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.

Theater Around The Internet: Ten Questions with Linda-Ruth Cardozo

A few months back, before we jumped on the general promotion band-wagon, Linda-Ruth started a Facebook page devoted to getting the word out about the Bay Area theater scene and all the crazy-wonderful stuff going on here. As a woman after our own hearts, how could we resist the chance to find out more about this local luminary?

So, in a nutshell, who are you and what do you do in the San Francisco Theater Scene?

I am an actor, as yet non-Union (I have some points toward AEA and that Taft Hartley thing but I don’t know how many. I should get on that.) and a drama teacher. I’m a Bay Area native, majored in Theatre/Liberal Studies at SFSU, and studied at ACT in the Certificate Program. I’ve been “doing theatre,” since I was 12. I had an agent for a while, and have done some film and commercial gigs. I just directed my first piece with adult actors since I was last in a directing class at State. It’s cool. I’d do it again.

Do you think we actually have a Theater Scene here?

There are many established theatres and theatre companies that are based here, so, yes, we have a “scene.” The Exit Theatre has the Fringe, there’s the Bay One Acts Festival, the Phoenix Theatre and Stage Werx, among many others. There are also newer companies, and actors that I see again and again.

In what ways are we building, or building up, the Scene and what do you think is working best?

Technology seems to contribute. There are so many changes since I was first taught, for example, how to do headshots. No more waiting weeks for that heavy package from that place in L.A. Now we just send off pic/resume–bling! Lois Tema, photographer extraordinaire (you might want to spell check that) was telling me about the transition she’s had to make. At the foundation of “the Scene” is the Stage. The Magic, Exit Theatres, the Pheonix, Theatre Rhinoceros, (and so on) have been around for a long time. And Stage Werx has gotten a new lease on life at the new space on Valencia. Building up, I think, is largely hard work, and sticking it out, as well as maintaining a sense of being part of a community. Theatre does not happen in a vacuum; we can’t do it unless we do it with other people, and that means appreciating the contributions of everyone involved. It’s teamwork.

Is there anything that isn’t working?

When I attend a show, the audience often seems to consist of, largely, other actors, family and friends. When I encourage “civilians” to see live theatre, they are discouraged by the cost of a ticket, unwilling to dish out the money for a show that’s not “guaranteed” to entertain them. There’s also the whole Equity issue. So many actors who want to stay in the Bay Area choose not to join Equity because they will not be working as much. (See Valerie Weak’s article on Theatre Bay Area website.) This hasn’t changed much from when I was in college and heard that actors in San Francisco generally “work for free.” There are so many talented performers who have to keep those day jobs, and that limits the time and energy they can use for the craft.

What groups or individuals do you think are contributing, and how, to the formation of a San Francisco Bay Area Theater Scene?

Ty McKenzie, owner of Stage Werx is really community minded; the performers and companies who work there represent the diversity of our city. Christina Augello brings us the Fringe Festival every year. The Playwrights’ Foundation and the Playwrights Center of SF are always bringing new, relevant works to the stage. Martin A David’s And-Still a Theatre Company is another group producing new pieces. And, of course, the Magic, Theatre Rhinoceros, Cutting Ball, Impact, and Shotgun, the Marsh, BRAVA and others are firmly established in the Bar Area theatre tradition.

What possessed you to create the Theatre SF Bay page on Facebook?

It was sort of an accident. I was getting confused with FB Friends and Invites and Likes and I had to find a way to organize them. I created a group to distinguish my theatre stuff from everything else; I just labeled it “Theatre.” I would look around, “Like” stuff, and then post it on my own page as reminders to myself. Then I had to categorized things further, so I grouped the local stuff and called it Theatre SF Bay. This way I wouldn’t send notices of my own shows to people in Cape Cod, Colorado and Scotland. Linda Ayers Frederick encouraged the new title by writing “Good idea, Linda-Ruth, more specific” and I realized other people were actually looking at what I posted. It seemed that there was a need for a place where theatre people could post about shows, auditions, ask around for certain props, and so forth. The positive feedback from friends gave me incentive to expand the group. I ran into William Hall and he told me to “keep it up.” So I did and I do.

It seems to be growing all the time- does that mean more or less work for you, and how does that affect your energy and time in regards to your own theater career?

I feel more connected to the theatre community. I’ve come to realize how much stuff is going on around me, and I’ve become involved in projects and made connections through the page. I hope others have as well. I would love members to post more often, since I worry about missing stuff, especially when I’m busy with rehearsals and don’t have as much time for FB.

So many shows are currently being promoted on your page- about what percentage do you personally make it out to see?

About 25%. So much talent, so little time.

Anything you know about that’s coming up you really want to recommend?

BOA for sure.

What are you doing next?


To find out more about Linda-Ruth, check out http://www.Linda-Ruth-Cardozo.com. And keep your eye on us as we continue to bring you deeper into the Bay Area’s small theater scene. Have a story you want to share, a profile to sketch or a production to promote? Let us know!