Happy birthday, dear Jeffrey: Lo and friends gather on a ‘Bench’ to raise funds for Bay Area theatre companies

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Jeffrey Lo (top right) rehearses his new play “We’re Still Here,” featuring Roneet Aliza Rahamim (top left) and Wes Gabrillo. The play is part of “Jeffrey Lo’s Birthday Bench Project,” streaming on Friday, May 22 at 7 pm. (All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Lo)

It was a table read like no other.

And it will be a birthday like no other as well.

“Jeffrey Lo’s Birthday Bench Project,” the eighth Bench Project production yet the first to be pre-recorded digitally, will be presented Friday, May 22 at 7 pm at Lo’s website and on his actual birthday. While the show won’t include the bench that’s been a staple of the previous seven iterations of the project, it still features stories of love, loss and in a new wrinkle, finding your way while living through a global pandemic. Plays were written and rehearsed specifically with Zoom chats as the main medium, the omnipresent digital vessel for current human connection and an essential tool in the time of coronavirus.

“The Bench Project,” which debuted at the Dragon Theatre’s previous home in Palo Alto in 2012, always included a philanthropic component. Music programs, food banks, and book drives were all recipients of the project’s charity, but with Covid-19 decimating theatres throughout the country, this year’s funds are going to the Bay Area theatre community. Audience members will be given the option to make donations to companies which include City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, Hillbarn Theatre Company in San Mateo, Los Altos Stage CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley on the Peninsula, or the Theatre Bay Area Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund.

On the night of that first read through on May 11, screens large and small filled up with actors, directors and playwrights who waved their hands maniacally at their cameras to greet each other. Zoom chats took place off to the side, and plenty of tears flowed with jubilation for those 90 minutes, the feeling of normalcy and familiar routine seeping into the large gathering of theatre artists.

Lo, a Bay Area director, playwright and casting director at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, found no shortage of playwrights and actors who were chomping at the bit to be a part of the latest project. Those who were selected to participate were clearly fired up on that first table read.

None might have been more thrilled than the birthday boy himself, who’s turning a cool 32.

“It makes me happy and appreciative to see that this project has brought some energy and joy to the artists the way it has for me,” said Lo.  “I know there is a lot of screen exhaustion out there and most of these artists aren’t starved for opportunities to create something right now, but I think there is a special energy around this project.”

While the zoom exhaustion Lo speaks of is certainly a real thing for many, embracing a technology that is not going away anytime soon might be the best option. After all, working with a favorite collaborator is no longer based on one’s ability to make it to rehearsal while fighting traffic in the jam-packed Bay Area.

“I think a part of what is creating this special energy is the fact that – in leaning into the Zoom and internet aspect of this project – we have the chance to reconnect and collaborate with old friends who have either moved away or haven’t had the schedule to work on something in a while. There is a special reunion feel to a lot of this which has been a delight.”

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Director Cara Phipps runs rehearsal for Isabella Waldron’s play “Matching” from her home in Minneapolis.

That delight applies to playwright Isabella Waldron, whose two-person play “Matching” is making its premiere. The difficulties of creating a play for screens and devices big and small was not lost on Waldron, and she dove head-first into the challenge.

“One of the most exciting things about writing for a Zoom setting is how intimacy has to change,” said Waldron. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a lack of intimacy, but the way we view it has to shape shift a bit without physical touch as a marker. I actually think there’s something very intimate about communicating with someone over these digital platforms, and while the characters can’t be in the same room, the same emotions that tie them together or push them apart still exist and manifest in different ways.”

Lo is writing and directing a piece that dives deep into intimacy, with two characters professing their love from an apartment to a backyard. Wes Gabrillo, who is featured in Lo’s play “We’re Here Now,” found that preparing for a Zoom play is not a whole lot different than preparation for a stage reading. Connection to his partner, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, wasn’t as challenging as he thought it was going to be.

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Actor Wes Gabrillo found that connecting to another actor through Zoom wasn’t as challenging as he thought. “I appreciated the space for organic truths to surface quite readily and accessibly.”

“Considering the world of the play was in the format of a Zoom call itself, I appreciated the space for organic truths to surface quite readily and accessibly,” said Gabrillo. “I am curious to see how those challenges evolve with other works via this Zoom or digital format, but I also had a great scene partner working on Jeffrey’s piece.

“It felt like connecting with Roneet organically to bring this story to life while not being in the same physical space wasn’t a concern.”

While Lo and his team have had a great time creating theatre through Zoom, there is still a strong yearning for this period in theatre history to disappear. To return to a shared space with live actors living in the moment with an audience would be divine.

For now though, this will have to do.

“My hope is that this time period will move us to appreciate human contact and human connection more than we did before, in all aspects of our life but including the theatre,” said Lo. “One of the things I love about theatre is that we are an art form that is about human connection, both on stage and between the stage and audience. I hope that when this time is behind us, we’re able to remember that this can all be taken away, and something as simple as a handshake or a hug or sitting in a theatre with your community is something truly special.”

WHAT TO KNOW

“Jeffrey Lo’s Birthday Bench Project”
A theatre project to benefit Bay Area theatre companies.
The production is free, and audience members are given the option to donate to organizations which include City Lights Theatre Company in San Jose, Los Altos Stage Company, Hillbarn Theatre Company in San Mateo, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley on the Peninsula, or the Theatre Bay Area Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund.
Friday, May 22 at 7 pm
Stream at http://www.jeffreywritesaplay.com/bench-project

Featured plays include:

“Rite, Customs and Celebrations”
Written by Geetha Reddy
Directed by Julianna Garber

“We’re Here Now”
Written and directed by Jeffrey Lo

“Bench Play 2020”
Written by Max Tachis
Directed by Steve Muterspaugh

“Under One Roof”
Written by Suzanne Bradbeer
Directed by LeeAnn Dowd

“A Cue for Passion
Written by Cleavon Smith
Directed by Sinjin Jones

“Burritto Man”
Written by Rommel Rojas
Directed by Giovanni Ortega

“Matching”
Written by Isabella Waldron
Directed by Cara Phipps

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