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By Doug Konecky
Plenty has changed in the Bay Area theater world since I became a theater critic for America On Line back in 1999. Over the past decade, I've seen San Francisco theater explode into national prominence, with new venues nipping at the heels of older, more established houses, while at the same time hybrids are beginning to emerge: theater with hip-hop, dance with circus tricks, music with acrobatics...you name it.
Today, San Francisco is often seen as Philadelphia and Boston were in the classic days of musical theater--as the city where shows open first, to iron out the wrinkles on their way toward bringing up the curtain on Broadway. Many playwrights choose San Francisco as the site for the world premiere of their works, due in no small part to the city's more open-minded and truly enthusiastic pool of dedicated theater-goers.
The Bay Area has at least three different levels of live theater houses. Each offers a different theater experience. At American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) on Geary Street, the Curran Theater next door, or the Golden Gate or Orpheum theaters on Market Street, you enter a venerable showplace and walk through a paneled lobby built more than eight decades ago in the heyday of glorious movie palaces. You sit in a plush seat and see a lavish production with a major-league set and high-budget costuming. You also pay a hefty price for a front-row seat.
San Francisco Playhouse on Sutter Street is a good example of great theater at the next level. You have to walk up a flight of stairs and the stage is small, but the seats are comfortable and the intimate staging helps involve you in the production. (Biscottis are only a buck!) Year after year, S.F. Playhouse's season ranks with the best in the Bay Area. Other exemplary mid-level companies of varying sizes are found at Berkeley Repertory Company in downtown Berkeley, TheaterWorks in Palo Alto, the Magic Theater in Fort Mason, Traveling Jewish Theater in the Mission, and up until this season, the Lorraine Hansberry on Sutter Street.
On the bottom rung of the ladder, measured not by the fascinating nature of most of its productions but only by the small size of the cast and the lower cost of a theater ticket, one local theater stands above the rest: the Marsh Theater on Valencia Street. Smaller theaters tend to specialize: the Marsh in solo performance, Footloose Studios in dance, the Exit Theater with off-center plays in an off-off-center neighborhood.
Keeping a company and a theater alive are not simple tasks. Although some theaters, at every level, have more secure funding than others, all are constantly balancing precipitously on the edge of a financial chasm. Some don't make it or are forced to move--Lorraine Hansberry Theater, one of the premier African-American theater companies in America, has this year lost its longtime location and has been forced to spread its productions into several different venues for the 200809 season.
Here in Noe Valley, with an entire community of potential theater fans, we sadly have no theater. It's surprising, but easy to see why. In addition to the building, a theater needs a playwright, director, producer, actors, set designer, costumer, lighting engineer, musicians, and so on. That takes money and endless amounts of dedication. A theater's survival also depends on the loyalty of its audience.
High ticket prices threaten to drive us away, but we shouldn't succumb. Live theater is like nothing else in the world. It's always an adventure--no two shows are the same. We just need to choose wisely. Like any theater-goer, I gravitate toward places where I am rarely disappointed. Here are three venues, one in each theater category, that I'd rank among my favorites.
The Marsh Theater
1062 Valencia Street at 22nd Street
The Marsh is the brainchild of Stephanie Weisman, a poet at the University of Buffalo who got sick of performing for her friends. When she took a vacation to San Francisco in 1985 and saw Spalding Gray perform Swimming to Cambodia, a lightbulb switched on. Today, the Marsh is in its third location on Valencia Street, and in the late 1990s, after the phenomenal success of Charlie Varon's Rush Limbaugh in Night School, the theater was able to purchase its building. Now the Marsh runs two performance spaces, an artist-in-residence program, community-based performance workshops, and spring and summer theater camps. (Fall workshops at the Marsh Youth Theater start Sept. 22; call 826-5750, ext. 3.)
The Marsh specializes in solo performances, often with no more than a few lighting cues and a sound effect of a honking bus that might come from the soundboard or from the 26-Valencia outside. They are finally about to replace the old spine-smashing seats, and no one is mourning their departure. You don't go to the Marsh for production values but for the gems you might see on stage--the number of huge hits that have had their beginning at this theater is astonishing, from much of Charlie Varon's work over the past 10 years to Brian Copeland's Not a Genuine Black Man and 2008's brilliant Tings Dey Happen by local hero Dan Hoyle.
Tip: There are always pay-what-you-can nights at the Marsh, so you can have an inexpensive evening at the theater and still have money afterwards to hang out for tapas or sushi down the street.
533 Sutter Street, Second Floor, at Powell Street
S.F. Playhouse owes its existence to Bill English and Susi Damilano, husband and wife co-founders of the theater. Both have interesting backgrounds--Bill comes from a musical family and is a musician himself, with degrees in theater from Arizona State University and Northwestern. He started constructing sets in college, primarily to give himself an extra tool as a director who wanted to have more visual control of his productions. Today, English has the title of artistic director. His philosophy is simple. "I don't think of theater as art," he says, "but as entertainment. We choose original material that is universal. I want the audience to get it."
Damilano is producing director, and like English, she also acts, directs, and/or dances in various productions. "As an actor," she says, "I choose a character that I somehow identify with. [But] with each show I've directed, I read the script and felt like a kid that found a secret stash of candy.... I wanted it all, so that meant I had to direct."
Damilano and English continue to distance their theater from the rest of the pack by mounting quirky shows with a lot of heart. Next season, for example, English is directing both John Guare's Landscape of the Body and Dale Wasserman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"We're still looking for a seven-foot-tall Native American who can act," English says.
Tip: Each holiday season, the show at S.F. Playhouse is hilarious. It's usually a bit warped--the perfect antidote to another Nutcracker. This year it's Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party, which opens as a Christmas pageant. You're going to love it.
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)
415 Geary Street at Mason Street
In its 41st year at the beautifully restored Geary Theater, a night at A.C.T. is like a night at the opera, only you don't have to sit through the opera. People dress a little better, a glass of white wine costs a little more, the sets are always breathtaking enough to make it worth your while to come early to admire them, and there are the same street singers performing year after year, smiling as they cadge for a tip as you exit after the final curtain.
You don't get improvisational theater at A.C.T., but this is anything but a staid, predictable company. The 2008-09 season opens with the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll and ends with the West Coast premiere of Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry (it's never a bad idea, subscription-wise, to open and close with your biggest names). In between, there are several surprises, including Jose Rivera's newest Puerto Rico-themed show Boleros for the Disenchanted. When you want to see professional theater acted and staged by San Francisco's most respected theater company, you head for A.C.T.
Tip: Aisle seats in the lower orchestra towards the rear are canted at a slight angle. This means more room for those of you lucky enough to have long legs, and for the rest of us more space to squirm should we be watching Sam Shepard or David Mamet.
Sanchez Street resident Doug Konecky regularly reviews live shows in town at his theater blog, www.sf-theaterblog.com. He says he'd love to hear your comments and suggestions of plays to see. Write him there, or at the Voice at email@example.com.