. Laura Preble sampled the New Play Café’s first offering back in May. LAURA PREBLE: You felt like you were in the middle of the action. I had this feeling of eavesdropping on people’s conversations, actors were coming in working around the audience members and serving them so it made you feel like you were part of the play, which is a really unique experience. I enjoyed it. Judy Forman’s been running the Big Kitchen for 33 years, and she’s thrilled by what New Play Café is cooking up. JUDY FORMAN: I guess I have a lot of theater genes in me and I don’t get to be onstage but I get to be backstage a lot and I love the creativity that happens here. It’s not the first time such creativity has been served up at her diner. Back in 1989, Forman encouraged John Highkin to whip up some Diner Theater and Dessert Theater at the Big Kitchen. JOHN HIGHKIN: It’s a wonderful place to create in and audiences really like being close to what happens, somehow it becomes a really different experience for audiences and a different experience for people who create theater. It also means low overhead for a company since there’s no lighting or set design, and no expensive theater rentals. Plus it’s easy to sell the house out says Highkin. JOHN HIGHKIN: 25 people, and you’re sold out. And so you create demand. What it is really is the scale is wonderful. There are enough nooks and crannies, and it’s visually pretty fun that it’s possible to do things without having to alter the space much. The New Play Café’s first production, Coffee Shop Chronicles, was tailored to the space with all the plays set in coffee shops. This time, the theme is science fiction and audiences will have to make a big leap of faith with the creators says co-founder Lizzie Silverman. LIZZIE SILVERMAN: Obviously we are going to use imagination a lot, which is one of the elements I like about science fiction is you can just ask the audience to go there with you and imagine new things. One of those things is time travel. Playwright Janet Tiger changes up the recipe for time travel by emphasizing the emotional ingredients. JANET TIGER: I believe very strongly that there is the ability to travel through time that we don’t even you know, think about much but for example your mother calls you on the phone and bingo she says one thing and you’re back 30 years. Her Time Travel Café considers the emotional baggage we carry as we travel into a past we cannot change. Another plays suggests a close encounter but with a dash of humor. TIFFANY: Yeah, I just like to pretend I’m dying before I reveal the secrets to the cosmos. MAN: I was right, I am your straight man. Eric Poppick is one of the co-directors. He says that without expensive sets and special effects, the focus is on the flavorful characters. ERIC POPPICK: The plays I have there are not real outer space people I have more humans who could be from outer space, you get to decide. Jennie Olson Six is another New Play Café co-founder. She says the goal was to challenge San Diego writers to submit new work and then foster their creative process. JENNIE OLSON SIX: We wanted to give them a little bit of a mini-workshop experience. We wanted to give them a chance to see their work on stage and by on stage we mean on the kitchen floor… but I think that if your play can stand the test of being performed in a restaurant while people are eating dessert it has a pretty good chance of being produced later out there. The short plays dished up by the New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi can be looked at as tantalizing appetizers to something bigger and more filling to come. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Sci-Fi Plays Performed In San Diego Cafe
GUESTSJennie Six, Co-founder of New Play CafeEric Poppick Director, New Play Cafe Laura Bohlin, an actor with New Play Cafe.

CAVANAUGH: You can see old black and white movies on television where a group of kids with show biz in their blood just want to fix up a barn and put on a show. Something like that is happening at an eatery in south park these days, except the actors can only dream of something as big as a barn to put on their show! The new play cafe ensemble presents brand-new plays in the small space of the big kitchen cafe. The result, a theatre experience with actors performing right beside your coffee and dessert! Joining me are my guests, Jennie Six is cofounder of new play cafe. SIX: Thanks for having us. CAVANAUGH: Eric Poppick is a director with new play cafe. POPPICK: Nice to see you. CAVANAUGH: And Laura Bohlin is here, within actor with new play cafe. BOHLIN: Nice to be here. CAVANAUGH: Eric, this is a very small space for theatre. How do you manage to put on a performance? POPPICK: Very carefully. [ LAUGHTER ] POPPICK: I've worked in black box situations before, small venues, and you just have to accommodate what the writer has given you under the circumstances. CAVANAUGH: How close are the actors to the customers who are presumably eating their dessert? POPPICK: They're as close as you and I are right now. The actors could be a customer sitting next to another customer. CAVANAUGH: And you use all the space available, countertops. What kind of innovations have you made? POPPICK: Well, I've tried to stage my plays in a way that everyone in the restaurant will be able to see. Obviously there are moments when certain audience members will see actors' backs, which is fine. They see the backs of actors on stage as well. But in this circumstance, I tried to keep it in one specific area so that everyone gets to see the entire show. CAVANAUGH: And Jenny, what is the goal of the new play cafe? What kinds of plays and performances do you want to present? SIX: What we're presenting is technically what is known as workshop productions. The goal is to provide local playwrights with opportunities to have their work be presented, a little bit of a workshop production where they get to come and see the plays in the process of rehearsal and revise if they need to. And then eventually we present them to an audience. So they can see not only their show being performed but how the audience reacts. CAVANAUGH: And a very important part in the growth of a playwright's life, I would imagine. How long are these plays that you present? SIX: 10 minutes each. Some are a little shorter than that. Some might be a minute longer than that. Maybe more. But we try to keep it at 10 minutes. CAVANAUGH: And is that because of the venue? SIX: Not exactly. A lot of opportunities for playwrights are 10-minute plays. There are a number of ten-minute play festivals around the country. One of the more famous ones of the HumanIfestival. But it seems to be a popular genre. So we wanted to provide a workshop opportunity for people to revise their plays and submit them for new opportunities. CAVANAUGH: And Jenny, how did you connect with the big kitchen cafe? SIX: I have known Judy for a few years. My husband has known her a little longer. CAVANAUGH: She's the owner? SIX: Yes, and the fixture of south park and Golden Hill. My husband and I were married by her two years ago, she catered or wedding. So it's a very intimate relationship. CAVANAUGH: And which came first? Chicken or egg? This idea or Judy wanting some sort of performance in her cafe? SIX: There is a history of Judy having performances at the Big Kitchen. We approached her about doing something there. We didn't know what. If it was going to be a fundraiser, a 1-night performance. And after brainstorming with our partner, we thought what about ten-minute plays? And what about serving them with coffee and dessert? And it's -- here we are today! CAVANAUGH: Do patrons pay for this experience? Or is it sort of included in the price of the meal? SIX: It's included in the price of the meal. CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's convenient, isn't it! Now, Eric, how many actors do you have in your plays? POPPICK: Well, I'm directing three of the six plays. And what we've done is we've double-cast each of the plays so that every actor has more than ten minutes worth of work to present. And the play that Laura is in, there are two actors, and I have two actors and another, and three actors in a third play. CAVANAUGH: Now, Laura, you're going to be kind enough to do a reading, a scene from one of these very short prays that is being performed. First, what's it like performing in such a small space? BOHLIN: It's really fun. It can be a little bit bizarre to be this character and look over and see that your roommate is sitting there. [ LAUGHTER ] BOHLIN: You usually don't see the audience that clearly when you're doing a play. But there's wonderful about that energy, that people are a part of it with you. And their reactions might change the way that you -- your reaction to the next line because you're just involved. Everyone is part of it. CAVANAUGH: It really tests your powers of concentration, doesn't it? BOHLIN: Yes, somewhat. [ LAUGHTER ] POPPICK: And actually in this play that Laura is in, it's called don Juan Whitman on earth. She has the opportunity to interact with the audience. So there'll be a bit of improvisation. CAVANAUGH: So it's written into the play. POPPICK: S why. CAVANAUGH: Now I know you're directing the play that Laura is going to read from. Could you set up the scene for us? POPPICK: Yes. Her character, Tanya, is a newscaster in town, and she is on a mission to find out if there are people on earth from other planets. And she suspects very strongly that there are, and she tries to prove that during the 10 minutes you'll see her on stage. CAVANAUGH: Okay then. Laura? BOHLIN: Hello! I'm Tanya Medlen, and I'm on special assignment today at the big kitchen in Golden Hill in San Diego, California! It's beautiful here in Southern California. A day like any other. But is it? Well, that's what I'm here to find out! You see, everyone, I'm sure most of you have at one time or another asked yourself, is there something else out there? Is there life on other planets? I am about to prove for once and for all that indeed there is life on other planets! Well, on our planet, anyway. That is to say that life from other planets is on our planet, which will move that there is life on other planets. Please stay tuned. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Thank you! A little piece from a short play being performed at the big kitchen cafe. This brings me to the simply Sci-fi series. It's being performed at the cafe. Why Sci-fi? SIX: Well, interestingly enough, we just ended the ultimate Sci-fi experience for fans, Comi-Con it's a genre that is not really produced a lot. And we thought, well, why not! What are the things that that from happening? So we put on the the challenge really to playwrights, being that -- how do you tell a Sci-fi story without a lot of technical elements? We're used to seeing a lot of Sci-fi in films and on television. But how do you do that in a play? And so that was our idea, to challenge playwrights of how to tell a Sci-fi story without a lot of technology behind it when part of the element of Sci-fi is technology, or other worldly technology. CAVANAUGH: So Eric, how do you tell a Sci-fi story in this kind of an atmosphere without a lot of wiz-bang, a lot of special effects? POPPICK: It's mainly in the writing. And the plays that I'm doing, I find to be quite funny. And there are subtleties within the lines where the audience is using their imagination and realize that -- are these people from earth, or are they other worldly? CAVANAUGH: And I see in a piece that Beth Accomando did on your new play cafe series, that one of the effects that you use for time travel is turning off and on an electric light. [ LAUGHTER ] SIX: Very basic technology that we're able to use! So yes. A lot of the other plays are using -- the actors are using gestures or small props to indicate perhaps a screen, perhaps that this thing is something other than a salt shaker or pepper shaker. So it's really been a credit to the actors, being able to convey the idea and the directors being able to have a vision of what this could be and how it could be done. CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine the audience, because if you sort of sign on for an experience like this, you're willing to open yourself up to your own imagination, wouldn't you say? SIX: Absolutely. I think that sometimes our creativity might be a little bit stifled because we see so many films and TV shows where this magical thing happens. Really those things come from someone's creativity. So when audiences are open to that experience, and they go along for the ride, they really go along with a journey, which is what theatre and plays are really I think about, and what makes them different and what makes them exciting. POPPICK: And people have asked me about the plays and if I could describe it. And I think one of the best descriptions I've given is they're similar to Saturday Night Live sketches. And if you remember the Coneheads -- [ LAUGHTER ] POPPICK: Somehow I didn't want to believe they were still from France! [ LAUGHTER ] BOHLIN: Are you saying they're not from France? [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: When I was reading about this, it reminded me that there are several theatre experiences around San Diego, and I'm thinking primarily of the La Jolla playhouse with that wall series mingle actors with the audience in unusual spaces. Is this a trend in the theatre? POPPICK: Well, it seems to be. I know there are other companies in town that are encouraging playwrights to write new works. They're putting on new works. I think San Diego is taking this adventure seriously. CAVANAUGH: And what does it bring do you think, Jenny, to the theatrical experience when you take it out of the theatre, and you put it in different venues? We had this play, Accomplice, where people were looking for clues throughout Old Town to find out what the play was about. They had the car plays where you sit as a passenger, and two people upfront are having a dramatic interlude in some way, and you're a witness to that. And your plays where you're sitting there, you're an audience member, but you're also in the play in a sense as well. What does that bring? SIX: I believe it brings an intimacy that is different from being in the room watching something. You're actually participating. A lot of our audience members that came to the coffee shop chronicles, our first production, said it felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation, or I wasn't sure what was going to happen so it was very exciting! And I think that's the kind of experience that all of these site-specific works are bringing. It's no longer a passive "I'm watching you", it's "I was right next to them, or they talked to me" so there's a sense of excitement and intimacy that they're having an experience with an actor and actually being in the play. CAVANAUGH: Do you get the sense, Laura, that someone is looking at you like what am I going to be forced to do here? [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: There's a sort of edginess to this kind of a performance, isn't there? BOHLIN: Oh, yes. Edgy, voyeuristic, whatever you want to call it. [ LAUGHTER ] BOHLIN: It was actually funny when we did the coffee shop chronicle, I got to play three different characters. And I found it really funny that I would be a witch in one show, and people were -- you could feel the energy shift when I would come in and get to play a goddess in the next one. And people would really just watch you when you entered. So you might not even be in the play yet. But people just had their eyes on you like what's going to happen? What are they going to say? Who is she going to be now? And absolutely, it makes sort of a heightened energy throughout the room. CAVANAUGH: Jenny, how long does the Sci-fi series last? SIX: We open Thursday, August 15th. And we will run Thursdays and Fridays through August 30th. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Terrific. I want to invite everyone to see a feature that he woo did on the new play cafe by Beth Accomando on our website KPBS.org.

The Big Kitchen Cafe is known for its home-style cooking and desserts but starting tonight you may get a close encounter along with your strawberry shortcake thanks to the New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi.

This week, the Big Kitchen Cafe is contemplating pricing for a new menu item: time travel. The cost: a gazillion dollars.

“I like that it’s on the menu and that it costs a lot,” said Kevin Six.

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But don’t worry, going back to the past will be a whole lot cheaper. You have to act quickly, though, because time travel is only available for the next three weeks as the restaurant plays host to the New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi, a tasty collection of six new ten-minute plays.

Kevin Six co-founded New Play Café. He says audiences will have plenty to savor: “They can expect good food, they can expect original new theater written by San Diego playwrights, and to have the plays performed right in their laps.”

Literally. Actors will sit next to theatergoers and brush elbows at the counter. Attendees may also have a hard time distinguishing the wait staff from the performers since characters in the play might be refilling their coffee cups. Laura Preble sampled the New Play Café’s first offering back in May.

“You felt like you were in the middle of the action,” said Preble, “I had this feeling of eavesdropping on people’s conversations, actors were coming in working around the audience members and serving them so it made you feel like you were part of the play, which is a really unique experience. I enjoyed it.”

Judy Forman’s been running the Big Kitchen for 33 years, and she’s thrilled by what New Play Café is cooking up.

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“I guess I have a lot of theater genes in me and I don’t get to be onstage but I get to be backstage a lot and I love the creativity that happens here.”

Actors and audience members are in close proximity at the New Play Cafe's productions at the Big Kitchen. This is a scene from their inaugural work, "Coffee Shop Chronicles."
Beth Accomando
Actors and audience members are in close proximity at the New Play Cafe's productions at the Big Kitchen. This is a scene from their inaugural work, "Coffee Shop Chronicles."

It’s not the first time such creativity has been served up at her diner. Back in 1989, Forman encouraged John Highkin to whip up some Diner Theater and Dessert Theater at the Big Kitchen.

“It’s a wonderful place to create in,” said Highkin, “and audiences really like being close to what happens, somehow it becomes a really different experience for audiences and a different experience for people who create theater.”

It also means low overhead for a company since there’s no lighting or set design, and no expensive theater rentals. Plus it’s easy to sell the house out.

“Twenty-five people, and you’re sold out,” explained Highkin, “And so you create demand. What it is really is the scale is wonderful. There are enough nooks and crannies, and it’s visually pretty funny that it’s possible to do things without having to alter the space much.”

The New Play Café’s first production, Coffee Shop Chronicles, was tailored to the space with all the plays set in coffee shops. It was such a success that Six decided to do another.

“We put a call out for playwrights,” said Six, “So far it’s San Diego playwrights, they submit plays and we do a table read with some directors we’ll give some feedback and we’ll make decisions based on what we saw at the table read.”

This time the theme was science fiction, which made co-founder Lizzie Silverman very happy.

“I don’t really hear about a whole lot of plays that are science fiction themed,” Silverman said, “And I don’t know if that’s because the theater community doesn’t want it or it’s too expensive to produce but obviously we are going to use imagination a lot.”

So flashing lights are the “special effect” to convey time travel. But it works and the audience willingly goes along. Laura Bohlin performed in the first New Play Café in May.

“With the first set of plays they all were set in cafes and that was the general idea,” Bohlin said, “And then these ones they are not. These are all science fiction and some of them happen to take place in a café but some of them definitely don’t and I think it’s going to be really fun for the audience because it’s going to require them going on a journey with us and it will be otherworldly and so it’s beyond just happening in a café but it really is a leap in logic.”

“This almost falls under the category of we have a barn, let’s put on a play,” added co-director Eric Poppick.

New Play Cafe series, Simply Sci-Fi

Performances are held on Thursdays & Fridays beginning August 15 - 30 at 7:30 p.m.

"Simply Sci-Fi" features a series of six, 10-minute science fiction plays, by San Diego playwrights.

For tickets or information click here.

But without expensive sets and special effects to distract the audience, the focus can be on the flavorful characters.

“The plays I have there are not real outer space people I have more humans who could be from outer space, you get to decide,” Poppick said.

Playwright Janet Tiger’s “Time Travel Café” changes up the usual sci-fi recipe for time travel by emphasizing the emotional ingredients.

“I believe very strongly that there is the ability to travel through time that we don’t even you know, think about much but for example your mother calls you on the phone and bingo she says one thing and you’re back 30 years,” Tiger said.

Her “Time Travel Café” considers the emotional baggage we carry as we travel into a past we cannot change. Another plays suggests a close encounter but with a dash of humor.

In one scene, a woman coughs and struggles to sit down. When the man at the table inquires if she’s okay, she perks up and says, “Yeah, I just like to pretend I’m dying before I reveal the secrets to the cosmos.”

To which the exasperated man replies, “I was right, I am your straight man.”

The six plays offer a diverse array of science fiction and that’s exactly what New Play Café wanted. Jennie Olson Six is another New Play Café co-founder. She explained that the goal was to challenge San Diego writers to submit new work and then foster their creative process.

“We wanted to give them a little bit of a mini-workshop experience,” Olson Six said, “We wanted to give them a chance to see their work on stage and by on stage we mean on the kitchen floor… but I think that if your play can stand the test of being performed in a restaurant while people are eating dessert it has a pretty good chance of being produced later out there.”

The Big Kitchen Cafe provides an impromptu theater space for the New Play Cafe.
Beth Accomando
The Big Kitchen Cafe provides an impromptu theater space for the New Play Cafe.

The short plays dished up by the New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi can be looked at as tantalizing appetizers to something bigger and more filling to come. New Play Café’s Simply Sci-Fi will be serving up close encounters and dessert on Thursdays and Fridays through August 30th at the Big Kitchen Café in South Park. Tickets, which include dessert, are $30 at the door and $20 online.

Corrected: April 20, 2024 at 6:26 AM PDT
Megan Burke and Maureen Cavanaugh reported for Midday Edition.