Bigger, better digs for SF Playhouse

Courtesy PhotoNew home: San Francisco Playhouse co-founders Susi Damilano and Bill English enjoy plentiful space in the 450 Post St. theater.

Challenging as it is for a small nonprofit theater to take a quantum leap, the San Francisco Playhouse — the downtown company that has endeared itself to audiences and critics alike since its inception in 2003 — is clearly ready. To wit: In recent times, more than 1,000 patrons were turned away over the course of a couple of popular runs.

This month, the company, which specializes in stellar productions of contemporary plays, opens its season in a nearby, but much larger, venue.

With more seats (225 including the first three rows of the balcony) than the company’s former Sutter Street space (only 100), and a bigger stage (40 feet by 40 feet instead of 20 feet by 17 feet ), the 450 Post St. theater ought to meet the company’s needs.

“We’ve been growing exponentially over the last few years and overselling,” says artistic director-actor-set designer Bill English, co-founder along with his wife, actor-director Susi Damilano.

The company currently has 2,000 subscribers plus an increasing number of single-ticket buyers. In addition, the old digs could no longer comfortably accommodate the office staff — six full-time and many part-time employees.

The company hoped to rent the Post Street theater two years ago. But the building’s lease holders had instead subleased the space to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. After the untimely deaths of Hansberry’s co-founders Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter in 2010, incoming artistic director Steven Anthony Jones decided to scale down operations and opted out of the lease.

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In a flurry of activity before next week’s opening of the rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” English and crew extended the stage by covering the first six rows of seats with plywood, reconfigured the seating into curved rows, curtained off the side alcoves of the house to maximize intimacy and enhance the acoustics, and other improvements.

The theater is on the second floor of the almost-90-year-old, Elks-owned building, which also houses the Kensington Park Hotel, the Farallon Restaurant and other businesses; local independent producer Jonathan Reinis transformed it into Theatre on the Square in 1982 and ran it for 22 years.

With an annual budget of about $1.1 million and a union contract, SF Playhouse is better positioned now to compete in the marketplace for access to new scripts and, as English says, be more adventurous scenically: “Thanks to Meyer Sound, who gave us a tremendous discount on a sound system, and a donor who gave us an entire lighting system, it’s going to be first-class.”

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