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.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Revolutions Don’t Start in Gilded Halls

Claire Rice can hear the people sing.

El Teatro de la Esperansa occupied a small corner of the Red Stone Building on 16th Street between South Van Ness and Mission. The Redstone is full of non-profit organizations that fall around every end of the spectrum; from social change organizations to arts organizations to support groups to animal welfare. There is also a wonderful empanada place on the ground level. The Red Stone also housed Theatre Rhinoceros and Luna Sea Theatre, both of which lay follow now.

I spent more than six years working in El Teatro de la Esperansa.

It was moldy. It was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. It’s walls were too thin, the music from the art gallery below was too loud, and it’s equipment was old and grumpy. The booth was like a tree house that had to be climbed into through a small hole. Everything smelled weird. The risers were so worn they groaned in pain. There were never enough lights. The speakers were blown. The doorways were too short for tall people and too narrow for wheel chairs. The building owner’s son would throw illegal midnight raves in the space next door. Squatters complained that the rehearsals were too loud. The landlord was never available. And the bathrooms were definitely haunted.

I had some of the best times of my life in that building.

The little black box got its name from the company that built it. El Teatro de la Esperansa was founded in part by Roderigo Duarte Clark in LA and then moved up to San Francisco. Roderigo was a leader in Chicano theatre. El Teatro de la Esperansa produced bilingual touring shows and fostered playwrights like Josefina Lopez, Roy Conboy and Guillermo Reyes. You can read more about Roderigo here: http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977239022 and here: http://articles.latimes.com/1993-10-12/entertainment/ca-45067_1_el-teatro-campesino

Roy Conboy, a faculty member in the SF State Creative Writing Program, brought Greenhouse to that little theatre in the Mission. Greenhouse gives graduate students at SF State an opportunity to work with professional directors and actors to present new plays in reading. It was through this program I saw the first readings of plays by Karen Macklin, Chris Chen, Elizabeth Gjelten, Peter Sinn Natchtrieb, and Elizabeth Creely (among many others). I worked with Roy Conboy to produce several of his plays there. After I graduated, Gabrielle Gomez and I rented the theatre and produced three plays (by Gabrielle Gomez, Megan O’Patry and myself) as well as a reading series. I saw plays evolve there and find their feet. I saw writers fail, struggle and get back up and work again. I saw writers find their voices.

It’s in places like this where it all begins. Ugly, dangerous places. These dark corners of the world are romantic in the rear view, even if they feel frustratingly small and ignored at the time. But there is so much freedom in places where the rent is cheap and no one is really watching what you are doing. In these dark corners you are beholden to no one but yourself. Any audience you get is a gift, because they had to work so hard to get to your out of the way and mean little home. You do things that are crazy because there isn’t anyone to tell you that you can’t or you shouldn’t. And it doesn’t always work. So often it fails. And it fails like a supernova because you learn by doing. Slowly. Painfully. Beautifully.

These dark corners of the world incubate.

And it is so wonderful.

Go out and adopt a theatre like this. Every company in that theatre will have a weird name. They’ll fuck and fight and die out. They’ll sing and celebrate and move out. They’ll laugh and cringe and dance out. They’ll grind and shake and rock out. They’ll come and go as they age and change and improve.

Go out and adopt a theatre like this. A small, poorly funded, off the beaten track theatre. Places where you can be the first to see something. That “something” is the next thing. The thing that will in ten, twenty or thirty years be at Berkeley Rep, Steppenwolf, or The Public. The thing that will change the world. I don’t know what it will be. It’s an adventure. It’s a failure. It’s a triumph. It is mediocre. It is sloppy. It is lazy. It is powerful. It is life affirming. It is a good night out. It is a bad date night. It is unsterilized, it still has all its sexual organs, it might have a splash zone, it will be full of naked men and it will monologue too much. It will have an out of tune piano that will play the most beautiful song you’ll never hear again. It will have a puppet that offends you so much you tell your grandchildren about it. It will have Shakespeare, Shaw, Shepard and every other “S” playwright. It will have no name, no name, no name and you’ll still love it. You’ll be the only person in the house and you’ll be standing in the back for three hours and loving it. You’ll be afraid to use the bathroom and you’re bike will get stolen. You’ll fall in love with the lead actress and you’ll party with the stage manager. You’ll grin like a mad man and cry like a motherless child. It’ll be your classroom and your torture chamber. It is a story you’ll tell your friends. It’s the thing you always wanted to do and now you’re doing it. You found it. It’s yours. It’s your special place.

Go out and adopt a theatre like this.

Mojo Theatre currently resides in this space. You can check them out on their website at http://www.mojotheatre.com/.

If you know a theatre like this, where ever it may be, please let us all know in the comments below.