There aren’t many more theaters in the Bay area now than there were in 1988, but there was more daring 25 years ago — plays by local writers, avant-garde plays, risky, challenging, in-your-face fare. As Rosemary Orlando, longtime performer in the Bay area notes, “Everybody had original stuff in their season, and that’s where the good stuff comes from.”
Among the more intrepid companies that we’ve lost since the first issue of Creative Loafing appeared are the Tampa Players, the Playmakers, the Hillsborough Moving Company, the Loft, the Warehouse, and Ground Zero. A few actors and directors from the first 10 years of CL’s existence still turn up on area stages — for example, Orlando, Kerry Glamsch, ranney, Brian Shea, Paul Potenza, Jim Wicker, James Rayfield, and, after years away, Lisa Powers — but a time traveler from the late ’80s wouldn’t recognize the great majority of present-day Bay area theater artists. The spaces are different, too: American Stage has moved to a bright, modern home further up Third Street South in St. Pete, while Stageworks, which led a nomadic existence for much of its history, finally has its own house in the Channel District.
A lot of the movers and shakers behind the scene have moved out of town or, at least, to different positions. Wendy Leigh, once so prominent as the brash artistic director of the Loft, now runs the Patel Conservatory at the Straz, and David Audet, whose Ground Zero on Howard Avenue in Tampa once hosted the late and lamented School of Night, is now an estate photographer and independent producer. Patrick Doyle, who, together with Rosemary Orlando, ran the Warehouse, is now an educator in Pennsylvania, and Val Day, whose Hillsborough Moving Company offered plays like Mac Wellman’s Bad Penny and Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, is a literary agent in New York. And perhaps the most celebrated of all local actors of the early years — Jeff Norton — was murdered a few years ago, leaving the whole theater community bereft. Only American Stage and Stageworks have survived from 1988, and only the latter still has its original artistic director, Anna Brennen.
I started reviewing plays for CL in 1998, succeeding Peter Smith and, before him, Marty Clear. But the critic I heard most about when I returned to the Bay area from Massachusetts in the early ’90s was the Tampa Tribune’s Porter Anderson, who, according to who was talking, either destroyed Bay area theater with his savage reviews or raised the bar for the whole community with his uncompromising high standards. In the 15 years that I’ve been CL’s theater critic, I’ve seen some rises and falls.
When I started, Gorilla Theatre was still mostly a vanity house devoted to the plays of its founders, Aubrey Hampton and Susan Hussey. But it changed into a risk-taking presenter of fine Off-Broadway plays, offering a stunning Six Degrees of Separation and a beautifully produced Sideshow. Then Hussey and Hampton died of cancer, one after the other, and now Gorilla barely exists (though there are whispers of a revival). I’ve also seen two great success stories: the development of Jobsite Theater from a high-testosterone boy’s club to a much-respected home for first-class work; and the inaugural years of Eric Davis’s freeFall, with its spectacularly produced plays and musicals, and stratospheric aesthetic sense. There have been false alarms over the years — for example, when Levi Kaplan came to town to start the Acorn, then couldn’t keep it going for more than a few months; and when Brian Becker’s New American Theater announced its determination to become the premier venue for local musicals, but couldn’t pay the rent at Baywalk or anywhere else. I’ve seen artistic directors come and go — say, at American Stage, where Lisa Powers was succeeded by Jody Kielbasa who was succeeded by Kenneth Mitchell who was succeeded by Todd Olson; and I’ve seen Brennen’s remarkable tenacity through good times and bad at Stageworks.
And then I’ve seen actors — some as talented as any you’ll find in New York or Los Angeles. Three-time Best of the Bay winner Brian Shea is still around, but Colleen McDonnell is out in L.A. now, and John Huls is teaching at Berkeley Prep. The current group of top performers — say, Roxanne Fay, Jim Sorensen, Katherine Michelle Tanner, among others — weren’t around in the late ’80s, and the Patel Conservatory — arguably the best training ground for the coming years’ crop of top performers — didn’t exist. The current scene has its strengths — I’ve seen brilliant productions at American Stage, freeFall and Stageworks in the last 12 months — but fiscal demands result in safe seasons, and lately it seems like everyone’s getting careful. It’s hard to imagine a local theater risking a wild card like Return to the Forbidden Planet, a joint production of the Straz (then TBPAC) and the Warehouse, or the Lisa Powers/Joe Popp Macbeth, at American Stage in the Park. “The scene was healthier than it is now,” says Glamsch. “Everything is so much more driven by ticket sales.”
Well, times change and theaters change with them. But still you can find good signs: there’s David Frankel’s new Tampa Repertory Theatre, which increasingly looks like the real article, and the admirable season that freeFall has announced. Todd Olson and Karla Hartley are brilliant directors, and somehow, somewhere Bridget Bean and friends are going to will Gorilla back to life. If there’s nothing wildly audacious about Bay area theater in 2013, it’s still encouragingly professional. With the Straz Center bringing us the best of Broadway, and the smaller theaters offering solid regional fare, there’s much to look forward to (though little you’d call cutting-edge).
Bay area theater is solid.
And with a stronger economy, some visionaries, and some luck, the next 25 years may be the best yet.
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