Opening night at American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of “Toni Stone” on March 11 was also its closing night, and as it turned out, none of us theater lovers would see a play onstage for the rest of this infamous year.
That night, we innocent patrons horsed around, giving each other the newly proscribed elbow bumps, as though it were a big joke.
Nor did we know, back then, that in May in Minneapolis, George Floyd would be murdered by a cop. Or that his murder would further galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement, and lead to a companion national movement in the theater world called “We See You, White American Theater” (weseeyouwat.com), a call to (metaphorical) arms for theater workers of color. Or that the Bay Area would have its own We See You component, “The Living Document of BIPOC Experiences in Bay Area Theater” (bipoclivdoc.com) with many local theaters and personnel called out for racist attitudes and policies.
Many of those theaters and individuals responded by examining internal issues. Marin Theatre Company recently posted a detailed description of new practices; at Berkeley’s TheatreFirst, artistic director Jon Tracy resigned specifically so the company could hire a person of color; the Magic Theatre posted an “Anti-Racist Action Plan,” etc.
At the same time, theaters were scrambling to produce. One of the first to create virtual programming was Stephanie Weisman, the indomitable founder/director of The Marsh, who continues to stream a daily lineup of readings, discussions and more. This week, there’s Wednesday night’s regular “Solo Arts Heal,” plus Brian Copeland in his solo holiday show “The Jewelry Box” presented in conjunction with San Francisco Playhouse.
At Theatre Rhinoceros, prolific artistic director John Fisher regularly appears in his own devised solo pieces, an enthusiastic and engaging onscreen presence.
Other theaters were experimenting early on with non-theatrical Zooming, such as San Francisco Playhouse’s “Empathy Chats,” or, for a while, California Shakespeare Theater’s streaming of old movie versions of plays interspersed with commentary by local actors. Zoom readings of new and established plays abounded.
Some, including Golden Thread Productions and Word for Word, gravitated to audio. San Francisco Mime Troupe’s episodic “Tales of Resistance” comprises a series of comic stories in various filmic genres, and Aurora Theatre commissioned the three-episode “The Flats,” written by, respectively, Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.
Perhaps the most adventurous experiment was San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear,” a fully rehearsed and “staged” production, directed by Elizabeth Carter and featuring Jessica Powell as the beleaguered monarch, streamed live; each actor performed in isolation at home, hearing but not seeing their co-actors. The company’s technical wizard Neal Ormond, using Twitch technology, made it seem (almost) as if the actors were all onstage together.
Others screened in-house archival copies of past shows. Productions by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater and SF Playhouse stood out.
Shotgun’s Leigh Rondon-Davis directed a Zoom production of Eleanor Burgess’ two-hander “The Niceties,” which explored the generation gap, racism, feminism and other hot-button issues. Later Rondon-Davis performed in another two-hander, Loy A. Webb’s “The Light,” at home, with partner Kenny Scott; the immediacy of it was palpable.
Another thrill was watching SF Playhouse’s production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play “Art.” Directed by Bill English and filmed on the theater’s stage to an empty house, with actors Jomar Tagatac, Johnny Moreno and Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, the drama was deeply, viscerally, involving. An encore streams this week.
Meanwhile, Cutting Ball’s interdisciplinary, mixed-media “Utopia,” which it commissioned from Charles L. Mee, proved just how creative a theater can be with available digital platforms; artistic director Ariel Craft explored Mee’s themes in surprising ways.
Other than “Toni Stone,” were there memorable shows this year before the shutdown? Of course. Notably, at Berkeley Rep, there was Elevator Repair Service’s verbatim theatricalization of “The Great Gatsby,” renamed “Gatz,” almost nine hours long including breaks, an astounding feat. And Central Works’ world premiere of Nicole Parizeau’s “The Human Ounce,” a taut two-hander, and the world premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s “Don’t Eat the Mangos” at the Magic, were also standouts of the Before Time.
Despite all, some theaters have announced plans for the coming year.
ACT will live-stream readings through April (followed by on-demand), including George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” directed by Colman Domingo, who’s in the wonderful Netflix production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The company is also planning an original film for spring,
The Magic Theatre, at this writing, has not yet hired a new artistic director to replace Loretta Greco. Its Virgin Play Festival, which includes readings of plays by such illustrious writers as Lauren Yee and Mfoniso Udofia, continues in January.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre announced its season, but, understandably, without opening dates, including Lauren Yee’s well-received musical from the Signature Theatre, “Cambodian Rock Band,” Charles Mee’s “Wintertime” to be directed by former Berkeley Rep regular Les Waters, Dave Malloy’s chamber rock musical “Octet” and other musicals and dramas.
TheatreWorks’ Artistic Director Tim Bond plans to open the Silicon Valley company’s 51 st season in March. Bond, a friend of the late August Wilson and a prime interpreter of his work; will direct “Gem of the Ocean” in October.
Also in the South Bay, San Jose Stage has an intriguing lineup of virtual plays.
Marin Theatre will premiere nationally lauded San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s “The Catastrophist,” a “cinematic digital” production, early in the new year. It’s about the work of influential virologist Nathan Wolfe, who, as it happens, is Gunderson’s husband.
Meanwhile, stay tuned to find out what’s happening at San Francisco’s two African-American theaters: African-American Shakespeare Company, under the direction of L. Peter Callender and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre with its recently appointed artistic director, Margo Hall.
It’s more than likely that some theaters will never reopen. Others will somehow find a way to soldier on. And inevitably new scrappy companies will emerge as, here in the Bay Area, they have always done.
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.