Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is the Playwright-in-Residence at Z Space through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
Z Space is a 24 ¾ year old theatre company in San Francisco, currently housed in a 13,000 square foot former machine shop of a can factory (the space is now part of the Project Artaud complex, a city block sized building comprised of over seventy artist residences and studios). Under the leadership of artistic director Lisa Steindler, and with two radically different performance spaces, the company develops, incubates, produces, and presents new work, and is also a rental venue for numerous other companies in the Bay Area.
The Z Space administrative staff is a small and mighty group of individuals tasked with all of the duties and responsibilities required to keep Z Space funded, functional, and true to its mission of supporting new work. And they are just one clump of many dedicated/insane individuals across the area and country who have decided to make working in not-for-profit theatre their day job.
I thought it might be interesting to interview a bunch of my coworkers here at Z to learn how their lives, their job, and their personal art practices intersect and influence each other and how the work done at one arts organization has the potential to affect the ecosystem of theatre across the whole area. Let’s find out!
Peter: How long have you lived in the Bay Area? What brought/keeps you here?
Joanne Winter: I’ve lived here all my life. What keeps me here is the diversity—both geographically and culturally. I love how many different experiences are available in a small radius.
Abby Pañares: I’ve also been here my whole life. While I hope to live elsewhere for at least a little while, my friends and family keep me here.
Rose Oser: I’ve been here forever. I moved to New York City for about two minutes, but I wasn't being creative there. I was mostly just shaking hands with people and trying to convince myself that I was building something. So I moved back here to make art.
Amy Prosser: Thirty years, on and off.
Lisa Steindler: Twenty-seven years. I came here for my MFA at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in 1991 and fell in love with this city hardcore.
Andrew Burmester: Twenty years. Initially, I liked the freewheeling artistic culture and libertine lifestyle of the Bay Area. Nowadays, I’m mostly kept here by inertia.
Julie Schuchard: It's home.
Sue Harloe: I've lived here since I was seven—except for all the times I became fed up and left.
Peter: How is it living in the Bay Area?
Andrew: Beautiful. Expensive, I suppose.
Sue: I know it's getting gentrified and expensive, but it's an ever-changing city, and same as it ever was, in a sense...
Lisa: I still love the bubble we live in, especially now more than ever.
Julie: I'm the one of those self-entitled native San Franciscans, that can be spotted yelling "Get off my lawn!" at the kids.
Amy: Every day I look out my window or at the view from a hike or at the ocean and think, "God! It's good to be home!" One thing I really miss about NYC, though, is the warmth and sense of community. In New York, you're always together with everyone, from all walks of life, on the subway. The Bay Area's car culture and its wealth inequality keep us separate and disconnected.
Joanne: When I was younger and a freelance actor, there were less opportunities to audition and perform. Now, more small companies are providing cultural opportunities.
Abby: Watching the emerging arts scene grow here has been really exciting.
Rose: The Bay Area theatre industry has a self-confidence problem. There are so many young artists at Z Space and PianoFight who are totally kicking butt while mumbling about wanting to move to Los Angeles or NYC. We're doing awesome work here and we gotta embrace it, brag about it, and love each other for it. We're like Cady Heron before she realizes that she's hot.
Peter: Describe what you do at Z Space.
Lisa: Everything from plumber to Executive Artistic Director. But unfortunately, I spend too much time raising money...
Joanne: I am the Co-Artistic Director of Word for Word Performing Arts Company (a resident company of Z Space), with Susan Harloe. We create the artistic schedule, raise the money, hire the people and manage all the fun little details!
Julie: I'm a communication designer, which means I visually translate who we are and what we are doing through graphic design, photography, and video.
Andrew: Officially, I run our marketing campaigns, write marketing copy, and put together ticketing strategies. I do a bunch of things unofficially like manage Front of House staffing and pick out cheese plates.
Abby: I have been working as Z Space’s Individual Giving Manager. My career in fundraising happened somewhat accidentally. After getting my BA in Film, I was waitressing and taking classes at ACT’s Studio Program. I saw a notice on their website for a Development Fellowship, and I thought “development” meant new play development. Despite the misunderstanding, I miraculously got the fellowship, and six months later I was working full time.
At Z Space, I am responsible for executing all individual giving initiatives and strategy for the institution, including all fundraising campaigns and special events, patron services, board recruitment and cultivation, and new audience acquisition.
Amy: I coordinate the arts-in-education Youth Arts program. I market it, liaise with schools, write grants, pay the teaching artists, help train and give them feedback, handle contracts with the school districts, etc.
Rose: My current title is Literary and Grants Manager. The beautiful thing about Z Space is that there is so much room for growth (the ceilings are actually quite high) and I'm still figuring out which way to grow.
Peter: How long have you worked at Z Space, and how did you find yourself to be working here?
Lisa: Thirteen years...David Dower coerced me into it and then he left. I say that with pure love.
Andrew: Almost five years. I had experience doing marketing for not-for-profits prior—I worked for a science museum.
Julie: I have been here about a year and a half. I was on a career path in music, and changed my direction towards working creatively.
Amy: I've been working at Z Space for a year and eight months. I have a long history in arts education administration and teaching, so when I saw the Education Coordinator position advertised, I jumped on the application. Also, it's flexible and part-time, which gives me opportunities to pursue other interests simultaneously.
Sue: Since the beginning; May 1993. At the time, I was a librarian, and an actor, and Word for Word married my two loves: books and theatre.
Joanne: Same story as Sue—I started out in 1993. I was an Artist-In-Residence (AIR) at Z Space Studio, under David Dower, with the intention of starting Word for Word, a literature based performance group. We presented a Dorothy Parker short story to the other AIRs and asked if anyone was interested in joining us in this creation. Dower asked us to become a program of Z about a year in.
Peter: Is there a particular experience or task or project that stands out for you as something you’ve loved to do here?
Lisa: My favorite time is being in the room during the creative process. I love tech.
Joanne: The thrill of solving the question, "How the heck are we gonna make theatre out of that piece of narrative?" time and time again. Sustaining a theatrical organization for almost twenty-five years. Creating a theatrical home for scores of artists. Seeing young people get excited about performing for the first time.
Amy: Getting to produce my play at Z Below (Z’s seventy-two seat second stage)! I will never forget Lisa Steindler's willingness to help. It was so amazing to be backed as an employee and an artist in that way.
Rose: Lisa invited the staff to watch a first table read. The actors and stage managers were sitting around the table on the stage. And then there was a moment when Lisa looked out at us and was like, "Wait, do you guys want to sit around the table?" That was significant to me. I appreciated that Lisa saw the difference between us sitting at the table versus sitting in the risers.
Sue: I'm a writer junkie—I love our “Evenings with...” whomever, that we have in conjunction with the performance of a short story by that person (Evening with Tobias Wolff, Edward P. Jones, Amy Tan, etc.)
Julie: So many moments. I've pitched crazy ideas, like, "I'm gonna put some butter sticks on the heads of mannequins for the cover of the program," and everyone was like, “Yes! Do it!”
Abby: The day I shot a parody Ted Talk fundraising video was one of my favorite days of work.
Peter: Describe your non-Z Space life. Do have an artistic practice? Are you affiliated with any other theatres or organizations/groups in the Bay?
Joanne: I am an actor and a director, but a lot of my life at this point is taken up in raising my twin twelve-year-old boys. When I'm not at Z/Word, I'm spending time with my family and friends, making food together, going on hikes, doing yoga, seeing movies, theatre, taking short trips.
Lisa: I consider myself a producing artist. I have directed and acted, too.
Julie: I am a visual artist. I've been an art photographer and graphic designer for over twenty years. I once did a “Portraits Across America” series with a Darth Vader helmet, entitled Darth Across America. I also run a record label called Tricycle Records. I DJ. The music scene has been home to me for the past fifteen years.
Amy: I've been a professional actor for twenty-eight years. I've been writing, casting, and producing public service announcements on subjects like "keeping the Bay litter-free" and "composting food scraps in your green cart" with an Oakland-based environmental marketing firm. My husband and I run a small theatre company called RE:ACT, which is made up of alumni from American Conservatory Theatre and other local actors. We produce new plays.
Abby: I founded a performance group based in Berkeley called BAD REP Theatre, which I started in 2015 with my best friends and roommates. We had met while performing in Theatre Rice!, UC Berkeley’s Asian American theatre troupe. A few years after we graduated, we received news that the group was no longer active on the Berkeley campus, so we decided to continue the tradition of giving Asian American artists a space to create and perform their work. This space has allowed me to act, direct, write, and produce with some of my favorite people.
Rose: I run a small not-for-profit theatre company called FaultLine Theater. We produce new works by emerging artists. As the co-artistic director, I make a lot of the fun artistic decisions, but I've also found myself doing less glamorous tasks: doing the cast’s laundry, taking care of a live rabbit for a show, buying tampons for actors, painting a set in the middle of the night, fundraising...always fundraising. I firmly believe that we work in the fundraising industry and theatre is just what keeps us motivated. I also host a dating show called Tinder Disrupt, where people make power point presentations to pitch their single friends. Is Tinder considered art? I hope so.
Peter: What else occupies your time?
Lisa: Sailing, my dog, hiking, friends, food, the beach, music, Vermont.
Andrew: I read a lot. I hang out with my love and our cat.
Julie: I have a cat. I probably watch too much TV.
Sue: I spend a lot of time thinking about my family, my love of California, and being a bookworm. I also think about staying fit and healthy as I move into older age. And France. I paint a little. I also love work with textile.
Amy: I'm just getting into making mosaics.
Abby: I also recently caught the travel bug, so I am trying to do that as much as I can.
Peter: How does your work at Z Space intersect with your other work/rest of your life? Has working at Z Space had any effect or influence on your art practice?
Sue: My life is in part about my work at Z Space: stories and theatre. They intersect completely.
Joanne: They're kind of an unhealthy enmeshment at this point! But really, Z and Word, of course, are my family.
Lisa: My life is Z Space, which is not that healthy I suppose, but I love it—thank goodness—and I get to work with amazing people. The blurring of lines between work and life can be thrilling. It is about finding that balance so one does not overwhelm and take over the other. When life and work are in sync and one is informing the other, that’s sublime.
Andrew: In a myriad of small ways: my girlfriend likes to tend bar here, we run a music event that many musician colleagues come and play music at, etc…
Amy: They definitely enhance each other. I need a ton of variety in my work and art or I get bored. I like to do quiet, introverted tasks—meticulous organizational work. And there's a lot of that in my Z Space life. But I also love to connect with others. I love the messiness and chaos that comes with creating as a group. And there's a lot of that in my Z Space life. Regardless of the chaos, working at Z Space makes me strive for excellence in everything I do. When you're surrounded by so much excellence, it's pretty inspirational.
Julie: Working here has helped me see that my visual art can be activated in so many ways, with sound and light and movement. Z Space also provided a gallery for me to show my art. I'm co-hosting a music night with my label, and I even get recruited to DJ sometimes. We're all so invested in the space, that the things we bring to it, are all of ourselves.
Rose: I could see FaultLine doing shows at Z Space at some point in the future. Maybe next week, or maybe in like five years.
Abby: My work at Z Space is beginning to overlap more with my artistic projects outside of work because the theatre world is small! At Z Space, the relationship between the artists, audience, and staff is fluid and creates a very comfortable environment.
My rehearsals and meetings (for BAD Rep) usually take place right after work so the lessons I learn at Z, like how to treat artists, how to create and engage a community, how to make the most of your resources, get put into practice in a different space almost immediately. The organization’s instinct to question everything and think outside the box has challenged my idea of what is or isn’t possible, and has empowered me to want to take more artistic risks and make space for myself and others to do so.
Peter: For someone who does not work in an arts organization (but perhaps interacts with them or is hired by them as an artist), what are some details that they might not know or think they know but really don’t know?
Joanne: There are so many people doing so many tiny but important tasks. Every aspect of a show—the program, the box office, the front of house—are all made up of hundreds of tiny tasks, created by multiple conversations and decisions.
Andrew: You have to wear a lot of hats and be really scrappy, and if you don’t step up and do something, it’s likely not getting done.
Rose: Our work is dependent on donations. I think artists and audiences often think of shows and ticket sales as being the whole business. If shows are good and selling out, the theatre must be thriving! But it ain't that simple. When an elevator breaks, how many tickets do you need to sell to cover that? How much is rent? Please donate.
Amy: Money is always the issue. People who work for arts organizations do so because they care deeply. Be patient with arts organizations. They're always understaffed and underfunded.
Julie: I have about three side jobs to make ends meet, as many of us do. We're definitely not here for the money! But our reasons for being here go so far beyond that.
Sue: It all takes money. But it also takes cooperation and team building. It takes faith and courage. It takes grit. It takes focused determination. It takes not accepting no.