Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: It’s Not Locavore Theater if the Recipe’s From New York

Marissa Skudlarek undergoes a rite of passage for any Bay Area theater blogger: writing a “What’s the Matter with ACT” column.

Last Saturday (which also happened to be my birthday), we Theater Pub writers met at Café Flore for our semi-annual Blogger Conclave. We drank mimosas, patted ourselves on the back for having completed another successful half-year of blogging, and expressed gratitude to our readers for being interested in what we have to say.

We also decided that, from now to the end of 2014, the blog will tackle a new theme or subject each month. For July, we were inspired by the Independence Day holiday to think about the organizations and institutions that “govern” the local and national theater scene. Claire‘s and Ashley‘s posts on Theatre Bay Area started us off… you may also see posts about institutions like Actors’ Equity or the Dramatists’ Guild later this month.

American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco’s wealthy flagship regional theater, may not be a “governing” institution like the aforementioned, but it’s big and it’s powerful and it exerts a disproportionate influence. And like Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the colonists*, I’ve got some grievances about this Big Powerful Thing to get off my chest.

(I should note that ACT began its 2013-14 season with a production of 1776 that proved controversial once people realized that the season contained just one female writer (Marie-Hélène Estienne, co-adaptor of The Suit) and that 1776 is a disproportionately male-heavy musical: ACT’s production featured 24 male and 2 female actors.)

So, at the blogger brunch, as inevitably happens when a bunch of smart and disgruntled indie-theater folks gather over drinks, we got to complaining about ACT. How it feels so inaccessible and cut off from the wider currents of Bay Area theater-making. How it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the depth of acting, writing, and directing talent based here in the Bay. And I realized that I couldn’t even remember the last time ACT produced a play by a local playwright. I posed the question to my friends at brunch, but we were all stumped.

So I went to ACT’s website and reviewed their production history, whereupon I made the astonishing discovery:

The only local playwright that ACT has produced on their mainstage** in the last seven seasons is their artistic director, Carey Perloff, herself.

ACT produced Perloff’s drama, Higher, in 2012. Prior to that, its most recent production by a Bay Area playwright was After the War, by Philip Kan Gotanda, in spring 2007. It has no Bay Area playwrights in its upcoming season; and by my count, only 2 of the 10 artists it has under commission (Gotanda and Sean San José) are Bay Area residents.

To put this in perspective, I have lived in San Francisco for six theater seasons, and, in all this time, my city’s most well-funded theater, the one most known to and attended by people who don’t consider themselves “theater people,” has not produced a single play by a Bay Area resident. Aside from their own Artistic Director, of course.

To be fair, ACT has produced some Bay Area-themed plays in the last six seasons. It premiered an ambitious musical-comedy adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books – but the writers and many of the stars of that show came from New York. It presented the autobiographical one-man show Humor Abuse, in which Lorenzo Pisoni reminisces about growing up in S.F.’s Pickle Family Circus – but Pisoni is now a New York-based actor, and ACT basically imported his show wholesale from NYC. Perloff and local choreographer Val Caniparoli worked together to create The Tosca Project, a dance-theater piece about the history of the Tosca Café in North Beach – but that wasn’t a play in the traditional sense, and besides, it still makes Perloff the only local writer to get her plays produced on ACT’s mainstage. I should also note, in the interests of fairness, that ACT has commissioned local writers like Peter Sinn Nachtrieb to write plays for its MFA acting students.

It’s pretty galling that ACT ignores local playwrights to such an extent. But most galling of all is the way that the company thinks it is connected to the local theater scene, despite such evidence to the contrary. In 2011, after Tales of the City premiered, Perloff wrote an essay for the Huffington Post describing how this production was an example of what she calls “locavore theater,” “creatively embracing that which is grown and nourished in our own backyards.” She made a lot of high-minded, earnest-sounding points — audiences want to see stories that they feel connected to; a theater can succeed only if it is deeply rooted in its community — while importing the show’s writers and stars from across the country.

Perloff concludes her essay by writing, “Perhaps audiences can be encouraged to revel in vigorous and delicious work that is nurtured closer to home. It might be an experiment worth taking.” Yes, Carey, perhaps they could. In fact, many theater companies in the Bay Area meet with success by doing just that. But will you, and your organization, be brave enough to rise to your own challenge?

*Freudian slip: I initially typed “columnists” instead of “colonists.” True story.

**N.B.: Higher is listed on ACT’s website as a mainstage show, but it was not actually included in subscription packages and was performed in the smaller Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, not in ACT’s flagship proscenium space. Which either heightens or obscures my point.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her play Pleiades, featuring nine local actors and a local director, opens at the Phoenix Theater this August. For more, visit pleiadessf.wordpress.com.

15 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: It’s Not Locavore Theater if the Recipe’s From New York

  1. Rob ready says:

    Go get ’em girl!!!

  2. “I have lived in San Francisco for six theater seasons…” INow there’s something you din’t hear everyday.

    My high school drama class used to take us to shows at ACT. In addition to the usual bland shows (eg. TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT), I had one of my defining youthful theatre experiences when I saw the all-Black cast of the world premiere of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS. One of the actresses in that cast would later be my college theatre instructor and I would later work with one of the actors on a developmental workshop reading of a Marcus Gardley play. Said workshop was for the ACT. It was my first non-academic theatre job.

    So the ACT has been instrumental in my desire to work in theatre. BUT… the ACT’s shows have left a lot to be desired. The quality had gone down so much that I’ve only seen two shows in the padt five years. And the less said of those two shows -PHAEDRE and STUCK ELEVATOR – the better. To say nothing of their outsourcing talent. So yes, it rings hypocritical when the Bay’s most high-profile theatre rarely-if-ever does Bay Area work.

    After reading this piece, I got an e-mail from Bigger than a Breadbox announcing their new residency at The EXIT. Now there’s a theatre that actually does what the ACT claims: provide a home and developmental ground for local performers, new and seasoned. My next major performance job after the ACT workshop was an EXIT-sponsored production of a British show. I imagine The EXIT’s Tenderloin address (amongst other things) keeps it from achieving ACT’s national acclaim, but that very thing also keeps it grounded.

    I’d love for the ACT to be the nourishing place I knew in my youth – hell, maybe it is for someone ekse. But if, with all their resources, they had a fraction of the variety of The EXIT, Stage Werx, or the upcoming PianoFight space, then they probably wouldn’t be so hard-pressed to connect with local audiences. Their only problem would be turning people away.

    • I’ve definitely seen some dire shows at ACT but I’ve also seen some pretty good ones… and I’m looking forward to at least two shows in their upcoming season: INDIAN INK and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Those are both “modern-classics” by writers I admire (Stoppard and Sondheim) and I do appreciate that part of ACT’s mission is to produce those kinds of plays. But would it kill them to be a little more connected to the local community, both when it comes to casting and when it comes to commissioning/selecting new work?

  3. On Facebook, a friend asked me about the track record of other major Bay Area theaters (she mentioned Berkeley Rep and TheatreWorks) when it comes to producing local writers. I took a look at their production histories and Berkeley Rep honestly isn’t much better than ACT, though they did produce an Amy Freed play in 2009 and Jonathan Moscone’s play a few years later. TheatreWorks produced a Lauren Gunderson play this past winter, although other recent seasons don’t always contain a local writer. (Idea for a possible follow-up article: among my crowd, why do we tend to love Berkeley Rep and hate ACT, even though they actually program their seasons in quite similar ways?)

    As I said in my comment above, I appreciate that these theaters have a mission to program a wide variety of shows, both classics and new works. But I’d love to see each of them consistently program 1 or 2 local playwrights per season.

    • Maybe because the Rep has air of accessibility the ACT lacks?

      As an actor, auditioning for the Rep is easy. Even not getting cast, you’re still considered for understudy work. I know folks who have worked there and a few that do now. Plus the whole vibe of going to see a show there isn’t one too snobby.

      No one knows how to audition for the ACT; other than their outsourcing talent, how foes someone non-AEA even get seen? And ACT has an air of “I need to put on my fsncy out-on-town duds to see a show there.” I’veknown folks who’ve worked there and for SHN, yet the latter has always been more inviting in terms of who comes to see its shows.

      Not saying Rep shows are better (though they did bring us PASSING STRANGE, a personal favourite and one of the best musicals of the past 20 years), just that I don’t feel like I’m crashing some restricted blue-blood shindig when I’m there.

      • That’s probably true. I have several friends who’ve understudied for Berkeley Rep, but not at ACT. It’s similar for playwrights: anyone can apply for Berkeley Rep’s “Ground Floor” new-works development program, but no one knows how to send a script to ACT. Berkeley Rep also has the awesome “half-price tickets if you’re under 30, no matter what” deal that ACT lacks. And I agree that the overall atmosphere there is a little more relaxed: it’s bourgeois, but it’s not blue-blood.

  4. Allison says:

    These are the reasons I don’t pay much attention to ACT – we’re really not represented there.

    • sftheaterpub says:

      Stuart here: Well, and I think that as far as their MainStage productions go, though it would be nice if they did at least one production a year by a local writer, and more productions in general directed, designed, and performed by local talent, there is a lot to be said for also being a company that brings important non-local artists here and provides them a chance to work in the Bay Area and bring their perspectives and experience. One of the purposes of the regional theater system was to create more intermingling and cross-pollination- the problem is, in order to truly cross-pollinate you need to have cultivated a garden yourself, and that’s where ACT tends to drop the ball. Their local presence in the local arts community leaves something to be desired.

  5. Eileen Tull says:

    I think this is an important and brave piece, Marissa. ACT has that famous history where it was “shopped around” to several different cities and Bill Ball finally settled on San Francisco. But they’re so disconnected from the artistic community, they could be anywhere. There’s nothing intrinsically “Bay Area” about them to me.

    Does ACT offer any kind of playwright incubator program (ala Ground Floor, First Look at Steppenwolf, etc). I understand the impulse to grab the hot NYC play right away and stick it on the mainstage, but surely there are other ways to nurture voices in the community.

    I just feel like that’s a responsibility as one of the biggest arts organizations in town.

    • Thanks, Eileen. Good point about how ACT was not conceived as an intrinsically “Bay Area” company, but as a classical repertory theater — which suggests that if ACT does want to shift their mission to be more local, they will need to shift their whole institutional culture. And far as I can tell, ACT doesn’t have any kind of playwright incubator.

  6. jonathan says:

    To devil’s advocate a bit, if there was an award for “most improved” in the category of big theater’s local engagement, ACT would deserve a nod for the Costume Shop. Giving away a space for free to smaller companies is a pretty awesome way to support your community (even if that grant money has come to an end). I too am not a big fan of many of the programming choices (though the fact they’re doing Mr. Burns next year is amazing and awesome), but it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the new space, which is ostensibly there to be able to do riskier programming (kicking off with Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is certainly a good sign).

    Also, a point of order about casting engagement. My understanding is that part of the reason that Berkeley Rep sees a lot more local people is that they have to cast unpaid non-eq understudies for all their shows, so they are constantly on the look-out for good new non-union people. Because ACT is LORT A, understudies are on the same contract as everyone else in the cast, so it’s a whole different ball game casting-wise. Which is not too say they shouldn’t be seeing more people and casting more roles locally, it’s just that it’s kind of an apples and oranges situation.

    • Thanks for being the devil’s advocate. I didn’t know that about LORT requirements being different for ACT and Berkeley Rep, and I bet a lot of other people didn’t, either.

      And yes, the Costume Shop does show a move toward further engagement and it’s pretty cool to christen a new theater with a production of the new Caryl Churchill play. I still think people might not be seeing much of a nexus between the Costume Shop and ACT’s other programming, though? Like, they manage the space, but there doesn’t seem to be a pipeline between it and the rest of ACT.

  7. […] ago, I’d never have written that piece I wrote for Theater Pub recently, pointing out that ACT hasn’t produced a local playwright in 7 years apart from their own AD. I would have been too afraid of getting on Carey […]

  8. […] for audiences, there is a growing trend of hiring actors from outside the Bay Area as noted in the San Francisco Theater Pub. Pelczar jokes, “There is a joke at Berkeley Rep that you can’t get a job there until you’ve […]

  9. […] the ACT’s place as THE big theatre of San Francisco (if not the West Coast). But it also brought a considerable amount of criticism: Perloff has often been accused of favoring LA and New York talent, despite trumpeting herself as a […]

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