Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: The Van Ness Avenue Problem

Marissa Skudlarek continues her semi-monthly column on life and times in the Bay Area theater scene. Have your own story to tell? Let us know! We’re working towards having something new on the SF Theater Pub blog EVERY DAY, but we can’t do it without you! 

When I studied in Paris five years ago, I lived with a host family in the 16th arrondissement, a neighborhood that represented the best of walkable, cultured urbanism. A Metro station next door. A boulangerie two blocks away. And, most impressive of all, a theater down the street.

I had never before lived on the same block as a theater, and I doubt I ever will again.  Theaters in San Francisco – as in many American cities – do not tend to be located in the neighborhoods where I wish to live. Typically, urban American theaters fall into two distinct types:

  • Big institutional theaters, located in a “theater district” in the city center – here, Union Square
  • Small black box theaters, located in neglected neighborhoods – here, the Tenderloin

This division is a bit more complicated in San Francisco than elsewhere, as our city’s odd geography means that Union Square and the Tenderloin lie cheek by jowl and merge into one another – but let’s not get into that.

San Francisco theaters, therefore, cluster into just a few neighborhoods of our large and diverse city. I like to call this unequal geographic distribution  “the Van Ness Avenue problem.” As I see it, a line runs north-south and divides the city: east of the line, there are theaters; west of the line, there aren’t. And this line is located roughly at Van Ness Avenue. While you can quibble with my exact terminology (I can think of a few theaters located one or two blocks west of Van Ness, such as Custom Made on Gough Street or Stage Werx on Valencia Street), the point stands: close to 100% of the theaters in San Francisco are located in the eastern 30% of the city.

In practical terms, this means that the neighborhoods where artists live are often different from the neighborhoods where they make theater. I live in the Inner Sunset, as do many other stalwarts of the San Francisco independent theater scene – when coming home from theater events, I rarely lack for “MUNI buddies” to ride the N-Judah with me.  In the Inner Sunset, we have our boulangeries (shout-out to Arizmendi and Tart to Tart), we have transit connectivity, we have doctors’ offices and retail stores and an astounding number of restaurants. But we don’t have a theater. And this same pattern holds for many of the most lively and livable neighborhoods in San Francisco: the Haight, the Inner Richmond, the Castro. Neighborhoods like these are seemingly New Urbanist paradises, equipped with every amenity – except for a local theater.

What’s true for the artists is true for our audience as well. The challenge of getting people to come see theater is not merely convincing them that a certain show is worth their time and money. More than that, we must convince them to venture into some of the city’s most dilapidated areas. While the Tenderloin is easy to get to, it’s not very hospitable for theatergoers; for instance, it’s difficult to find a restaurant to dine at before the show. (I’ve been known to suggest dining at the Westfield Mall cafeteria, for lack of a better option.) And while we know that you won’t get robbed if you go to the Tenderloin, many other San Franciscans have a hard time believing that. Moreover, if you’re a woman, you won’t get robbed, but you’ll probably get catcalled.

Because the theaters where we work are often located on obscure streets in run-down areas, we also cannot take good advantage of foot traffic or spillover from other popular venues in the neighborhood. A theater on a main thoroughfare like Divisadero or Haight would be seen by thousands of people who stroll the street daily, plus the thousands more who travel down it by bus. Contrast that with a typical Tenderloin theater, the Boxcar – located on an alley off of a seedy part of 6th Street, it’s easy to overlook. I fear that by not catering to foot traffic, we ignore an important source of new audience members.

Theater Pub at the Café Royale avoids some of these pitfalls. Yes, it’s east of Van Ness, and on the map it might look like it’s in the Tenderloin, but it’s really in the quieter and more residential “Tendernob.” It does get foot traffic, and the big plate-glass windows of the Café Royale mean that passers-by can peer inside and wonder what’s going on. Several patrons have joined us for a show after spotting us from the street!

An example of the type of theater that I envision for San Francisco’s central and western neighborhoods is Thick House, on Potrero Hill. It’s a 100-seat proscenium stage, located in a nice mixed-use neighborhood, close to shops and restaurants. Because Thick House is one of the few small theaters that’s not in the Tenderloin, it’s a favorite of institutions like Playwrights Foundation and PlayGround. If a neighborhood like Potrero Hill can support Thick House, couldn’t a neighborhood like the Richmond or the Sunset support a small theater?

I don’t pretend that it will be easy to alleviate “the Van Ness problem” and open new theaters in different neighborhoods of San Francisco. I know that theater is not a moneymaking industry, that the Tenderloin offers cheap rent, that theaters require specific facilities and you can’t just open up a theater in any building. I know we’re in a recession and all businesses are struggling. Think of the late, lamented Red Vic Movie House, which had a great location on Haight Street and closed last summer after 30 years in business.

Nonetheless, I think it’s worth asking why we must go east of Van Ness Avenue if we want to see a show. Will I ever see a theater marquee lit up on Irving Street?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.