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The City by the Bay

This is the first contribution to HowlRound's City Series. Over the next few months we will explore the theatre scene in cities from around the country. We've asked members of our editorial board to kick the series off, and they've asked artists from their cities to contribute articles and blog posts. As the week progresses, more voices will be added to the conversation. We hope you enjoy this look into making theatre in San Francisco. Next up: The Twin Cities.

Cities are restless places. With countless layers—people and things coming and going, there are as many interpretations of a city as there are individuals who have walked its streets. San Francisco, my beautiful city, was founded about 240 years ago and is composed of just over 800,000 inhabitants within a seven-square mile peninsula. One of California’s mythic cities, its history is intricately entwined with one of the great stories of all times—the story of the American West. Before the arrival of Spanish and Portugese explorers, the Bay Area was comprised of about forty culturally diverse native tribes known as the Ohlone people (a Miwok Indian term meaning Western People). It has always been a place where diverse groups of people collide. A wild place. A place of possibility. A place to conquer.

From the Gold Rush to Hollywood to Silicon Valley, California is a place where innovation happens. Those of us who call San Francisco home know the feeling of the earth shaking beneath our feet. We welcome newcomers from far away places every day. We navigate steep hills and foggy mornings. We lean left with our politics. We like our coffee. The presence of fog and fault lines, the caffeine, the port opening us to the world, and the constant migration all remind us that things change. We are a small part of a much bigger universe. The coffee just keeps getting stronger. San Francisco’s theatre community is integral to the fabric of our unpredictable city.

According to Theater Bay Area (TBA), there are 400 theaters in our nine-county region. 375 theater companies and 2,700 individual artists are members of TBA, which is one of the most vibrant theater service organizations in the country. When people think of the epic history of theatre here, they may think of Bill Ball and A.C.T., Sam Shepard and The Magic, Bill Irwin and The Pickle Family Circus, Theater Rhinoceros, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, El Teatro Campesino, Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, Rhodessa Jones and Idris Ackamoor of Cultural Odyssey, and the countless extraordinary small companies that are making breathtaking work on the streets, in small theatres, cafes, and living rooms. Think of Cutting Ball Theatre, Mugwumpin, Felonious, Crowded Fire, Z Space, Golden Thread, Shotgun Players, the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project, the Living Word Project, and so many more. There is no doubt that theatre artists are a significant force out here in the West.

A black and white portrait of three men and two women. One of the men is shirtless and holds a pistol.
Cast members of Octavio Solis' Santos y Santos in Campo Santo/Thick Description's co-production, 1996. Photo courtesy of Campo Santo.

In San Francisco, people who make theatre believe in the power of this work to transform. It is a story of outsiders and a city that is wide open, always redefining, pushing the margins, seeking equity.

So, what is it about making theatre in the Bay Area? To this question, I can relate my own experience. In 1996, I met Sean San Jose, Luis Saguar, and Michael Torres in a Mission District coffee shop. They had just founded a theatre company called Campo Santo. Their first project was Octavio Solis’s Santos y Santos. It was about as real and raw as anything I’d experienced. The audience was electric—a straight snapshot of the people just outside the doors. I had just taken a job as the Executive Director of Intersection for the Arts. I had no idea what I was doing and no formal experience in the world of theater. Intersection—one of the oldest organizations of its kind in San Francisco—had a name and a theatre but was in need of radical reinvention. Campo Santo had a beautiful, necessary vision for theatre that would tell the stories of the city—the real stories of the people whose lives are often (still) not reflected on our stages. They thought of themselves in some ways as “outsiders”—a group of people who had not come to theatre through mainstream paths. Sean, Luis, Michael, Margo, James, and the countless artists who have shaped the company over its fifteen-year history are people who need theatre and see it as an act of social justice.

Over that muddy cup of coffee, we decided that we should live and work together. Without knowing it, we forged a rare collaborative model—one of shared infrastructure and vision—that enabled Intersection to reinvent itself and Campo Santo to survive and thrive as one of the most prolific developers of new plays and diverse new theater participants in the Bay Area. What is it about this story that speaks to a unique San Francisco? It’s a story of inclusivity and social change. Indeed, theater as a necessary action that brings us together despite our differences to see the world differently, to instigate change.

In San Francisco, people who make theatre believe in the power of this work to transform. It is a story of outsiders and a city that is wide open, always redefining, pushing the margins, seeking equity. Thoughts of the character of San Francisco evoke Mission Dolores, the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz, the Summer of Love, Harvey Milk and George Moscone, The Beat Poets and City Lights Bookstore, Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party, The Golden Gate Bridge, Jack London, Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the Dot Com boom and bust, bio-tech, and social entrepreneurship. Known for its dense neighborhoods from the Mission District to the Fillmore to Haight-Ashbury to Chinatown and North Beach, it is a city of radical interaction and invention; a place made of larger-than-life characters and epic stories of progressive battles; a place that welcomes newcomers and outsiders and that allows for collisions, new definitions, and relationships to arise.

A scenic photo of the golden gate bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Photo by HD Fanatic/Fotolia.

It could be said that the quintessential American character is a character of the West. The setting is somewhere just over the horizon.

I was not a “theatre” person. The members of Campo Santo were trying to redefine what theatre is and who it is for. We had in common the idea that people—regardless of their life experiences—need opportunities to come together to share stories that are relevant to their lives. The city of San Francisco greeted us warmly. The theatre community opened up widely. Our credentials were not checked and our work wove itself into the rich fabric of a vibrant theatre town that prioritizes the story and not the size of the house or the way in which one discovers the power of theatre to change lives.

The challenges inherent in a place like San Francisco are a critical part of what makes the work that emanates. It is wildly expensive to live here. Quality rehearsal and performance space is near impossible to come by. One could argue that theatres are too big or too small with little in between. Work goes up too quickly, is often reviewed prematurely, if at all, and closed just when it is ready. Artists commonly move to Los Angeles or New York in search of sustainable work. We struggle to survive. Out of this comes invention. Theatre in surprising places. Collaborations that allow new work to grow. Artists moving on to make way for new artists and new ideas. We have seen the blurring of the lines between dance, music, and theatre pioneered by the Joe Goode Performance Project, Life on the Water, Contraband, Jessica Hagedorn and Ntozake Shange and others, and nurtured forward by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, the CounterPULSE community of artists, and so many more.

It could be said that the quintessential American character is a character of the West. The setting is somewhere just over the horizon. Something is just about to happen. Something may be lost, but there is always possibility. A port city, San Francisco was founded in some ways so that people, stories, and stuff could come and go. Dreams could be chased. A place of connection, migration, and activism; San Francisco’s theatre mirrors its soul.

Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from in and around San Francisco's theatre community.

San Francisco Bay Area City


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Gorgeous & layered expression of that community's history, Deb! I'm coming-out there in June and now want to stay for an extra week to make sure I explore the work of these myriad brilliant companies. It's also great context as we put the finishing touches on the Twin Cities piece, coming-out here in a couple weeks. I love the illumination of the small & mid-sized companies that are producing such extraordinary work out there -- the tapestry of that community.

I love this home series, and am extra-gushy about the first installment being from my first theatre home, San Francisco. As I watch the slush melt in Providence this morning and contemplate all that my current town tackles and provides, your article brings me back to my earlier days of figuring out how to make plays, who I wanted to make them for and what forms they would take. San Francisco was the perfect place to learn to experiment without fear.

David, we miss you in the Bay for sure! Carey, your stories of San Francisco are beautiful. Hopefully this series prompts a rich and wild tapestry that reflects our Bay Area. Thank you Howlround for encouraging this dialogue!

How beautifully articulated, Deb! I love the idea of this series, Polly and David... I am always on the hunt for Bay Area stories and a way to bottle the feeling of living/working/being here... THANK YOU.

One of the great delights of being part of this whole Howlround community is the way ideas keep popping into the mix. I love this idea to focus on the cities as a series. This alongside the Artistic Home blog series makes me want to spend every minute here waiting for the next offering. And the community has such minds in it! Thanks for dreaming it up, journal team. And thank you, Deb, for getting the whole thing started. I woke up to this writing this morning, all the way on the other side of the country, and could smell your coffee and feel your fog. Like Tony B, I left some things there. Reading this piece in the waking-up daze of a holiday morning I could almost touch them.