'Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco'
by Richard Dodds
How many years does it take to gain a worthwhile perspective on a cultural scene? After watching Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco, a documentary that looks at what laid the groundwork for our area's present-day theater, I can tell you that 15 years is but a dot on the landscape. That is how long I have been observing and writing about theater in the Bay Area, and if someday the years of my tenure can be viewed as part of an epoch, it hasn't as yet so registered.
But there are identifiable epochs that Stage Left examines, and there is first-hand testimony from those who have survived to tell the tales, and revelatory clips that evoke aches for what one has missed. Austin Forbord's documentary has been screened in limited runs in select venues in the past year, but will be available to anyone with a television set when KQED presents the broadcast debut of Stage Left at 10 p.m. on Nov. 11.
If you are looking for an overview of Bay Area theater today, this is not the place. While many contemporary companies are referenced, Stage Left is about what came before, when San Francisco was a petri dish that had a magnetism in a national culture transitioning away from lockstep conformity. The documentary opens with scenes from the psychedelic 1960s, but then soon reverts to 1952.
That was the year that Herbert Blau and the late Jules Irving founded the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, which is now considered a seminal part of the emerging regional theater movement. "We began to do things at the absolute extremity of what you could put on a stage," Blau tells the filmmakers. Introducing local audiences to Beckett, Brecht, Genet, Pinter, and Albee, the theater began cross-discipline collaborations that were so well regarded that the newly opened Lincoln Center hired Blau and Irving to operate its theater program in 1965. The Actor's Workshop soon closed, and actor Peter Coyote recalls, probably with some exaggeration, that "what was left was the dregs, including myself."
An end of an epoch, maybe, but some of those dregs help found the Magic Theatre, and Coyote ended up acting in a series of Sam Shepard premieres. And soon Bill Ball was moving his Pittsburgh-based American Conservatory Theater to San Francisco. Ball was something of a creative maniac, and perhaps the best archival film clip is a scene from his production of The Taming of the Shrew. Marc Singer, as the Kate-taming Petruchio, expounds on gender issues as he maneuvers Fredi Olster's Katherina around his body as if she were a snake being charmed.
"Let's take care of the roots as well as the fruit," Ball says in a period interview as he explains his nurturing concept of theater. His bold visions ran afoul of financial realities that led to his high-profile downfall and eventual suicide.
Ed Hastings, his successor as ACT's artistic director, has forlorn memories in one of his last interviews before his death in 2011. "We were no longer the cutest girl in town," he says. "We were just an old hag who was staggering around trying to get another drink someplace."
But ACT's fortunes were revived to such an extent that it became a symbol of the dreaded establishment. "A lot of theaters sprung up in opposition to ACT," former SF Chronicle theater critic Bernie Weiner says, and another epoch was finding its place on the scene.
The SF Mime Troupe, the Pickle Family Circus, the improv Blake Street Hawkeyes, the site-specific Snake Theatre, the performance-art extravaganzas by George Coates, Theatre Rhinoceros, the Cockettes, and the Angels of Light are recognized in the film with vintage clips and contemporary interviews. The short-lived Gay Men's Theatre Collective and its production of Crimes Against Nature gets welcome acknowledgement. And then AIDS begat its own epoch, with the deaths of many artists and their audiences. Tony Kushner's Angels in America provided a theatrical exclamation point with its 1991 premiere at SF's Eureka Theatre.
In some ways, that's the end of the story as told by Stage Left. Brad Erickson of Theatre Bay Area does point out that his organization represents 420 member companies, but if the present-day epoch has a zeitgeist, we can't yet see it. We naturally want to believe San Francisco still has that magic that powered so much creativity, as recalled by a collection of notable talking heads who tap into their memories. Check back in 15 years, and I may have some more wisdom on the subject. Or watch Stage Left on your TV set and draw your own conclusions.
If you haven't secured a ticket to the SF run of Book of Mormon, you are out of luck – almost. The SHN website prominently states that tickets are no longer available for the engagement, but then offers a couple of caveats. Additional tickets may be made available for sale, and a regular check of shnsf.com is advised. And there will be a lottery prior to each performance during the Nov. 27-Dec. 30 run.
A limited number of $25 tickets will be awarded to some of those who enter the lottery that begins two-and-a-half hours prior to each performance. Winning names will be drawn two hours before the performance. A blogger for the Denver Post, where the musical played in August, offered a few tips. No need to arrive earlier than noted above; your chances of winning are not increased. Don't be fazed by the length of the line to enter the lottery; it moves quickly. And be sure to bring your own pen.