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A Small, Young Theater Company Aims High

November 26, 2010

In “Coraline,” a dark fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, a young girl explores a surreal parallel universe where life resembles the world she knows, and yet defies all of her expectations.

In some ways, the protagonist’s experience is like attending performances at SF Playhouse, the theater based in downtown San Francisco, where a musical adaptation of “Coraline” by the composer Stephin Merritt (of the rock group The Magnetic Fields) and the playwright David Greenspan is having its West Coast premiere through Jan. 15.

SF Playhouse is just like many other small theater companies. It produces plays on a shoestring budget in cramped surroundings with a minimal, multitasking staff. Its artistic director, Bill English, acts, directs, programs and designs, and Susi Damilano, the producing director, acts, directs and produces.

But unlike others of its size, the company stages some of the most consistently high-quality work around in its unassuming, 100-seat black-box space at 533 Sutter Street. SF Playhouse attracts some of the top actors in the Bay Area and delivers a level of set, lighting, costume and sound design more commonly associated with theaters five times its size.

The combination of SF Playhouse’s small Off Off Off Broadway setup and sophisticated Off Broadway sensibility sets it apart.

“The company often sells out completely even with new, untried work,” said Brad Erickson, the executive director of Theatre Bay Area, a performing arts support organization.

Theater companies typically take years to build an audience and develop their artistic identity. But SF Playhouse has flourished on both counts since its founding in 2003 by the husband-and-wife team of Mr. English and Ms. Damilano. Two years ago, its subscriber base, currently at 1,400, increased by half. And the company’s programming has evolved from mainly popular fare like “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder to riskier productions.

Crowd-pleasing shows like “The Fantasticks” still appear on the roster alongside proven works by contemporary playwrights like Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts. But SF Playhouse is also investing deeply in the work of local dramatists. It has five Bay Area playwrights under commission: Lauren Gunderson, Aaron Loeb, William Bivins, Jon Tracy and Tim Barsky.

Its world premiere of Mr. Loeb’s “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party” during the 2008-9 season went on to be a highlight of the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival and received a run Off Broadway this year.

The company’s new “Sandbox” series distinguishes itself from other outlets for new writing by presenting lengthy, fully staged runs of works in progress by Bay Area authors in its 49-seat studio space.

“It’s unusual to find a major albeit small house that likes to nurture such strong relationships with local playwrights,” said Mr. Bivins, whose drama “The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry” was produced under the Sandbox mantle last spring.

SF Playhouse has ambitious plans. In addition to hiring additional staff members in the coming months, it is searching for space near Union Square in which to build a 200-seat auditorium that can alternate between proscenium arch, thrust stage and theater-in-the-round layouts.

But scaling up will be challenging.

Donations to the theater have increased recently, but box office revenue has remained flat for three seasons, a product, Mr. English said, of the flagging economy and the fact that the company is reaching capacity in its small auditorium.

“Right now,” he said, “we’re looking at keeping the box office consistent as a minor victory.”

As SF Playhouse becomes more visible, its failures stand out as much as its successes. Earning the rights to stage the West Coast premiere of “Coraline,” a major coup for the small company, may now be overshadowed by the production’s mostly lackluster reviews.

Still, SF Playhouse excels in its ability to do a lot with a little. Most of its performers are on Actors’ Equity contracts, meaning they are paid more than non-union performers. The company is producing six main-stage shows this season on its $910,000 annual budget plus two Sandbox productions. In contrast, the Magic Theater, an organization of comparable size, has a budget of more than $1.3 million and is staging four plays.

Mr. English’s background in the construction business helps the theater to source materials economically. “I can get more done for less money,” said Mr. English, who designs many of the sets, including the one for “Coraline.”

Ms. Damilano’s accounting skills also contribute to the thriftiness.

“Bill is expansive but demanding, and Susi is nurturing but tough-minded about the bottom line,” said Chris Smith, who has directed two productions at SF Playhouse. “It’s a good balance.”

The relative maturity of SF Playhouse’s founders (Ms. Damilano is in her 40s and Mr. English, in his 50s) and their decades of working in Bay Area theater are another asset.

“Most companies are started by recent graduates where everyone’s on a steep learning curve,” Mr. Erickson said. “But Bill and Susi have been able to jump ahead by building on their considerable experience and relationships.”



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