email from the bay area

Only six months ago and it was a different world.

Although it’s easy to leave your heart in San Francisco, it was my lungs that concerned me upon a return visit to the City by the Bay this past November as raging wild fires in the Sonoma Valley wine country north of the city were just starting to subside and the attendant smoke and ash that had drifted south was finally starting to clear. This city, that had been so ravaged by one pernicious virus in the 1980s, had not yet seen any sign of the deadly wildfire, Covid-19.

I lived in the Bay Area for a few years in the 1970s before emigrating to Canada. When not touring with the New Shakespeare Company of San Francisco, I also drove a taxi cab part time, so I’m very familiar with the various neighborhoods of this storied place.

As it worked out, by the time of my arrival, the skies were clear, the air smelled fresh and the cable cars were clanging up and down the steep hills that seemed to have grown steeper than they were in my younger years. The big theatre news in the San Francisco Chronicle was a story announcing that, after a 45 year run, Beach Blanket Babylon, was shuttering. The show, a pop culture icon with songs and local humor, was a tourist attraction mainstay that played in a small venue in the Marina.

During the time I lived there, the American Conservatory Theatre, directed by William Ball, was at its height. A.C.T. presented plays in two venues, the majestic Geary Theatre and the smaller Marines’ Memorial Theatre right up the hill a few blocks away. A.C.T. was in the forefront of what became the regional theatre movement in the U.S. and had a strong roster of talent that swelled its ranks. Today, alumnae associated with the company’s conservatory training program include numerous names who have gone on to successful careers in theatre, film and television.

Ball held on to the AD job for 20 years but was eventually overcome by his own arrogance and egoism. Depression, aggravated by alcohol and pills, overcame him in 1991. He died by his own hand at the age of 60 while living in Los Angeles. By the mid-80s the edgier work was being done in the smaller spaces like the Eureka Theatre, which is where Tony Taccone and Oskar Eustice commissioned a young playwright named Tony Kushner to write a “short” play to be called Angels in America

The Geary Theatre itself was under renovation during my short stay, but ACT’s operation is still housed there and seemed to be going strong despite some financial problems a few years ago.

Ironically, some of the new, important work is not being done in the city at all. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre across the Bay Bridge is where much new and some classical work is being done. Already successful for originating a number of productions that have gone on to Broadway, Green Day’s American Idiot and most recently the jukebox musical, Ain’t Too Proud (the story of the Motown group, The Temptations) directed by Toronto’s own Des McAnuf. Sarah Ruhl’s new play, Becky Nurse of Salem (directed by Anne Kauffman) had its premiere last fall as part of the current (now cancelled) 2020-21 season at Berkeley Rep. Unfortunately it had closed just before my visit. Johanna Pfaelzer is the current artistic director who succeeded Tony Taccone.

The hottest-ticket in town, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 and 2) (now closed because of COVID-19) was playing at the venerable Curran Theatre, just steps down the street from the Geary off Union Square. In accepting media tickets, I pledged to “Keep the Secrets” and since the show was still in preview when I saw it, I will keep that pledge. I can divulge however that I was delighted to see Stratford star Yanna McIntosh cast in the role of Hermione Granger.

To be honest, the Harry Potter series, whether in book form or film, was completely lost on me. Before seeing the show, I had never read any of the novels or seen any of the films. So my immediate impression upon seeing Yanna McIntosh’s name in the program was perhaps a fortuitous example of non-traditional casting, as I had assumed that all or most of the characters were white. Little did I know that there is much being written of late regarding various racialisms in the Harry Potter stories as well as its treatment of class and gender. I will leave it there for now, until I educate myself further on the discussion that is occurring. Regardless, McIntosh is terrific as Hermione Granger!

Yanna McIntosh as Hermione Granger

Mirvish Productions just announced that the Toronto premiere of HP and the CC has been delayed from its scheduled fall opening until 2021. The technical requirements of the show, which employs state of the art stagecraft, illusion and special effects is immense, thus the need to ensure enough set up and rehearsal time before the first preview performance.

One final bit of Bay Area theatre history. I took the opportunity one afternoon to visit the archives of San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design located in an industrial part of town below the Mission District. The resource centre is really well worth some time if you are interested in the city’s theatrical history. In particular, I was aware that the late Margaret Roma, the New Shakespeare Company’s artistic director from 1966 to 1986, had donated her collection of letters, personal diaries, photos and programs/poster memorabilia and ephemera, to the library along with other documents relating to the business of the company and to Roma’s personal history. 

Prior to my visit, the Museum’s director of collections, Kirsten Tanaka, was most helpful in preparing the four boxes of material that comprise the bulk of the collection.

Roma was an interesting character. Originally from Zurich, she trained for the theatre from a young age, and studied at Max Reinhardt’s school. She later worked with Bertolt Brecht and had a small role in Brecht’s adaptation of Gorki’s novel, The Mother. Fleeing Germany from the Nazis because of her Jewish heritage, she worked in Paris at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, and for a brief time was married to the Austrian playwright, screenwriter and film director, Leo Mittler.

Eventually emigrating to America, Roma settled among the European expat community in Los Angeles and looked for work in films. Not finding any, she opened a theatre called the Culver Players and also taught acting classes. In 1966 she moved to San Francisco with her husband, Clarence Ricklefs where they established the New Shakespeare Company, a barnstorming, multi-racial Shakespearean rep company that performed for free (or pay-what-you-can donations) in Golden Gate Park and other venues throughout California. They began touring nationally in 1971. 

As a woman directing her own company, Roma was something of an anomaly in those days. Zelda Fichandler at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. comes to mind, but there weren’t too many others back in the day. That Roma’s aspiration was to build a Shakespearean repertory company using concepts and techniques of “epic theatre” advanced by Brecht and others, tended to raise the bar even higher.

At its high point, the company was touring seven plays in repertory with a full company of twenty-two actors. The shows were popular fare including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and The Tempest. She also added in the Brecht/Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera for good measure using actors who had to also be proficient on a musical instrument. This was long before John Doyle made it his signature style to use actors who also provided their own musical accompaniment in shows like Sweeny Todd.

I booked the “New Shakes’ ” for their first national tour and also acted as tour manager that took the company on an adventuresome but arduous three month itinerary of mainly one night stands at colleges and universities across the country from San Francisco through the New England states and back again. Did I mention that I also acted? I must admit there were a few post-traumatic stress triggers that went off in my head as I read through the company’s archives during this period!

Endnote: As my plane lifted off from San Francisco International Airport, with the Pacific Ocean receding in the background while the High Sierras loomed in the foreground, I couldn’t help thinking how much more comfortable it was to travel across the continent by air than it was in the cramped confines of two well-used nine seat station wagons, a truck and a van in the fall of 1971!

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