“How do you hide a mountain?” That question was at the heart of Brad Erickson’s talk at the SFPRRT July meeting. The “mountain” is the Bay Area’s vibrant but under-the-radar theater community. Erickson’s job as executive director of Theatre Bay Area (TBA), is to raise awareness of the quality and quantity of theater across the organization’s 11-county service area. Erickson has led the nearly 40-year-old organization — which he describes as a “chamber of commerce for theater in the Bay Area” — for the past decade while also pursuing his own theater projects as an acclaimed, award-winning playwright.
The Bay Area is the third largest theater center in the country (behind NYC and Chicago), according to Erickson, and the region’s 400 or so theater companies mount 150 to 200 theater premieres each year. “Every other night, you can see a brand new play,” Erickson said. “Most people wouldn’t think that about the Bay Area.”
More surprising still, the Bay Area is number one in the country in terms of professional theater companies — we boast half a dozen companies fitting that category and boast the fourth largest concentration of Equity actors in the country. The Bay Area is also a hotbed of playwrights, some of them nationally-acclaimed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most performance artists in the Bay Area have a hard time making a living, and 90 percent of the Bay Area’s Equity actors are frequently unemployed. Many theater companies are suffering financially, as evidenced by the recent closure of the San Jose Rep, and the struggles of Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.
Enter TBA, which aims to build a culture of theater-going in the Bay Area while providing support services to the theater community. TBA’s website is a clearinghouse for all things theater in the Bay Area, offering many award and grant opportunities, a job bank and audition listings, a talent database, a comprehensive calendar of current productions and more. TBA also runs a half-price ticket booth at Union Square and sponsors the annual Glickman Award, given to the best play to premiere in the Bay Area each year
Despite all this activity, the Bay Area is lacking in the habit of theater-going. “If there’s no one in the audience, there’s no theater,” he said. Going to the theater is a bargain when you consider that the bulk of the Bay Area’s rich array of theater companies are nonprofit, according to Erickson, which means that patrons are typically paying only half the cost of their seats, with the other half covered by grants and the like. People who do spring for tickets tend to be older and white, said Erickson, so it’s also his mission to diversify audiences.
On the positive side, new theater venues are cropping in S.F., including A.C.T.’s project to acquire and renovate the venerable Strand Theater in the city’s burgeoning Mid-Market area. Not only is the Bay Area earning a reputation as a crucible for new works, but “there’s a passion among young theater makers,” with many emerging playwrights of color. In fact, Erickson is bullish about theater in the Bay Area, and believes that “the arts and theater are more than a nicety or luxury, but something that is essential to our lives as individuals, and to the community.”
The standard $70 yearly membership in Theatre Bay Area provides people with access to free and discount tickets along with a subscription to their magazine and e-newsletter, plus access to job and casting notices. For more information, visit www.theatrebayarea.org.
By Brenda Kahn, SFPRRT member, chair of the SFPRRT Scholarship Committee and Senior Public Information Officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, California.