Like the city itself, San Francisco's theater scene is a unique blend of commercial, artistic, and avant-garde impulses. And, while theater options are plentiful in the City by the Bay, you may have to venture off the beaten track to find some of the most vibrant and stimulating work. Certainly, there's a bit of a chasm between the handful of large houses with their big-budget, mainstream, Broadway touring shows and the plethora of small, under-funded venues that sometimes sizzle with creativity and originality. A few prominent, midsize repertory companies occupy the middle terrain. Here's a roadmap to some of San Francisco's stages.
BIG TICKET ITEMS
The Golden Gate, The Orpheum, and The Curran are the trifecta of large houses that host the entertaining, "you know what you're getting" Best of Broadway series. Though occasionally a pre-Broadway run generates some buzz, as with Baz Luhrman's La Boheme (opening October 1 at the Curran), it's generally crowd pleasers like Mamma Mia! and The Full Monty that fill the seats. Producers Scott E. Nederlander and Carole Shorenstein Hays run all three theaters like a well-oiled corporation. With Nederlander's impending takeover of the lease to Theater on the Square, a 738-seat venue that had been adventurously programmed by Jonathan Reinis for the last two decades, its control of San Francisco's largest houses will be cemented even further.
THE SOLID MIDDLE
With somewhat more risky offerings, three of the Bay Area's mid-sized repertory houses have built an impressive reputation for invigorating productions. Though they are non-profit organizations, partnerships with commercial producers are becoming more common for certain runs at these houses.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, now in its 34th season, takes the most chances and is widely respected for it. Recipient of the 1997 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, Berkeley Rep is known for its bold premieres of new work and adaptations of rarely seen classics. Under the artistic direction of Tony Taccone, the facility has been a hotbed of local acting talent and has presented the work of such admired artists as Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, and Mabou Mines. A 600-seat proscenium theater was recently added to the downtown Berkeley complex, which also boasts a 400-seat thrust stage and an accompanying school.
The American Conservatory Theater, while no longer quite as daring as it once was, maintains its prestige standing. A.C.T. dazzles with its stunningly renovated theater, The Geary -- a beautifully ornate landmark palace with plush purple seats and a state-of-the-art hydraulic stage. In operation for over three decades, the facility has presented more than 300 plays. For the 2002-2003 season, artistic director Carey Perloff has whipped up an enticing mélange that includes Night and Day, Lackawanna Blues, American Buffalo, and Urinetown. Among the graduates of the conservatory's rigorous acting training program are such stars as Winona Ryder, Annette Bening, and Denzel Washington.
The Magic Theatre displays its 1960s roots in that it was named after the Magic Theatre from Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf. For many, the work of Sam Shepard is synonymous with this theater, located in the Fort Mason complex; Shepard was playwright-in-residence at the Magic during the '70s and developed some of his best work there. Current artistic director Larry Eilenberg's focus is on new plays. This season's premieres include the intriguing sounding Ted Kaczynski Killed People with Bombs by Michelle Carter and Body Familiar from dance maverick Joe Goode.
Theater Artaud, while not a repertory company, was San Francisco's premiere venue for experimental and innovative theater and performance for more than two decades. The breathtaking, 300-seat theater set in an industrial space went belly-up this year but has restructured under new management and is now called Project Artaud Theater. It remains to be seen if the 33-member collective manning the helm can maintain a cohesive artistic vision. First out of the bag is R. Buckminster Fuller: The History and Mystery of the Universe by D.W. Jacobs, opening October 16th.
SMALL BUT STRONG
San Francisco is a fertile turf for many small theater spaces that present some of the most vital work in the city. Many of them are based in the vibrant, lower rent Mission District. Intersection for the Arts is an arts complex that has, over the years, become known for developing new theater works. Campo Santo is the venue's current in-residence collective, whose powerful plays have garnered much acclaim. Nearby ODC, an appealing dance and performance space, was able to buy its building and
stay solvent during hard times. Also in the hood is Theatre Rhinoceros, the nation's oldest gay and lesbian theater company. Beginning its 25th season, the organization recently got a boost when talented playwright and U.C. Berkeley professor John Fisher came aboard as co-artistic director.
Inhabiting a renovated historic movie palace, Brava! for Women in the Arts has succeeded in presenting numerous new works by women of color and lesbian artists. Thick House, over in the Portrero Hill neighborhood, is home to the Thick Description collective, which has made definite inroads toward developing significant theater in a non-commercial setting. And downtown, in the gritty Tenderloin, Exit Theatre operates three separate spaces that are home base for the popular San Francisco Fringe Festival, now underway. (Fifty-five plays in eight days!)
The city offers a number of interesting opportunities for artists to develop material in a workshop or work-in-progress setting. For gay-identified folks, there's the Jon Sims Center for the Arts' five-month residency program. Over at The Marsh, self-billed as a "breeding ground for new performance," accomplished solo artists such as Charlie Varon and Josh Kornbluth have been able to iron out the kinks in their shows through work-in-progress performances. On Wednesday nights, the Marsh Lab gives people the chance to sign up for seven-minute performance slots that will be videotaped, watched, and discussed. Z Space also offers selected residency and incubator programs for emerging talent.
The collective spirit runs high throughout the Bay Area and artist-run enterprises with eclectic offerings have managed to emerge or stay afloat even in hard economic times.
848 Community Space has certainly kept the creative fires burning, managing to cling onto its lease for over a decade now. Started by rebel performer/dancer Keith Hennessey, the space offers a crazy quilt of theater, art, dance, comedy, performance, and classes.
Cell has recently had to curtail its larger events while bringing its sprawling Mission district warehouse up to code. This volunteer-run collective fosters a wide assortment of artistic pursuits, including puppetry and multimedia shows.
Venue 9 is run by FootLoose, which took over the small theater's lease from Climate back in 1996. With a diverse grab bag of weekly series that spotlight emerging performers, Venue 9 features theater, multimedia, play readings, and comedy.
Spanganga is the newest kid on the block. Hosting quirky underground theater, comedy, and improv, the ragtag space has quickly made a name for itself.
Many of S.F.'s theater spaces appeal to certain demographics (as noted in some of the above descriptions). Here are some other noteworthy venues that often present work of interest to a wider audience.
New Conservatory Theatre, while not strictly a gay venue, has become known for provocative fare in the Naked Boys Singing mold as well as more serious plays whose hunky characters just happen to be "clothing impaired." For edgy, queer women's performance, look no further than Luna Sea. And for those who like their improvisation competition-style, BATS (Bay Area Theatre Sports) roosts at the Bayfront Theatre at Fort Mason.
One of the best resources for the local theatrical community is Theatre Bay Area. TBA annually holds a general audition that allows actors to be simultaneously seen by approximately 80 casting directors. It also runs TIX Bay Area, a full-service box office that sells half-price, day-of-performance tickets.
Finally, though not really integrated into the San Francisco theater scene, Beach Blanket Babylon is an institution in its own right. Steve Silver's kooky-kitschy show is known for its gargantuan prop hats and its evolving infusion of topical parody characters; current additions include "Ozzy Osbourne" and "Anna Nicole Smith." BBB has been playing for 29 years and more than 10,000 performances. According to its website, it is the longest running musical revue in theater history. Just think: If San Francisco doesn't get swallowed up in an earthquake, Beach Blanket Babylon will celebrate its 1,000,000th performance in another 3,000 years!
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Mary Armentrout in Blue Sofa at Venue 9
Night and Day, coming soon to the American Conservatory Theater
Thick Description members Rick Martin, Tony Kelly, and Karen Amano