How the San Francisco Bay Area Affects the Playwrights who Live There
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.
I was born in San Francisco, raised north of it, went to the East Coast for college, and then moved into the city proper soon after graduating, thinking it would be a good first stop on the journey of the rest of my life. Eighteen plus years later, I’m still in the same apartment. I also got a swell partner, went to grad school, saw a lot of friends leave and others arrive, deepened roots, found artistic homes, and somehow became a working professional playwright. I’m pretty happy here.
Living in the Bay Area has inspired my work in both conscious and unconscious ways, and the choice to make it my home has been both a blessing and an obstacle in the building of my artistic life and professional theatre career. How, exactly, is a question I am just beginning to explore.
There are quite a number of playwrights (though not all use the term) living in the Bay Area—it seems to me more now than ever before. I was curious to learn how my fellow neighbor writers got here and how they view their current home. And so I reached out to a bunch of them and asked them a lot of questions, with the selfish hope they would help answer my own.
I think of the Bay Area as a place with long radical histories around social justice and environmental work. It feels activist-centric here, in a very smart and impactful way. I am moved and inspired by the interdisciplinary work that happens here, the public art, the vastness of music and dance that one can access here. —Sharon Bridgforth
Peter: What brought you to the Bay Area?
Andrew Saito (Bay Area on and off for nineteen years): College.
Amy Freed (twenty-five years): To study with Bill Ball at the ACT program as an actor.
Jon Bernson (twenty years): After college, I drove across the country with five friends, crammed into an apartment and started making it happen. “It” being subsistence farming.
Dipika Guha (eight months): My partner began a post-doc at UC Berkeley in Biology. It’s a five-year position so we decided to move out here together.
Mark Jackson (twenty-seven years, with absences): I grew up in Placerville, California, a very small town, and shot down to SF upon graduating high school. I’d loved the city since I was a kid and my folks would take me to see shows at the Orpheum or Curran.
Jonathan Spector (ten years): Came for love and weather and burritos.
Lauren Gunderson (seven years): I came here to work with Marin Theatre Company and stayed because it's gorgeous, fun, interesting, historical. And I met my husband.
Eugenie Chan (basically all her life): My family has been in San Francisco since the Gold Rush, so we are intensely part of this place. This landscape is my landscape.
Sharon Bridgforth (four years): I am a child of the Great African-American Migration. My parents are from Tennessee and Louisiana. I grew up in Los Angeles, but hadn’t lived in California since 1989. I had been feeling homesick for awhile. I missed living close to my family. I missed the California Beach and Sky. I missed the laid-backness of Cali, the weather and the landscape. Omi [Sharon’s wife] could not stand LA, but we both loved the queerness of San Francisco, the stunning nature that is in and surrounding the city, and I was very interested in the histories of African-American Migrations to San Francisco…specifically to the Western Addition (aka the Fillmore) and all the contributions that Black people made to the area…especially Jazz.
Peter: Describe your personal relationship with your existence here. Do you consider yourself a long timer? Itinerant? Drifting through?
Geetha Reddy (twenty-four years): A well-established transplant, like a Eucalyptus or a Ginko.
Andrew: I have left the Bay many times, and returned many times. Every time I leave I think it's for good, but then a great opportunity brings me back.
Mark: I guess I'm a “long timer” given I’ve been here a long time. I can’t say for certain how much longer, though.
Jonathan: I keep thinking that I'm new here, but I've now lived here longer than anywhere else. My wife is a native and never wants to leave, so we're probably here for the long haul.
Sharon: Parkside in San Francisco is an awesome neighborhood. We can walk to the Beach and to Golden Gate Park. There are still lots of elders and folks from the neighborhood that still live here, and an overall sense of respect for the cultures of the neighborhood by newer residents like us. But, overall in San Francisco, Omi and I feel that our sensibilities are assaulted on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the reality is that the aggressive, sinfully greedy displacement of not only Black people, but people of color, LGBT people, artists, and working and poor people has made San Francisco a hard place to live on every level. So we are planning on moving to the East Bay Area.
Garret Jon Groenveld (most of his life): I think I’m here for the long haul, particularly since if I left and gave up my apartment, I could never afford to move back. I’d like to try to live somewhere else, but it’s not realistic. My day job is also based here, and I’ve had it for a while, so it’s quite flexible for time off to do things when I need to—a production out of town, or a reading.
Jon: I consider myself a long time, itinerant, drifter. I've put down deep roots, feel incredibly attached to the Bay Area community, and yet I know that my life in the Bay Area is dependent on a twenty-year streak of luck. Fate has landed me an affordable apartment in SF and an affordable studio in Oakland, but fate is spread thin and usually overcommitted.
Peter: How would you describe the character of the Bay Area?
Geetha: Male, 23, Filipino, hopeful/ambitious. Cuffs his pants.
Jonathan: Progressive, self-absorbed and self-righteous but generally kind and with an eye towards social justice, teetering on the edge of the precipice (in terms of the spread of tech and tech money).
Eugenie: Open, culturally fluid, highly Asian. One out of three people in SF is not just Asian, but ethnically Chinese, like me.
Amy: When I first arrived, it still had a scruffy and anarchic kind of side. Wild beauty to my New York eyes—still kind of provincial (everything was dead after 10pm)—all kinds of messed up people. I loved it.
Anne Galjour (thirty-six years): When I moved here this city was the happening place. Leading edge, hanging out on a limb, performance community. There was a lot of experimentation. The solo performance community became my little tribe and there were and remain some incredible practitioners of the form.
Lauren: A peninsula of extremes. Extreme wealth next to extreme poverty. Extreme value of innovation along with extreme value of preservation. We are struggling with what to prioritize and who is "local." There are lots of new people (including myself) that want to claim all that is special about this area, and that tends to upset the true native Bay Area folks.
Andrew: A friend once wondered, “When did San Francisco go from being about food justice to gourmet everything?"
Garret: Some days it feels like the more broadly humanistic approach to life I sought by being here is vanishing. But it’s still there. You just have to look for it a little harder.
Jon: It feels as if our character is coming into question.
Peter: What is something you would describe as an emblematic “Bay Area” type of thing? Theatre related, or/and non-theatre related.
Andrew: Muir Woods. Lake Merritt. Burritos.
Mark: The tech industry. Greedy landlords. Readily accessible nature. Actual food.
Eugenie: Water on three sides of the SF peninsula. One of the sides being the Pacific Ocean. That's a very big deal. People who aren't from here like to touch these waters; people from here, as well. I live by the beach! There's something about this East-facing horizon of the West.
Jon: A strong tradition of being tradition-adverse. Experimental approaches, progressive thinking, and a belief in the importance of the arts.
Anne: This place really celebrates different cultures. These super, super sophisticated urbanites really ate up my Cajun stories (literally. In the early days I used to make red beans and rice as a hook to get folks in the door.) There is a wonderful spirit of zany fun. That still exists for me.
Geetha: I reject the use of “Bay Area” as a meaningful designation. It is too geographically and demographically segmented. From where I sit now a quarter mile to the right is an enclave of one of the wealthiest communities in the history of the world and a quarter mile to the left is a huge population of Cantonese-speaking people, mostly recent immigrants. Neither is really represented well on Bay Area stages to my knowledge. Nor are the Afghan and Indian communities in Fremont. Or the crab fisherman...you get my point.
Peter: Do you think there is an aesthetic, or aesthetics, to Bay Area theatre? How would you describe it/them? What would make a play a “Bay Area” play?
Andrew: Seems pretty diverse to me. Both in terms of style and content.
Jon: For every answer that comes to mind, I can think of reasons why I'm wrong. I can identify the aesthetics of various theatre companies, but not the region.
Amy: I certainly hope not. Sounds inward-looking and makes me think of a local clown-troupe. Or things involving invisible boxes. Or fertility rites.
Jonathan: I've thought about this a lot, and can't really find a thread, at least in terms of writing. There's a way in which even though we're a pretty small and tight-knit community, among the playwrights everybody's sort of doing their own thing aesthetically. And on the one hand this is great, but I also wish there could be more of a sense of their being a conversation between the work, in the way I often felt was the case with downtown theatre when I lived in NYC.
Mark: I don’t think there is one. This lack speaks to a failure of ours as a theatre community, which is a much longer, broader, exceedingly important conversation—one I wish we could have. But I don’t get the sense that many people here care to have that conversation, because aesthetics are not recognized as meaningful even though the explicit function of an aesthetic is to express a politic, a set of values and ethics. So when we talk about aesthetics we’re ultimately talking about intentions, and the values and ethics that drive them.
Lauren: I would say that Bay Area theatre is more head-centered than heart-centered. A lot of Bay Area theatre leaders in the new play sector seem to want very smart, intellectually adventurous, curious, thought-provoking work. This usually means plays that I would describe as edgy, biting, strange, intense, political, dark, challenging or unique. I would not usually describe these plays as emotional, moving, full of heart, sentimental, silly.
Eugenie: Something to do with the open landscape, literally, figuratively. Something about the expansiveness of the form, what's being explored within the play. Think Murray Mednick's Coyote Cycle, Sam Shepard's West-obsessed work, Octavio Solis's border crossing plays. Or the sample of genre and mind-bending, expansive work of my peers from 6NewPlays, a collective of producing Bay Area playwrights, (thank you, 13P!). These writers work with meta-theatrics, sound, politics, visuals, costumes as language, and place in their plays.
Garret: There’s a lot of social justice plays, some of them are very interesting and innovative and very well done. But there is a lot of preaching to the well-educated, socially aware choir—but I get that—because the choir is very supportive, and the bills have to get paid.
Peter: How, if at all, has living in the Bay Area has affected what you write about thematically?
Lauren: I probably make more jokes about fancy coffees more living here.
Andrew: I'm increasingly aware of economic disparities.
Mark: I feel lucky to live in a place where the conversations around gender, race, and class are kept hot and on the table. I know this continues to influence my choices.
Anne: I'm writing a politically charged play right now.
Amy: I'd guess most of us SF writers feel ourselves to be in artistic exile in terms of locale—and so our agents remind us. Being in exile infects me with a certain degree of fantasy and resentment, which I attempt to manage by writing extremely self-contained and grandiose universes.
Eugenie: Being born, raised, and living in the Bay Area has everything to do with my writing. I write about the little-known stories of the American West. I mean that in the broadest and the most focused sense. Some of my plays feature women rooted in the West. Right now, I'm focused on the stories of Chinese in the American West, specifically looking at the social history of California through the lens of my family's 150-plus years on the West Coast, from the Arizona desert to the Oregon's Stumptown to the brothels in San Francisco's Barbary Coast Chinatown. The vice and virtue that makes this place what it is. I'm writing and producing plays about people from and in this part of the country. A change-making West that still agitates today.
What's even better for me as an artist right now, is that the Chinese Americans that are at center in these plays are a critical part of the audience and process. People have been reaching out with feedback, issues, quandaries and feelings about Chinese in the American West—from the way theatres cast Asians, to the thorny history of Chinese immigration, to ideas for new plays. I can't tell you how meaningful and exciting it is to be able to have these conversations with people. These are the real stakeholders.
Jon: I've written songs about my years of living on 24th Street in the Mission, before the neighborhood became gentrified. Those songs were very reactive, a way to process immediate experiences, which is something that suits songwriting more than plays, in my opinion. Now that I can look back and see my life in the Mission as a discrete chapter, ideas for a play have started to emerge, so I will get back to you about this question in a few more years.
Dipika: Before I moved here several months ago, I received a Crossroads commission from South Coast Rep. I found myself thinking very specifically about California and the twin impulses to move here for gold and peace. Yoga proved to be emblematic of the tension I had been feeling here between the deep desire for happiness and peace and the simultaneous commodification of the process. Questions about cultural appropriation and authenticity that show up in my work, crystallised this time around the idea of yoga. And this led to my latest play, Yoga Play, a comedy about yoga and the business of peace.
The economics of Bay Area real estate is taking a wrecking ball to the artist. If you're young and good, you leave. If you're getting older, it doesn't get easier. So I'd characterize the culture as talented artists and producers trying against the tides to stretch a distressed net. —Amy Freed
Peter: How, if at all, has living in the Bay Area has affected what you write about formally and/or aesthetically?
Mark: Certainly, growing up in California and having ready access to the beauty, the danger, the overall power of nature, has impacted my writing both substantively and formally.
Jon: Bay Area culture has encouraged me to experiment and challenge many of my fundamental assumptions about life and art. In recent years, it has merely challenged me, but I will take what I can get. It certainly prevents me from forming anything resembling a comfort zone.
Eugenie: I feel free to take a lot of chances with the work. To go beyond naturalism, beyond what a "play" is.
Amy: Training here in San Francisco with Bill Ball and Alan Fletcher affected me profoundly in that it gave me an immersion in the real disciplines of theatre formally. I got to see a theatrical institution that had high-classical aspects in its vision. In its sunset years it had madness, beauty, and dissolution. The pain of failure and the beauty of the attempt are themes that are deep in my work, still.
Andrew: Well, the presence of Cutting Ball and Rob Melrose has affected my writing tremendously. My best play yet, Mount Misery, would remain unwritten if not for Rob's interest and commitment.
Garret: I think I’m more affected formally by my coming to theatre through poetry, the form influencing the content, and the content informing the form. Thus, all the plays I write are very different from each other formally and aesthetically.
Dipika: I’m a formalist and love the opportunity to write in new forms. Yoga Play is very different from all my other work because this time I set out to write as clear and linear a narrative as possible. My hope is a tight structure might create a productive tension with the play’s themes and the sense of a more cosmic or eternal time.
Lauren: More than changing my aesthetic it has helped be see my aesthetic in relief. I write plays that usually make you want to laugh or cry, and this was something about myself I didn't quite realize until coming to a city that really wanted plays that make you think, wince, or ask "what did you think the play was about?" It's a wonderful inspiration to meet a lot of theatre that I would never write (not because I don't appreciate it but because that's not my artistic instinct). It makes me excited to go to the theatre here.
Peter: How does the title “Playwright” (or theatremaker) fit in your life in the Bay Area?
Andrew: It's been what I've been doing primarily for over three years. But that makes it hard to afford to live here.
Mark: I want to make theatre with people, in a variety of ways, to constantly stir it up so I don’t get stagnant as a person or artist. I’ve been told that my hybrid nature may actually have held me back in certain respects, that since we live in a society that privileges specialists I might be seen as neither fully this nor fully that. I’m not sure what I can do about that, but it’s interesting to think about. I like the variety, anyway, and find it fruitful, even if those who want to put people in boxes don’t know which to put me in.
Lauren: I usually say "writer" when first introducing myself, which is kind of unnecessarily coy as it always begs the question "what kind." But I find myself in conversations with a lot of people who can and want to talk about writing and story in a more general sense.
Garret: I think most people don’t understand what I do. Many people don’t know that new plays are still being written, or that I’m just waiting to write something for TV or film.
Amy: Never used either term about myself. It's like a month-to-month lease. The official term for a "playwright" with unproduced or unloved work (a frequent condition) is "basket-case."
Dipika: I feel like I’ve had an artistic growth spurt since moving to the Bay Area and it’s not something I’m taking for granted.
Over the course of the last several months I’ve worked on four different plays here and written one new one. I’ve been able to concentrate deeply and work fast here because of the trust, time and resources that theatres and theatre makers in the bay area have put into my plays. I have found artists and artistic directors here to be deeply engaged, ready to take risks and to embark on true unknown territory both in terms of form and content. The Bay Area has extraordinary new play advocates who work tirelessly for playwrights and theatremakers.
Sharon: I’ve been a self-employed touring artist since 1998 and have long term ongoing relationships with many communities, individuals and institutions around the country, but for me coming to California was always about coming home, so I focused on being with my family vs. art making in Cali. Now, I very much want to work here, to be a part of things here. I am in the process of discovery around what that might look like. I think of the Bay Area as a place with long radical histories around social justice and environmental work. It feels activist-centric here, in a very smart and impactful way. I am moved and inspired by the interdisciplinary work that happens here, the public art, the vastness of music and dance that one can access here.
Peter: How would you characterize the culture of theatre in the Bay Area? How does it feel different from other places you’ve spent time in or lived in?
Dipika: The Bay Area theatre community feels like a real community. There’s absolutely a community in New York but it feels scattered and disparate because it’s so much bigger. I’ve also felt a great deal of enthusiasm for new work here.
Lauren: Bay Area theatre is a community of productions as opposed to readings and workshops. I have found the companies often trust their playmakers to make the plays, put them up, stage them. This is probably the only town that, in some cases, I would want more workshopping and development for some projects.
Jon: There is a sense that the ability to define our identity as a theatre community may lie ahead, not behind.
Mark: The Bay Area theatre culture is laid back, friendly, not terribly ambitious, has a problematic provincial complex (worships and hates NYC). Lots of mixed messages here. But also there is a lot of genuine warmth and generosity here. One theatre company can call another to ask to borrow stuff and people help each other out.
I have a hard time imagining a more supportive and flexible artistic home than The Shotgun Players, for example. To my mind, Shotgun exhibits some of the best potentials of the “Bay Area character”—conscious of community not as a buzz word but as an actual thing, locally-oriented and yet still interested in the outside world, consistently striving to innovate, fails miserably and gets back up, succeeds mightily and doesn’t sit back, understands the world doesn't owe or guarantee us a damn thing and that it takes difference to make a difference.
Jonathan: Theatre ecologies are very complicated things, and so it’s really hard to account for why things are the way they are. A couple things that I think are big factors:
- There's no showcase-type equity code and the first three or four tiers of equity contracts are twenty-hour weeks. This has a big impact in how the work gets made.
- We're very diffuse geographically. Artists commute to Marin or San Jose for shows. For one thing, I think this creates a culture where people are less inclined to have a drink after a show.
- In the last year, multiple actors I know moved to New York because it's cheaper.
Relatively few people move to the Bay Area primarily to do theatre. Most people I know are either from here or moved here for other reasons. People are here for the weather and the food and the scenery and the hiking and the culture. All of which means people are very aware of their overall quality of life, not just with making theatre. This is almost certainly a good and healthy thing, but it can also mean there's sometimes a little less fire-in-the-belly than you may find in other places.
Garret: I would say the Bay Area theatre scene is one of scarcity—so many companies cannot afford to keep going. Real estate is the most expensive in the country. There are some excellent risk takers but there’s just a dearth of space.
Further, there is pressure from the top down, the larger theatres have such large endowments—they start second or third spaces that can suck up resources from more independent companies. This does seem to stifle innovation and taking chances, particularly as the larger theatres do not, in general, produce or develop local writers (at least to the point that make it to their stages).
Amy: As we are all well aware, the economics of Bay Area real estate is taking a wrecking ball to the artist. If you're young and good, you leave. If you're getting older, it doesn't get easier. So I'd characterize the culture as talented artists and producers trying against the tides to stretch a distressed net.
Peter: How do theatre scene outside of the Bay Area factor in your life? Do you live here but practice more art elsewhere?
Andrew: I put a good amount of time developing relationships with theatremakers around the country. I have a strong national network. I also love theatre from other countries. Peru, Germany, and Poland have the best, as far as I'm concerned.
MJ: German theatre really opened up my understanding of the breadth of what’s possible in theatre overall. Russian actors blow my mind with their breadth of skill and deep respect for acting. Seeing theatre from all over the world, literally from every continent, in the context of Central and Eastern European festivals has been very impactful. The time I spent in Japan was very influential. All these experiences help me understand what is American about me as a person and artist.
Lauren: I work in a lot of cities but am most involved in my Bay Area productions. I like to think that all my plays start here as my local developmental resources and cohort of key actors are always first to see/hear my work.
Anne: I have a fan base in another region. But more and more, the work is centered here.
Garret: I work quite a bit outside of the bay. I’ve had as many readings and workshops of plays in New York and more productions internationally in the last five years than in the Bay. It was hard won, though.
Amy: Currently, in love with Portland, Oregon, which did the first production of a play I'd been trying to place for five years. And just did a first public reading in Portland of another play. That city reminds me of my early theatre days—there's a sense of community there without it feeling small-town.
Dipika: There’s lots of travelling and not a lot of down time in between seeding plays and projects and following others through to fruition. All I’m trying to do is to follow the work, find joy in the process with my collaborators and to keep close to my instincts and curiosity. When I wonder about the sanity of all of this, I look around and find that I run into people from New York in San Francisco and Seattle and Costa Mesa-that we’re all running around making work with each other and supporting each other in whatever way we can. Taking work in other places and collaborating with students at Yale has been my primary source of income this year-so taking work on the east coast been important for me financially.
Peter: In terms of career, do you like living in a place that isn’t necessarily considered a magnet theatre destination? Do you care? Any pros and cons you’ve noticed. Do you feel you have an artistic home here?
Lauren: I think the Bay Area is really an under-appreciated theatre town. There are tons of theatre companies here, there are LORT companies and Broadway-transferring companies, there are world-class writers and actors here, there are major theatre prizes and productions originating here. I feel like it is definitely my artistic home and one I brag about proudly everywhere I go. Of course it's not NYC, but for a writer at least, it doesn't need to be to support and launch a career. There is a thirst for new plays, a diversity of companies, and a general respect for local artists. The major issue for this area is the cost of living is not a reality for many artists.
Eugenie: I feel that I have a big artistic home here. It's a close-knit community with a lot of sharing of resources and talent. It still vexes me that the Bay Area isn't seen as a theatre destination because there's so much interesting performance here—theatre, dance theatre, multi media, and more. What vexes me more—Bay Areans who don't value the art that's made here!
Jonathan: If you want to have a sustainable career as a playwright, you need to have a national career. It's very, very hard to launch a career if you're not based out of New York. That said, an impressive number of people who live here are doing just that. So that's a reason for optimism. And I'm a big believer in the “rising tide lifts all boats.”
Jon: For many years, I didn't care, mostly because the environment was so fertile for creativity. As I feel that come into the crosshairs, I have come to wonder what advantages the Bay Area provides. I am invested in my community and collaborators above all, but as they move to New York, Los Angeles, and other places that are either more affordable or enjoy more vibrant artistic support, I have to take these feelings seriously and take stock. For the moment, I am committed to staying, but I'm not going to stay out of blind loyalty either. We shall see.
Anne: When I started out you could cobble together a living here as a straight up writer/performer. That's not my experience of the field any more.
Garret: It’s tough—but I feel like the living itself here is quite nice.
Peter: What keeps you here?
Amy: My husband's work, my very meaningful work at Stanford University, the raccoons, the cold nights, and the fog.
Andrew: Friends and my martial arts teacher keep me here. Cost of living and opportunity cost make me want to leave.
Mark: Friends I’ve had for years, and rent control. Ideally I’ll spend half the year here and half somewhere else—New York or Berlin or the UK. Workin’ on it.
Lauren: It's a wild town to be in at this point in history. And it's a privilege to be here, I know that.
Anne: I love San Francisco!