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Dirt on SOMA Theaters

SOMA Theaters
From the Center: SOMAR offers stability to the South of Market scene, with a city-owned building available for use by a bad range of cultural groups

As the South of Market district gentrifies, SOMA theater spaces transform in response

By Kerry Reid

For many Bay Area dwellers, South of Market is a littered gridlock of trendy bistros, nightclubs and "Multimedia Gulch." But for Bay Area theater-lovers, the SOMA district is the hot spot for performance venues that share a commitment to new voices and innovative ways of collaboration. That commitment remains strong even as some of the players and venues change in response to the economic boom that's transformed the district in the past 10 years.

Climate Theatre at 252 Ninth St. was in many respects the standard-bearer and linchpin for SOMA theater, at least in terms of visibility. But just over a year ago, Climate gave up their performance venue to Mary Alice Fry, artistic director of the dance and performance company Footloose. Fry and her colleagues took over the 50-seat space and renamed it Venue 9 and today present what is arguably the most eclectic programming of any small theater in San Francisco.

"It's our pride," says Fry. "We knew we had to run programming around the clock this first year. We weren't going to get any big grants, we had to pay bills, and we had to make an impact." All of which they've unquestionably done, as Fry estimates that their audience base in the SOMA neighborhood has quadrupled in the past year, with at least 25 percent of the audience returning to sample other items on the extensive Venue 9 menu.

So while Venue 9 struggles with establishing its own identity, Bindlestiff Studio at Sixth and Howard ("in the heart of the Natoma Wine Country," as its members whimsically characterize it) grapples with its own unique situations. Remaining co-founder Chrystene Ells, who first suggested taking over the Skid Row storefront in 1989 from co-founder Chris Brophy, recalls, "He thought I was insane. It was a junkie squat before we moved in, and it took us six months to flush all the heroin balloons out of the plumbing." Ells even lived in the space for five years, during which time Bindlestiff earned a reputation for creating daring, surreal and disturbing work.

But just as Bindlestiff took off, so did many of its original members for Hollywood and even married life. Last fall, though, a consortium of new artists joined forces with Ells to re-establish Bindlestiff Productions. And although the area surrounding Bindlestiff has yet to feel the full force of gentrification (the rent on the studio has increased only $35 in eight years), Ells says the area is changing. And despite the neighborhood's rough reputation, according to consortium member Jill Heck, "walk-in traffic for shows has actually been pretty good." Still, if the promised re-development of the Sixth Street corridor kicks into high gear, the Bindlestiff collective knows it could mean the end of their space as a performance venue. And the odds of staying together, given the astronomical rents in San Francisco, are pretty slim.

But one SOMA theater group has been able to take the leap into a new, bigger space in the district. The Z Space Studio moved this summer from their old quarters at Fifth and Howard into fancier and more spacious digs at Mission and Ninth. Z Space enjoys an unusual advantage in their partnership with Michael Palladino and his consulting firm, Avelino Associates, which provides full-time employment opportunities to some Z Space members and reduced rent for the theater's share of the 10,000-square-foot space.

According to Z Space board member Bob Martin, former manager of the Cowell and Bayfront theaters at Fort Mason, SOMA remained the first location choice for Z Space because of big empty spaces, public transit accessibility, safety and "the perception that SOMA is a place you go to see interesting alternative work, provocative work."

But not all theater companies are surviving the wave of gentrification that has flooded SOMA. Phoenix Theatre at Eighth and Folsom recently discovered that after 14 years their lease will not be renewed next summer. "The landlord said that the neighbors were complaining about the noise," explains Phoenix artistic director Linda Ayres-Frederick. "I'm not a rave club, and the noise they're complaining about is a vacuum cleaner or a hammer. SOMA wasn't super-cheap 14 years ago, but back then it felt like something that was new and growing."

Meanwhile, executive director Jack Davis of SOMAR/South of Market Cultural Center has maintained a bird's-eye view of the shifting San Francisco experimental theater scene for many years, including his stint with Intersection for the Arts when it was still located in North Beach. "In the last 10 or 15 years," says Davis, "SOMA is like what North Beach was 20 or 30 years ago. We have a fairly unique situation in that we operate a city-owned building. We maintain a facility that is available for use, at an affordable rate, for a fairly broad range of arts activities such as theater, performance art and gallery shows."

The biggest changes Davis sees are in audiences. "When Intersection was presenting people like the Blake Street Hawkeyes and George Coates, our audiences were educated 30-year-olds with money. They've now become more subscription-based consumers going to places like Berkeley Rep. A lot of theater groups now have their following from the younger audiences." Still, Davis concedes that it's difficult for new groups to build their audiences, especially given the dearth of coverage for new work in the dailies. "In a way, I blame the critics for not providing coverage of the marshlands. But theater is a short-lived adventure. It comes in waves."

Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St.; Sep. 11-27 TSISMIS; Oct. 17-Nov. 1 Scared Stiffolio; 415/974-1167.

Phoenix Theatre, 301 Eighth St. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme Thu.-Sun. through Sept 14, 7:30pm; call Viaduct at 510/540-5554.

SOMAR/South of Market Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St.; The Winchester Rosary Thu.-Sun. Oct. 16-19 and 2326, 8pm; $13; call for half-price previews and two-for-one details, 415/8289-6551.

Venue 9, 252 Ninth St.; someguy Thu.-Sat. through Sep. 13, Not Enough Rope Fri.-Sun. Sep. 19-28. The Creative Music Series continues every Wed., and on Mondays the experimental film and video series, every Tue. in Sep., is the Financial District Side Show; call for more info on Oct. and tickets, 415/626-2169.

Z Space, 1360 Mission St., Third Floor; working out the details for its fall schedule. Oct. 25 benefit party w/performances; call for details, 415/543-9505.

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From the September 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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