"We've done a lot of big, heavy, serious theater here," Forman says, citing Bertolt Brecht's Conversations in Exile, Edward Albee's Counting the Ways and Václav Havel's Audience among the productions staged in the small café back in the late 1980s and early '90s. "I call it intimate theater' because it doesn't get more intimate than our theater.
"And I'm just so thrilled with what's happening now," she continues, rebounding from her temporary malaise as she talks about the most recent endeavor at The Big Kitchen. "I had no idea the writing, acting and directing was going to be so great. And my desserts were pretty amazing, too; I do have to say that."
A few nights prior, Forman was whipping up coffeecake, hot-fudge sundaes and other goodies to accompany a preview of the recently founded New Play Café's production of The Coffee Shop Chronicles, a collection of seven site-specific plays written by up-and-coming local playwrights and staged in The Big Kitchen's two cozy dining rooms. The production continues with a sold-out show at 7:30 p.m. Friday May 3, and another on Friday, May 10 (tickets are available at newplaycafe.com). A Wednesday, May 15, show was added after tickets started selling fast.
Amid the clutter of wall-to-wall photographs, shelves filled with random odds and ends, politically liberal bumper stickers pinned around the room with sayings like "Tea parties are for little girls with imaginary friends" and even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Jerry Garcia, two actors push through the squeaky front door of The Big Kitchen and immediately command the small audience's attention as they bring playwright Jennie Olson Six's original production, Whoha, to life.
The pair works at a café—that much is quickly made clear—but something's wrong. Yes, something is definitely off as the two make their way through a typical day in a busy coffeehouse.
"I need to quit smoking; it's making me look old and weird," worries one of the characters as she catches a glimpse of her reflection in the window.
But the two disappear for a smoke break before you can figure things out or even catch your breath. Without missing a beat, two beautiful young actresses make their entrance, and, suddenly, you're watching witchcraft (Witch Café by Soroya Rowley). The two witches are at war with one another, and only clever trickery can help save the day. Next, you're eavesdropping on a conversation packed with witty double entendre inspired by the current cell-phone-powered dating world (Message Send Failure by Teresa Beckwith). Then Satan and Jesus take the witches' places, and you're captivated as the café is turned into an impromptu gameshow-style throw-down between good and evil (Kevin Six's Between Heaven and Hell).
Dessert is a welcome break from the whirlwind of mysteries, comedies and dramas unfolding in the narrow aisles of the homey café. And Forman's right, the dessert is pretty amazing.
Coffee's poured, and before it gets cold, the second half of the show begins. The mystery of the two servers' dilemma is revealed before two young chatty girls take to the pseudo-stage to gripe about the single life (Booth Watching by Lizzie Silverman). Their seats are then filled by a young lady with a chip on her shoulder and an older man with a manila envelope and some bad news (Lock and Key by Delia Knight). The night concludes with the guy behind me laughing so hard he snorts multiple times as two strange and entertaining men enter the café claiming to be from the post-apocalyptic future (Terminator 4 by Jonathan Hammond).
In the end, despite a few small glitches and quirks, most in attendance seem satisfied. It's fair to say Forman is flabbergasted.
"Très bien!" she exclaims, wiping a tear from her eye. "They're so quick, but marvelous!"
With the only parameters being that the works are short and set in a coffeehouse, New Play Café founders Kevin Six, Lizzie Silverman and Jennie Olson Six accepted submissions in various states of readiness for their debut production. The whole premise of New Play Café, in fact, is to provide a venue for local playwrights to workshop their pieces, see them in action and learn from the real-world feedback.
"The thing for me is to go through a process," says Kevin Six, an actor, director and playwright himself. "It's something playwrights don't get a lot of. You sit at your computer with voices in your head, and you have a pretty good idea what they sound like, but it's never the same as the real thing. I think the best part of the process is when an actor reads through the piece and asks about the work. It inevitably evolves."
San Diego is a theater town and, while Six admits that there are already plenty of useful outlets for emerging playwrights and even a good amount of playhouses that stage works written by locals, he says he and his New Play Café cofounders saw room for something less polished and a little rawer.
The voracious response in ticket sales is a testament to that, Six says. The team already has plans for a breakfast-for-dinner night featuring sci-fi themed pieces later this summer at The Big Kitchen. Further down the road, Six says they'll perhaps move to a bar or other locations to set a different kind of scene.
Site-specific theater attracts a nontraditional audience, and short pieces cater to the reduced attention spans of younger people. Six says that's who New Play Café is targeting, and while hectic backstage activity isn't made any easier within the confines of the kitchen of a crammed café, he says it all comes together at the last minute if you've got the right kind of passionate folks involved.
"Theater is one of those things," he says. "I think the success of your opening night comes down to how much you wanted to quit the business during the dress rehearsal. It was rough for us, but it's that magical thing that happens in 24 hours— everyone pulls together."