Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Black Box Revolution

Here we are, at the start of a new year, and a sign of major change lies before us.  Whereas live theatre used to be nicknamed "the fabulous invalid," it is now the cowardly United States Congress that is hoping for a miraculous new lease on life, waiting for the political equivalent of a blood transfusion as new representatives take their place alongside bought and paid for party hacks with a long history of dangerously dysfunctional behavior.

There's a wonderful moment in Auntie Mame when, as the stock market crashes in 1929, Mame's actress friend, Vera Charles, remarks "And everyone said I was such a fool, spending all my money at Tiffany's!" No one in his right mind would ever have imagined that nonprofit theatre would become a more reliable business model than government. But that might just be what the future holds.

In some ways, live theatre is like mold. It develops in an opportunistic fashion, spreading and growing stronger over time. A perfect example of this process is becoming more visible in 21st century San Francisco in the area being touted as the new Central Market Arts District.

As powerhouse corporations like Twitter and Zynga are moving into the mid-Market corridor and stimulating new transit lines, new restaurants, and new residential construction, the area is becoming an increasing hotbed for black box theatres (flexible venues often seating less than 100 people) where a great deal of experimental work takes place.

Thankfully, there is no longer any need to prove the effectiveness of the arts as an economic engine.  In the 1970s, when the Seattle Opera began its Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival, the company's General Director, Glynn Ross, commissioned a marketing study to measure the impact of each tourism dollar that entered Seattle's economy during the weeks that the Seattle Opera performed Richard Wagner's famed tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Results showed that between ticket prices, hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping, each tourist dollar rolled over seven times in the local economy.

San Francisco experienced a similar phenomenon with the construction of Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, which made its debut in September of 1980. Not only was the Symphony Hall followed by construction of the San Francisco Ballet's home at 455 Franklin Street and the backstage extension to the War Memorial Opera House, since then the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has moved to its new location at 50 Oak Street. The San Francisco Opera recently announced plans to expand into the War Memorial Veterans Building. The new SFJazz Center at 201 Franklin Street is scheduled to make its debut on January 21, 2013.

In the 30 years since the San Francisco Symphony moved into its new home, numerous restaurants and boutiques have sprung up in the Hayes Valley and Gough/Franklin corridor. For some people, the Central Market Arts District has the exciting potential of a new artistic frontier. For others, it is the community in which they have worked and continued to thrive for season after season.

New plays are often read before young audiences who might be more enthusiastic about supporting the creativity of their friends than attending an expensive touring show that has been booked into one of SHN's large theaters. Over on Eddy Street, the EXIT Theatre (which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2013) has grown into a mini-arts complex with four distinct performance venues. The recently launched EXIT Press has started publishing plays by Mark Jackson and other Bay Area playwrights.

Under the artistic direction of Christina Augello, the EXIT produces DivaFest (supporting new work by women) and the San Francisco Fringe Festival each year as well as promoting Songwriter Saturdays and Bitchslap! Comedy in its EXIT Café. 2012 also marked the third year that the EXIT Theatre hosted the San Francisco Olympians Festival.

Cutting Ball Theater (which makes its home in the EXIT on Taylor) is dedicated to presenting new interpretations of classics (such as  Shakespeare's The Tempest and Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande) as well as works by Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and other playwrights from the Theatre of the Absurd. In addition to the company's Hidden Classics Reading Series, each spring Cutting Ball presents Avant GardARAMA! and a festival of experimental plays and readings entitled Risk Is This. New plays are an integral part of Cutting Ball's main season as well, including such notable world premieres as Marcus Gardley's "And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi" and its 2012 musical docudrama entitled Tenderloin.

Last October, the folks at PianoFight Productions announced that they had signed a 10-year lease on the property at 144 Taylor Street (the former site of Original Joe's), where they plan to create a 5,000-square foot complex that will include rehearsal and office spaces as well as a 54-seat and 96-seat theater in the heart of the Tenderloin. The front of the house will feature a 60-seat restaurant and bar with a full liquor license and cabaret stage.

Although programming will incorporate PianoFight's "New Work by New Artists™" productions, the complex is being designed as a collaborative hub that can meet the production and performance needs of small, independent theatre companies. Imagine the synergy that might develop if groups like the Bay One Acts Festival, Playwrights Foundation's Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Sleepwalkers Theatre, San Francisco Theatre Pub, and Killing My Lobster were able to share resources!

Artist's rendering of PianoFight's new home

While the Tenderloin has the kind of grittiness that accompanies cheaper rents and experimental theatre, Market Street is also coming back to life as a theatre district. American Conservatory Theater is moving its current black-box spaces from the Children's Creativity Museum in Yerba Buena Gardens and the Hastings Studio on Geary Street to the Costume Shop at 1117 Market Street.  A.C.T. recently purchased the Strand Theatre, located at 1127 Market Street (where a friend once took me to see some sadistic science fiction film that was playing on a double bill with Carnosaur).

From above, this cluster of theaters forms a clearcut "Z" that starts at the EXIT Theatre, turns left on Taylor Street, moves past the new PianoFight facility, Warfield, and Golden Gate Theatres, and then turns right on Market Street past the Strand, the Costume Shop, and the Orpheum Theatre. In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Carey Perloff (A.C.T.'s artistic director for the past 20 years) noted that:
"We have a lot of questions to ask as we connect with tech companies surrounding our new theater. Questions like: Tell us what, if anything, would encourage you to want to walk into a new 300-seat theater one evening (or afternoon, or lunchtime, or midnight) to see a play? What would inspire you, despite your fourteen-hour-a-day work cycles, to take a shot on live performance? How could we connect all you creative 20-something programmers and software developers in the neighborhood with our equally creative 20-something MFA actors, such that eventually you all feel you are one peer group, cheering each other on and looking out for each other's success? Would it be of interest that many of the plays being commissioned were based on San Francisco stories and created by local writers? Or that the Strand was a chance to see major players up close and intimately? Or that there will be downtown high school kids writing their own monologues and stories and collaborating with A.C.T.'s artists in the black box theater upstairs in an attempt to survive their tough teen years and create lives for themselves inspired by exactly the kind of creative work happening in the tech sphere you inhabit?"

What will be interesting to watch is whether A.C.T. finds itself in the right place at the right time as it fills its two new theatres with interesting programming that draws a new and vibrant audience. Or whether, as it nears its 50th anniversary, the Bay area's largest theatrical nonprofit organization finds itself perceived as the 500-pound gorilla that is, in some ways, a latecomer to the scene.

I say this because, if one compares the level of audience energy at many of A.C.T.'s black box performances with the energy at many performances during the recent San Francisco Olympians Festival, it's like night and day. An important point for Perloff to consider is that, while A.C.T. is indeed well-funded, has a highly-regarded MFA program for actors, and boasts a substantial subscription base, it's not the only game in town. Its two new venues on Market Street are welcome additions that will provide plenty of new opportunities for artists and audiences alike. But to think that the new tech population is going to be drawn to A.C.T.'s productions to hear "downtown high school kids creating their own monologues" is a bit naive.

A.C.T.'s proposed renovation of The Strand

Just as the traditional publishing industry has been upended by blogs,e-books, and new technologies (which are having the same democratizing effect that word-processing programs had 25 years ago), some of the more established theatrical nonprofits are now being challenged by younger, leaner, and more free-wheeling talents. Some of today's young professionals are highly creative talents whose salaries help to support their artistic efforts as playwrights, actors, and directors. Their use of social media (as well as fundraising tools like Kickstarter) makes it much easier for them to draw people to readings of their work (or stage appearances) than ever before.

Playwrights Stuart Bousel and Bridgette Dutta Portman
at the recent San Francisco Olympians Festival

Not only is much of today's creative work being done in black box theatres, there is a thriving community of artists and audiences that see each other throughout the year. Whether one looks at the audiences at Playground events in Berkeley or at those attending the San Francisco Olympians Festival, there seems to be a higher percentage of people supporting the creative efforts of friends with whom they party on a regular basis than whatever is being offered by the nonprofit theatre down the street from their office. Like the afore-mentioned mold process, there is a growing colony of artists that is highly mobile and adaptable.

A holiday performance of Jonathan Larson's Rent
at San Francisco Theatre Pub

Then, of course, there is the question of quality and artistic vision. On far too many occasions (whether attending a performance at Central Works, Aurora Theatre Company, Marin Theatre Company, Shotgun Players, Magic Theatre, or Ray of Light Theater), my friends and I find ourselves wondering why A.C.T. can't deliver work of a similar caliber. Sometimes the contrast is so embarrassing it's like being slapped in the face.

While its two new venues on Market Street will provide new homes for A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory and MFA productions, my guess is that A.C.T.'s artistic vision may, in fact, end up being influenced by its increasing ability to diversify its audience by booking outside attractions. The close proximity of its two new venues to the BART/MUNI Civic Center station could easily lure bookings away from venues like Thick House, Boxcar, Z-Space, NOHspace and the Eureka Theatre. They might even offer a more workable solution for companies like Theatre Rhinoceros that have vacated their former homes and now float from one venue to another.

As a rule, critics are not allowed to review performances by A.C.T.'s Young Artist and MFA programs. However, there's no getting around the fact that the audience's level of excitement and involvement at such events is far less than what one encounters in many other black box theatres around town (A.C.T.'s choice of scripts is often less interesting as well). Just consider two one-act plays that shared a recent program during the recent San Francisco Olympians Festival.

In the hilarious Hermes: The Computer That Wanted to Love, playwright Kirk Shimano followed the trials and tribulations of a shy computer named Hermes (Matt Gunnison) in search of a wi-fi hotspot that could deliver more than just the usual bits and bytes. Directed by Amanda Ortmayer (with the hilarious Allison Page as Hermaphroditus, a child of Hermes and Aphrodite), Shimano’s play was aimed at a computer literate audience familiar with the landscape of online dating services and social media.

Chelsea Harper's poster art for Kirk Shimano's
Hermes: The Computer That Waned to Love

Focused on Hermes (the god of invention, communication, and commerce who would obviously be best suited to manipulate technology and deliver information), Shimano recast the messenger of the Gods as the god of the Internet. Strong support came from John Lennon Harrison (Zeus, Apollo, Perseus), Mikka Bonet (Aphrodite, Demeter, Persephone), and Nikolas Strubbe as Krokus.

Playwright Kirk Shimano

One of the most fascinating plays to premiere during the San Francisco Olympians Festival was written by Neil Higgins, a talented actor/director/playwright with a boisterous laugh. Taking his inspiration from the legend of Iapetus (one of the sons of Uranus), Higgins cast his protagonist  (the doe-eyed Nikolas Strubbe) as a mysterious newcomer who enters a psychiatric ward on a voluntary basis and inspires so much self-confidence in the patients that they start refusing to take their medications.

Actor Nikolas Strubbe

Allowing nurse Cassandra (Melissa Clason) to nickname him Elvis, he proceeds to drive Dr Samos, the hospital director (John Lennon Harrison), crazy by resisting authority with a placid smile while enigmatically insisting that he is a pillar to some and the grandfather of all mankind to others.  The new intern on the ward, Dr. Hermes (Matt Gunnison), feels as if he can trust "Elvis" enough to reveal the real reason he is working there: his betrothed, Chione (Mikka Bonet), survived a terrible accident that left her with amnesia.

Despite the obvious breach in medical ethics, Dr. Hermes hopes to remain by Chione's side so he can help her to heal. As the audience watches in awe, Iapetus reveals himself to be a laid back yet powerful prophet and healer while Dr. Samos is transformed into a babbling madman who cannot accept that he owes all his medical knowledge to this strange new patient who claims to be a god.

Playwright Neil Higgins (Photo by: Claire Ann Rice)

Iapetus offered one of the most intelligent debates about faith versus science that I’ve ever seen on a stage. Its multi-layered script was so strong that it left audiences thinking about the power of Iapetus long after they had  left the theatre. Higgins shows a remarkable maturity and wisdom for such a young playwright. I look forward to his future efforts.

Playwrights like Higgins, Shimano, Barbara Jwanouskos, Christopher Chen, Ken Slattery, Stuart Bousel, Sam Leichter, Bennett Fisher, and Mark Jackson are some of the hugely talented writers whose work deserves to be supported by A.C.T.'s entrepreneurial muscle and showcased in its new venues. Let's see what the future holds in store for these provocative talents.

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