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Places to Perform in San Francisco

by Charles Boone

Charles Boone is a composer and new music activist living in San Francisco

With the idea that performance can be anything you want it to be, here is a quick rundown of some of the venues and doings in the Bay Area.

Let's begin with one of the biggies. Project Artaud started out in the early seventies when a group of artists squatted in a disused, city block-filling American Can Company machine shop. The artists who, soon after, bought the space from the city for $300,000, have watched it accrue in value twenty five-fold. What a deal. There are now 81 live/work spaces and five public spaces, including Southern Exposure - one of the city's premiere alternative exhibition spaces - and Theater Artaud.

The theater is a flexible space of more than 11,000 square feet with movable seating for about 300 people. According to Dean Beck-Stewart, Executive Director, Theater Artaud offers three types of relationships with organizations invited to perform there: rental/support use, for which Artaud provides PR, technical support, equipment, consulting, and long-range planning; collaborative projects for which Artaud does thorough needs studies, looks at the goals of the organizations, does the event, makes an evaluation, and sees what might come next; and full presentation-productions sponsored by the theater.

Beck-Stewart likes to work on a continuing basis with a core group of organizations. He looks for groups with long-range scope which, through their association with Artaud, will work to raise their production values and to learn to use the large performance space effectively. Among the artists who call Artaud home are the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Jane Watanabe in Company, and the Joe Goode Performance Group. The Kronos Quartet plays there almost every year. Ping Chong is currently at work on a long-term project that will involve eight performers working in the community. He will be in residence for eight weeks and his show will run for three weeks in 1995.

While Theater Artaud is very large, The Marsh is very small. 1994 marked the fifth anniversary of the performance space founded by poet Stephanie Weisman. It has come to be recognized as a place you can count on seeing something fresh and exciting. Why is it called The Marsh? Some years ago Weisman was living in a house on stilts at the edge of Delaware Bay. It dawned on her that a marsh is the most fertile breeding ground for practically everything. Voilů. Though Weisman now has an active board of directors, a job as a computer expert has allowed her to be the primary source, beyond ticket sales, of financial backing for the the project.

The intimate, 99-seat theater is a former jazz club. Soda pop and cookies are available at what used to be the bar and plans are afoot to expand into more of a coffee house ambiance. A lot of things go on from The Marsh to bigger venues. Currently, four movies are in the works that developed out of things originally presented there. Chicago-based performance artist Lisa Kotin was seen at The Marsh by the producer of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was invited to perform there. Weisman reports picking up the Sunday New York Times not long ago and seeing that two shows that started out at The Marsh were opening Off-Broadway.

A week at The Marsh might look like this. On Monday nights four performers get fifteen minutes each (not a minute more) to show their stuff. A typical Monday might include Shan Shan Wu doing a cooking-talking presentation about what it is like to be a Chinese cook in relation to passion and sensuality; David Harrison, a female-to-male transsexual reading texts he is getting ready to perform - the subject was the process of turning into a male; Nena St. Louis, a mid-western-born African American sculptress who has begun play writing and acting in her own pieces; and Jamie Berger, performing monologues in which he gets the audience actively involved.

Tuesdays are fairly open, but there are apt to be performance showcases coming out of classes taught at The Marsh. These are often co-productions with other local theater companies. Wednesday is apt to be new music night. Thursday through Sunday, full-length pieces that usually run for a month are mounted. (Lisa Kotin's Miss Diagnosis earlier this year was part of this series.) On Saturday afternoons you might be able to see something designed especially for children and if you are a night owl there are full-length shows beginning at 10:30 pm.

Like Theater Artaud, the Capp Street Project has been on the scene quite a while and, like The Marsh, it was founded by a woman with a strong vision and sense of responsibility to the community. San Francisco-born Ann Hatch is the great granddaughter of T. B. Walker, Minnesota timber baron and founder of the Walker Art Center. She decided long ago that her personal resources should be used in this city to continue the family tradition of patronage in ways that would allow artists to interact with the community. In 1982 she bought a house in the Mission District of San Francisco designed and built by artist David Ireland. Hatch formulated for it the Capp Street Project and started a private foundation that has since become a public charity.

The plan was to use the house as the headquarters for an artist-in-residence program. It would serve as a temporary lodging/workshop/exhibition space for artists invited to create something especially for it. The residencies were three months in length, generally with a period of planning and building plus a period of public display. Right from the beginning, Hatch engaged the kinds of advisors who would insure lively, provocative shows: Nancy Drew, James Melchert, Kathy Halbreich, and Richard Koshalek among the first of them.

By 1989, the work/exhibition space had outgrown the Capp Street house (as well as the dicey neighborhood), so a large, two-story warehouse a few blocks away was pressed into service. In January, 1994, yet another move was made to the heart of San Francisco's new South of Market (SOMA) arts crossroads. The new home is a smartly redesigned, 19th-century warehouse (Stanley Saitowitz was the architect) with two floors of exhibition space and a top floor of rental apartments to help pay the bills. The house on Capp Street still serves as home-away-from-home for resident artists.

Artists chosen to be part of Capp Street's activities are almost always ones who work in the grey area between exhibition and performance. Here are some examples. Paul Kos created an environment that was a comment on audio graffiti. It involved eight bells that were rung every day at noon to make a sonic link between the house and its surroundings. Mary Lucier created a video environment which was described as an attempt to awaken the world to the roar of technology while there is still time. Terry Fox and the design team of Elizabeth Diller/Ricardo Scofidio each made installations through which viewers walked and interacted in sometimes delicate, sometimes threatening ways. Joanna Haigood and Reiko Goto created "Cho Mu" ("Butterfly Dreams"), an installation and series of performances involving six dancers depicting the stages of a butterfly's development.

I could go on and on. Climate Theater specializes in performance in all its myriad forms. New Langton Arts, The Lab, and Intersection for the Arts are alternative spaces with music, literary, and performance components. Theater Rhinoceros and Josie's Juice Joint serve, primarily, the gay community. Above Brainwash is a 49-seat performance space above a cafe and laundromat, all of which cater to the SOMA arts crowd. The proprietors of The Victoria Room, Bindlestiff Studio, and Build all live in their spaces and make them available for wide ranging performance, exhibition, and educational purposes. The idea of live/performance spaces is the latest thing in San Francisco; I wonder if this is happening all over the country or if it is unique to this city.

If you are in town and can't face the prospect of Fisherman's Wharf or aren't quite ready for a massage parlor in the Tenderloin district, check out a few of San Francisco's alternative performance spaces. Chances are you will see something provocative. For sure, you will have an experience that is not part of the standard Grey Line package tour. If you want to propose something, drop one of them a line. Here is where a few of the most obvious choices can be reached:

Theater Artaud - business office: 2101 Bryant Street, #201 North, San Francisco, CA 94110; theater: 450 Florida Street (415)647-2200 Capp Street Project, 525 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 (415) 495-7101 The Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 (415) 641-0235 Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 626-2787 Josie's Juice Joint, 3583 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114 (415) 861-7933 Victoria Room, 180 Sixth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 255-0364 Above Brain Wash, for information, contact Jack McKean, 701 Pine Street, #2, San Francisco, CA 94108; theater: 1122 Folsom Street (415) 362-7703 Build, 483 Guerrero Street, San Francisco, CA (415) 863-3321 Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 861-5079 The Lab, 1807 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94115 (415) 346-4063 New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 626-5416 Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth Street, San Francisco, CA 84103 (415) 974-1167 Climate Theater, 252 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 626-9196