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Millennium Encroaches

Angels in America
The End of the World as They Know It: Harry Waters Jr. and Stephen Spinella act out a scene from the Eureka Theatre's most famous triumph, "Angels in America."

The Eureka Theatre re-invents itself (again) for the 21st century

By Zack Stentz

San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, which has already gone through more incarnations than a Hindu deity, is once again poised to reinvent itself after a troubled and brief 1996 season.

The 24-year-old institution--known for commissioning and premiering Tony Kushner's Broadway hit Angels in America, nurturing the career of solo performer Anna Deveare Smith, and otherwise supporting adventurous new theater--has been in financial trouble for years and was dealt another blow when the company's two 1996 productions--Richard Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon and Jose Rivera's Marisol--were met with less than overwhelming praise.

Struggling for a new direction, the Eureka's board of directors brought in the new management team of Bill Schwartz, a relative newcomer to the Eureka scene, as producing executive director, and Eureka veteran Don McCunn as literary manager. "We're in a precarious spot right now," Schwartz concedes. "On the bright side, we don't have any significant debt, so any money we bring in can go toward new things and not old debt, but we need to bring in new members, raise money for new productions, and find ourselves a new home."

In a deft play on the title of part one of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, Eureka's directors are calling the new campaign "A new Eureka for a new millennium." And the emphasis is definitely on the "new," McCunn asserts. "If we went back to re-create what the Eureka Theatre once was, I think we'd be doing people a tremendous disservice. We want to speak to what's happening now, and where the culture is at in this moment.

"Hardly anyone is doing the local playwrights, or looking for new playwrights," he continues. "After years in community theater, I just got tired of doing all the 'regurgitated theater,' as I called it, the umpteenth revival of An Ideal Husband, or I Hate Hamlet, or whatever."

Some arts watchers have cast a wary eye on the Eureka's ambitious plans. Schwartz's appointment, especially, raised some eyebrows in local theater circles, given that his main experience lies not in theater but in public relations as founder of the successful High-Tech Public Relations firm. "But I've always been a great lover of the theater," Schwartz says, and points to his extensive experience directing summer stock theater on Long Island, working off-Broadway and as road manager for Alan King, and organizing a pair of well-received benefit shows for the Holocaust Oral History Project.

And for many in San Francisco theater circles, cautious optimism seems to be the primary feeling toward the Eureka reorganization. "I've talked to Bill [Schwartz], and I wish him well and hope what they're doing works," says former ACT director and Bay Area theater stalwart Benny Ambush, currently directing The Gate of Heaven at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. "And I think it will work, if he can get support from all the various constituencies out there, many of whom are sitting back right now and waiting to see what's going to happen."

As to whether Schwartz's outsider status will hurt him in the tight-knit Bay Area theater community, Ambush replies: "I think it'll only be a hindrance to people who think it's a problem. I've seen outsiders succeed before in theater companies."

But for the reborn Eureka to succeed in the tough theatrical environment of the 1990s, it has to buck an ominous local trend: the decline of mid-sized theater companies. "Besides the Magic Theatre and the Climate Theatre, there aren't really any companies in San Francisco on a level between the big Geary theaters and the smaller 'storefront theaters' clustered around Folsom Street," Schwartz says. "And there need to be opportunities for actors, designers and directors at that level, where they have more resources to work with than they'd get at a little storefront theater. If we could establish ourselves in that 'middle ground,' we could really alter the ecology of San Francisco theater landscape."

Ambush, too, has observed the dying-out of San Francisco's middle-sized theater companies. "The disappearance of mid-sized theaters is a national trend," Ambush says, deploring the loss in words that echo Schwartz's: "Theaters that size are a critical part of the cultural ecology in a community."

Of course, one theater which long established itself at that middle size--200 to 250 seats and $500,000 to $1.5 million budgets--was the Eureka Theatre itself, and its mixed financial track record wouldn't seem to bode well for the format's continued viability. Schwartz, though, remains doggedly optimistic. "People have asked me if there's room in San Francisco for that kind of theater, and I point to the huge success of the Steve Martin play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile," he says, referring to the play's phenomenally successful run at the Golden Gate Theater. "It's non-musical, it doesn't have big-name actors in it, it's in a mid-sized house, yet it's still sold out for months on end."

"It's ..." Schwartz pauses, searching for a word or descriptive phrase.

"High concept?" I suggest, using the Hollywood term for the way that particular play's theme--"Young Picasso meets Young Einstein"--can be easily boiled down into one intriguing sentence.

"Exactly," he replies, his eyes lighting up. "And the tremendous success they're finding demonstrates that there's a latent audience out there for thoughtful yet entertaining plays done with superior direction and production values."

Referring back to the Eureka's own plans for the future, Schwartz says: "We're looking at producing three plays and three readings for 1997. Two of them have been selected so far. They're both thoughtful, and have entertaining comedic elements as well, and one is a world premiere. They're 'high concept.' "

Ack! That maddeningly vague phrase again. Couldn't he be a little more specific as to the new Eureka's upcoming season? Not a chance. Like any good public-relations person, he knows the wisdom of not revealing too much too soon, a skill that bodes well for the Eureka's renewed health and success. "You'll just have to see," he says, smiling.

For more information on the Eureka Theatre's new campaign, call 243-9899 or write the company at 330 Townsend, Suite 210, San Francisco, 94107.

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From the November 1996 issue of SF Live

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