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Local Theater Anchors the Fringe Festival

September 3, 2010

September is always a big month for small theater in San Francisco. After the inevitable summer burnout on outdoor Shakespeare productions, breezy musicals and tourist-friendly revues, audiences plunder the city’s various black-box spaces with a renewed fervor for the fresh and unusual.

At the center of this activity is the Exit Theater, the producer of the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival (Sept. 8 to 19) and one of the biggest stars on the local small-theater stage. Located on a grubby stretch of Eddy Street in the Tenderloin district where patrons have to run a gantlet past overflowing trash cans and sidewalk-sprawled drug users, the Exit Theater is not well known.

Nor is the local Fringe Festival, a tiny affair compared with similar events in Edinburgh, Scotland; Adelaide, Australia; and Edmonton, Alberta, which are on many people’s cultural radar. The 2010 Edinburgh festival had close to 2,500 shows, compared with just 43 at this year’s San Francisco event.

Yet since its founding in 1983, the Exit Theater has had an impact on the local alternative theater arts scene. Each year, it presents some 75 companies and artists and more than 500 shows.

During this year’s Fringe Festival, the theater will inaugurate a new performance studio — its fifth space — within the warrenlike Exit Theaterplex. Mark Jackson, whose Art Street Theater company regularly appeared at the Exit Theater from 1995 to 2004, said: “The Exit provides affordable space for young artists to produce their own work. When they recognize that an artist or company makes consistently good work, they also make sure there is room in the annual schedule for them.”

The Exit Theater’s recent start of a publishing arm is another sign of its commitment to artists. Its first book was a 500-page volume of plays by Mr. Jackson, who has gone on to write and direct plays in bigger theaters like the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. Scripts by Mark Knego, another Exit dramatist, will be the organization’s next release.

The Exit’s growth spurt has implications for other small theaters in its orbit.

In order to contain costs and consolidate its audience, this year the Exit Theater is not partnering with other auditoriums to present Fringe performances as it has in the past. Instead, all of the shows, with the exception of three site-specific productions, will happen in Exit Theater spaces.

“The festival has always been a push to manage,” said Christina Augello, the theater’s founder and artistic director. “With our additional space, we are able to bring everything in-house, which is easier on our finances and will better serve artists and audiences.”

The move makes sense for the Exit Theater, which has an annual operating budget of $320,000 and only three full-time paid staff members. (The theater relies on around 100 volunteers, and Ms. Augello and Richard Livingston, the theater’s managing director, both work additional part-time jobs.)

But the organization’s former Fringe collaborators are concerned. “It’s a smart decision for the Exit but a bummer for the rest of us because the Fringe gave us a break from self-producing,” said Joe Landini, the artistic director of the Garage, a black-box theater in SoMa that presented Fringe shows in previous years.

Jessica Heidt, the artistic director of the Climate Theater, said, “It’s a shame because the Fringe helped to unite the disparate small-theater community.”

Despite the geographic contraction of the city’s Fringe Festival and a recent wave of closures and forced relocations within the small-theater community, San Francisco’s emerging performance scene is beginning to show fresh signs of expansion. Many of these developments link back to the Exit Theater. Sean Owens, a performer-playwright with longstanding Exit Theater ties, is working with the mayor’s office to convert a former pornographic film theater on Turk Street into a performance space for puppetry, burlesque, ventriloquism and other niche art forms.

And Mr. Landini is spearheading a new arts festival in the Tenderloin (24 Days of Central Market Arts) that from Sept. 24 to Oct. 17 will present performances by such companies as the Alonzo King Lines Ballet and host the Fringe Festival’s annual “Best of the Fringe” event.

Local government is capitalizing on the Exit Theater’s substantial influence to help bring about further change in the dilapidated Central Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods. The theater is part of the Mid-Market Project Area Committee and, Amy Cohen of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development said, is helping to inspire other artists to move into the area.

“We believe the most effective strategy for cultivating an arts district in the Tenderloin and Central Market is to build on the assets that are there,” Ms. Cohen said. “The Exit is a major asset, and its continued expansion will enhance the art scene substantially.”



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