If San Francisco keeps losing the people, places and organizations that make the city so interesting, how long can San Francisco remain, well, you know, interesting?
The performing arts scene here probably cannot get more confusing at this juncture in the city’s existence; like a famous Dickens sentence, we live in the best of times, we live in the worst of times. The average two-bedroom apartment rents, which have now skyrocketed to about $3,500 (believe it or not, one American city is worse–Palo Alto, California), have driven out so many actors, writers, musicians, and other artists that currently I represent the only member of the Playwrights Center of San Francisco who lives in San Francisco.
That blank wall used to be the storefront of a 30-seat theater in the Mission, perfect for very young companies just starting out. Fifteen years ago, Bertolt Brecht was a thing in San Francisco until people realized that most of what he wrote doesn’t work (good thing Kurt Weill helped out; Master Puntila and His Chauffeur Matti is completely unwatchable without the music). I saw a performance of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich one night because a friend had a role in it. Before the show began, a homeless woman wandered in and accosted a few of the spectators. Just as I began to suspect that she might have been a member of the cast, the lights went down, she accosted me, and then began reciting the opening speech of the play. We became good friends and acted together in a few projects, but when television work dried up in the Bay Area, she moved to Los Angeles and we lost touch.
Market forces are driving out more than individuals. The demand for new housing has gone from insane to really really insane, and when leases expire, landlords kick out the tenants and then sell out to developers for more money than they thought they would see in a lifetime. If decades ago you bought a mixed living/retail building for $250K and someone offers you a few million to take it off your hands so you no longer even need to think about it, I can’t blame you for taking the cash. That’s how the system works–if how the system works means that it is not working, then that become a discussion about economics, at which point I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool.
Theatre Rhinoceros (“The Rhino”) occupies a special place in American theater as a home for world premieres of plays that “explore both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of our queer community. (from the mission statement)” Currently homeless, the next show will premiere in the Eureka Theatre on Jackson Street.
And speaking of the Eureka…
…this isn’t the current home. This is the old home, where among things, actors like Danny Glover started building careers, and playwrights like Tony Kushner could premiere plays like Angels in America. Yes, that play got its start right there back in 1988 in that blue industrial building. Times have proven tough for artists in San Francisco, especially theater artists, and the Eureka Theatre Company is now a venue on Jackson Street that rents its space to local companies. Great space, too; I am proud that my one-act play Allegro Passionato led off the 2006 BOA (Bay One-Acts) Festival.
So the mood among theater and music artists in San Francisco remains gloomy. Venue after venue keeps closing. And yet, somehow, someway, we persist. The Rhino and Eureka lost their homes, but have kept going, somehow, someway. Another local company, PianoFight, has opened a restaurant-bar-theater venue in the building once occupied by Original Joe’s restaurant. A new theater company has approached me with an offer to produce one of my full-lengths.
One of my fellow playwrights has described theater and film people as “hard to kill as cockroaches, only worse, because cockroaches don’t make so much @#$% noise.” So we continue onwards, lurching from one funding crisis to the next. Saw this film crew today on my way to the Rainbow Grocery:
The American Conservatory Theatre has already opened one new space on the 1100 block of Market, and will soon open a second theater on that same block, converting a building that used to house the Strand movie house (speaking of endangered arts spaces). So I should feel more optimistic than I do.
Best of times, worst of times; worst of times, best of times.
What continues to bother me is the attrition diminishing the numbers of theater artists in San Francisco. When I began in the late 1990s, I looked up to, admired, and sought to emulate a lot of men and women who seemed to me to have their stuff together, who could juggle the poorly paid waiter/clerk/bartender job with their true passion, earn a couple of extra hundred or perhaps a thousand dollars per year, and whom the arts establishment regarded as up-and-coming artists with bright futures.
Of all those people from back then, one still continues onward, however blindly.
That’s so bizarre. Talent, ability, artistry don’t seem to matter. Only pure dumb bull-headed wrong-headed too-stupid-to-know-when-to-quit stubbornness seems to matter. I don’t know if I’m any good, only persistent. The brilliant and imaginative director, subject of articles published in the national press, quit abruptly after a show in 1998 or 99. I wanted so badly to work for him, but who know what he’s doing now? A woman in that show still acts, but moved to LA a long time ago–just like a lot of other artists from the Bay Area.
For all the new companies, spaces and artists I see in San Francisco, it does not appear that they have popped up fast enough to replace all of the people who quit or moved on. Of course, this represents a perfect time to remind one and all that I am most emphatically NOT a professional journalist, so take extreme care before accepting my own personal experience as universal truth.
But if artists can’t afford to live here, then how can they pop up here fast enough to replace the ones who quit and/or left San Francisco entirely?
Vonn Scott Bair