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Petaluma playwright David Templeton up for national award for ‘Galatea’

When David Templeton first began work on “Galatea,” his award-winning play dealing in science fiction and artificial intelligence, he didn’t have a planned theater for its premiere, and there was no deadline to maintain.

Many in Sonoma County’s theater community knew he was working on “a robot play,” but Templeton, the Argus-Courier’s Community Section editor, largely worked at his own pace.

He was two years into that on-again, off-again process, and about halfway finished, when Spreckels Performing Arts Center Theatre Manager Sheri Lee Miller asked, “How’s that robot play coming?”

And then, “Can you finish it in two months?”

“I said, ‘Sure.’” Templeton said during a recent phone interview. “As a lifelong journalist, deadlines are what I need.”

Templeton hit his deadline. But the debut of “Galatea” missed its cue, as Spreckels and every other live performance venue in Sonoma County was forced to shutter in March 2020 amid the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There were times when I genuinely believed that what I saw as the best play I had written was perhaps never going to be seen by anyone, and that was very hard for me to wrap my head around,” Templeton said.

But the 18-month wait for the play to premiere – in September 2021, during a lull in the on-again, off-again pandemic – was worth it, as “Galatea” has since garnered a rare Honorable Mention Glickman Award as the best play to premier in the Bay Area, and now sits at the doorstep to even greater recognition.

Templeton’s play is one of five finalists for the 2021 Harold and Mimi Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, which is given to the best new play premiered professionally outside of New York City each year.

In a letter informing him of the honor, the American Theatre Critics Association shared just how special the award is.

“Many of the most prestigious contemporary American playwrights of the past 50 years have been awarded the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, including August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, Arthur Miller and Nilo Cruz, just to name a few,” according to the letter. “We congratulate you on joining the ranks of these legendary writers.”

For Templeton, being mentioned among that list is almost hard to fathom. And he’s got strong competition for the ultimate award this year, facing entries from Makasha Copeland, “Extreme Home Makeover,” Philadelphia; Chiara Atik, “Poor Clare,” Los Angeles; Keith Josef Adkins, “The West End,” Cincinnati, Ohio; and Erlina Ortiz, “Young Money,” Philadelphia.

Given out each year since 1977, the New Play Award comes with a top prize of $25,000, two $7,500 awards and commemorative plaques. But for Templeton, 61, who jokingly refers to himself as the “world’s oldest emerging playwright,” the biggest prize might be the possibility of more doors opening.

When Templeton travels to the April 9 awards ceremony in Costa Mesa, not far from Downey, where he spent his high school days, he will be traveling along a story arc that’s almost stranger than fiction. During the pandemic, his wife, Susan Panttaja, was working in Monterey, the world was locked down and his play was delayed – indefinitely.

“I wish I could say that it was not as devastating as it was,” Templeton said. “I can’t even explain it except that it happened at the same time as world genuinely ending…the sense of loss was just huge, and it came at a time when I was tremendously isolated.”

Templeton’s “Galatea” is a four-actor play set in the distant future that centers on the relationship between a synthetic human named Seventy-One and her therapist, Dr. Mailer (Sindu Singh). Seventy-One (Abbey Lee) was found floating in deep space in a decaying space craft, and was the lone surviving crew member of the Galatea, a large human-transport ship that disappeared without a trace more than 100 years earlier.

When she finally got the chance to perform her part as Seventy-One in “Galatea,” in front of a live audience, local actor Lee said it was surreal and emotional. A large contingent of the Bay Area theater community showed up in support of the return to live shows.

Nearly two years before, Lee had come into her audition fully in character, hair slicked back atop black clothing and combat boots. She was eager to expand her range as an actor, having previously leaned more into the musical space. Plus, she said she’d always been into science fiction, so when she first learned of Templeton’s “robot play,” she remembers thinking, “I have to play that.”

For Lee, “Galatea” as a play, or even a message to humanity, might have been better for the pandemic-induced, 18-month wait.

“To experience the pandemic, all of the lows, and kind of the fear for our species, I almost think that informed all of our performances even more,” Lee said.

Neither Lee, nor Templeton, nor anyone else who took part in the production, were allowed to share the news about the play’s nomination for the American Theatre Critics Association award. Instead, for the past two weeks they’ve been sworn to secrecy but buzzing with pride while waiting to use their stage voices to break the news.

Templeton said the wait – including the two years since the play was supposed to have premiered - has been worth it, especially with all of the accolades being heaped upon “Galatea.”

“Oh absolutely. To go from feeling like, ‘It’s over,’ to ‘Oh, wow, this is being really well received…’” Templeton said, trailing off. “Everyone is very proud of this production.”

As a playwright, Templeton’s hard work, high intellect and insatiable curiosity set him apart, says Miller, who has worked with him on many plays.

“He is interested in everything,” Miller said. “I think that is one of the things that really contributes to his writing. His curiosity is one of the reasons his writing is so varied. He writes a lot of different kinds of plays because he’s so interested in different things.”

Templeton’s “Galatea,” was an idea long before it became a play. And though he knew the concept was solid – artificial intelligence grapples with humanity – it wasn’t until he was knee deep in the twists and turns of the story that Templeton said he started to really feel something special.

“I knew as I was writing it that it was coming together even better than I hoped,” he said. “It was just magical at times.”

Templeton points to a twist just before intermission, a moment Templeton predicted would spark a huge reaction from the audience.

Eighteen months after the play was originally set to premier, Templeton last fall finally got the chance to see the moment live.

“I was right,” he said. “That was always my favorite moment. Something big happens, and the audience goes, ‘Wah!’ And it’s so satisfying.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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