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Is the Bay Area Known for Its Theater Scene? Depends on Who You Ask

Bay Curious listener Alan Kline loves theater. He grew up in Richmond and would often go to shows at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre with his family. Kline was a theater major and now works as a national arts consultant.

Before the pandemic he’d go see a show about once a week, favoring smaller theater companies like Shotgun Players, Golden Thread, Crowded Fire and Theatre of Yugen.

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“You start to see the same faces at everything,” he said. “So I think there definitely is some insularness to audiences in the Bay Area.”

He can’t understand why Bay Area residents and tourists aren’t more excited about live theater here. The Bay Area has four Tony Award-winning companies (The American Conservatory Theater in 1979, the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1987, Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1997 and TheatreWorks in Palo Alto in 2019), so he’s curious why more people don’t think of San Francisco, and the whole area, as a theater destination. It’s a question that has nagged him for years.

“The Bay Area is getting notice, but you have to be in the industry. And I don’t understand why that hasn’t permeated more,” Kline said.

I ran the question — and its premise — by the San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic, Lily Janiak.

The Orpheum Theater on Market Street in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I think there is some validity to that question,” Janiak said. “And I came up with a few hypotheses as to why that might be the case.”

Competition for tourist interest. Janiak points out that San Francisco has beautiful scenery, some of the best food and wine in the world, tons of festivals and great natural areas to explore, not to mention interesting neighborhoods. It offers a lot to tourists, which means going to a show might not be at the top priority like in other cities. Janiak says as a Midwesterner, she knows the value of fun inside activities during the long, cold winter nights. San Francisco doesn’t really have that problem. Competition for headlines. “We have Big Tech, so they kind of dominate how many headlines can be about the Bay Area in other media outlets around the country and around the world,” Janiak said. Companies like Facebook, Google and Salesforce are changing the ways we interact, work and do business, so they dominate the headlines. That means visitors aren’t necessarily aware of the theater scene here when they visit. Redefining terms of success. “We as a local art scene need to redefine the terms of our success,” Janiak said. “If a show that originates here is only truly a big deal if it shifts to, and then succeeds financially, in New York, then New York will remain the center of theater.” Janiak recognizes the role her journalism plays in this dynamic. The musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” premiered at Berkeley Rep, got picked up by a New York theater company and was nominated for a Tony award in 2019. “You’d better believe that I’m going to report that news,” Janiak said. “But at the same time, I recognize that by doing so, I’m feeding into the same cycle I just described to you.” The financial model. Janiak points out that most theater companies depend on loyal subscribers and donors who tend to be older and white. “They are reliable supports,” she said, and “we just don’t give the arts the kind of government support that could truly make theater of, by and for the entire population.Theater jobs also pay notoriously poorly and real estate costs are high. It’s hard for artists to afford the area, even with multiple acting gigs and side jobs. That can be a barrier to entry for new talent that might speak to the entire community, but it also means talent moves away. And theater companies often struggle to find performance spaces they can afford. Funding for arts education. Janiak says when Proposition 13 passed and tax revenue fell, the state gutted funding for public education in California. “If we funded arts education in our public schools in proportion to how wealthy we are as a state, that would be training not only for future artists but future audiences,” she said. “You’re teaching a whole new generation of folks that theater is fun and thrilling and something for them.”

Bay Area Artists Chart Their Own Course

I turned to Sean San José, the new creative director for San Francisco’s Magic Theatre for his take on the question. San José grew up in San Francisco and co-founded Campo Santo in 1996. He’s spent his creative life as an actor, producer, director and playwright here in the Bay Area. He thinks answering Alan’s question depends on perspective and who’s defining “success.”

Sean San José and Sabina Zuniga Varela in Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at Magic Theatre. ((Courtesy of Magic Theatre))

“It’s all elitist, classist, white supremacist-rooted thinking about what is classic, what is good, what is recognized,” San José said. “And clearly a place like the bay that is historically, culturally, aesthetically, so mixed, culturally, so rooted in ‘the other,’ we’re much more interested in plotting our own piece of land rather than sort of creating something so it fits into something to be accepted.”

San José says artists come to the Bay Area to push the limits. They’re interested in blurring the lines between types of performance to tell stories that speak to this particular community.

“Someone like me or our group, Campo Santo, we’re talking about a thing that responded to, hopefully neighbors and residents,” San José said.

He rejects the idea that “good theater” flows from New York or London to the Bay Area. He says that attitude is just more gatekeeping.

“The real thing that they’re saying is, ‘I don’t think we’re interested in your Chicano body. I don’t think we’re interested in your gay neighborhood. I don’t think we’re interested in your mixed population,’ ” San José said. “Well, that’s who we are; and those are the stories we’re going to tell.”

He says all artists want their work to be seen and appreciated. He’d love for audiences in other cities to see his plays, but that’s not the goal. He’s creating for his community and if the rest of the world doesn’t see the value, oh well. “I think we’re interested in something new and next and that should be celebrated, as opposed to crushed down into an old definition.”

And, he says, the creative freedom that happens here radiates out into the world, calling to artists everywhere. It’s impossible to know the impact that has on creators, the inspiration it brings, the haven it provides.

Where Can You Find Out About Bay Area Performances?

One reason Bay Area residents may not express pride in the theater scene here is simply that they don’t know what’s happening any given night. Many local newspapers have cut their arts coverage, making it even more difficult to find out what’s on stage. The big Broadway shows often grab headlines, but there’s tons going on at smaller independent theaters all over the Bay Area.

Here are some resources to stay informed as theaters start opening up again.

KQED’s theater coverage Follow Lily Janiak’s coverage and Twitter FunCheapSF has listings of events Theatre Bay Area SF/Arts SF Station Do The Bay

If you want to support theater and actors as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic into an uncertain world, Lily Janiak suggests that you pick one local theater company or actor or director that moves you and actively support their work. Go see their plays, donate money, maybe even write a fan letter.

“Those small acts of appreciation and devotion are what bolster our art scene,” Janiak said. “And they matter. Artists don’t get them as much as you might think. It will not only make their day, but help feed their next creation.”


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