Gary Carr/ Theatre: San Francisco Bay Area

It’s not just San Francisco in this Northern California theatre scene.  It’s the whole nine-county Bay Area which, according to support group Theatre Bay Area, holds over 300 theatre companies.  Over the coming issues of Lightwood, we will report on theatre offerings from Santa Rosa in the north to San Jose in the south to Oakland, Berkeley, and points farther east.  To the west, well, that’s the Pacific Ocean.

The two big gorillas on the scene are A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) and Berkeley Rep, founded in 1965 and 1968, respectively.  These two surpass all other Bay Area theatre companies in funding, subscribers, and arguably reputation.  Following in size and scope are Magic Theatre, long associated with playwrights Michael McClure and Sam Shepard, SF Playhouse, and TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley.

Large-scale road shows like Hamilton and the Harry Potter two-parter set up in San Francisco at the Orpheum, Curran, or Golden Gate, or the California Theatres in San Jose.

The San Francisco Fringe Festival will spend its 29th year at EXIT Theatre in the historic Tenderloin.  SF’s is the second oldest Fringe Festival in the U.S., just six months younger than Orlando’s.  Shows and performers for this non-juried festival (picked by lottery) have been chosen for 2020.  Applications for 2021 will be accepted starting in December 2020 at  Plan ahead.

Two performers at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. Photo: Gary Carr

If you’re coming to San Francisco for Beach Blanket Babylon, you’re too late.  The longest-running musical revue in live theatre history closed on December 31, 2019 after 45 years.  Producer Jo Schuman Silver figured it was time to hang up the three-storey wigs and giant hats.  And just like Planter’s, BBB decided to retire the continuing character, Mr. Peanut.

Farewell, Beach Blanket Babylon. Courtesy BBB

Specialized venues include The Marsh, in SF and Berkeley, the decades-old home to solo performers. More narrowly focused is SF’s AfroSolo.  The New Conservatory Theatre opens to LGBT-themed productions, and Boxcar Theatre invites you to immersive shows in a Twenties-Era speakeasy.  With its “August in August” series, Multi Ethnic Theater devotes every August to a play by August Wilson.

Multi Ethnic Theatre production of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo: Lewis Campbell

Threat to California Theatre Companies

Theatre companies across the state of California have suffered collateral damage from a legislative missile launched by Sacramento and aimed toward Uber and Lyft.

State bill AB5 reclassifies “gig workers” as employees, rather than contract workers, and requires companies to pay these workers hourly salaries plus full benefits. 

Turns out, the AB5 missile is one with multiple warheads, hitting companies who employ contract workers from sheep shearers to medical transcriptionists to, yes, theatre workers, including members of Actors Equity.

Larger theatre companies may already be compliant, but for small theatres who can only afford to pay actors, directors, and technical folks “by the gig,” AB5 spells economic disaster.  The issue here is not whether app-based drivers, truckers, and even sheep shearers should have adequate pay with benefits.  But for a whole slew of artists and others who choose to be free-lancers, the party just may be over.

Small non-profit theatre companies are scrambling to decide what to do.  The founder and artistic director of a small opera company (she volunteers her time) says they will have to go dark, shorten their season, or take a hiatus.  AB5 would add another $10,000 in costs to their already-hard-to-reach $60,000 budget.

Freelance journalists, photographers, and musicians have protested and are currently on track for major exemptions, while real estate agents and attorneys are totally exempt (wouldn’t you know?)  But small theatre companies are still up that well-known creek.

Many artists are happy to be gig workers. As the managing director of a small community theatre put it, no one “wants what is now a full-time passion as a full-time job.”

Or, put another way, there aren’t enough full-time jobs in theatre for those who would want them.

Traditionally, small non-profit theatres have provided real stage experience for upcoming actors, directors, and the like.  They learn their craft as they work their gigs.

Now these training grounds in California are facing extinction.  As a result, California artists and arts groups are taking their case to the legislature.  Details to come.  Watch this space.

The Beat Goes On

Among the most recent Bay Area productions to gain critical acclaim are Heather Raffo’s Noura, about a family of Iraqi refugees, at Marin Theater Co.  

Marin Theatre Company’s production of Heather Raffo’s Noura. Photo courtesy MTC

Custom Made Theatre Co. made a splash with Sarah Ruhl’s How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.  

Shotgun Players’ production of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom drew mixed – but mostly good – reviews from the SF Chronicle and East Bay Times.  A.C.T.’s staging of Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey did not impress the Chronicle’s Lily Janiak, but arts blogger George Heymont loved it.

Latest news – many San Francisco productions have closed down due to the coronavirus.  These include the San Francisco Symphony and the world premiere of Yilong Liu’s The Book of Mountains and Seas at New Conservatory Theatre Center.  The Mayor of San Francisco issued a directive prohibiting mass (50+) gatherings at City-owned buildings through March 21.  NCTC is in such a building.

Next time, the production of Gary Sato’s The Awakening, dealing with teen suicide, 30 plays in 60 minutes at PianoFight, and burlesque is live and well (let’s hope so) at EXIT Theatre.  And more.


Anne Baker in Jenny Gets Her Wheels On. Photo: Julie Cheshire

Gary Carr is a playwright, author, and publicist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  His published work includes The Left Side of Paradise: The Screenwriting of John Howard Lawson, The Girl Who Founded Nebraska and other stories, and the play Jenny Gets Her Wheels On.  He has worked as a busboy, truck driver, and university professor.

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