“Stage Left” is an invaluable historical document, and lively film, telling the story of the glories of free expression in the arts in the S.F. bay area. ~ Bernard Weiner
Stage Left is a vibrant, energetic and entertaining documentary film in celebration of the Bay Area’s unique theater community. The first film to bring the Bay Area’s rich theatrical tradition to the screen, Stage Left traces the evolution of contemporary theater from the founding of the avant-garde collaborative theater company The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop in 1952 through present day. The film takes you on a fascinating journey of creativity and culture in one of the world’s most progressive cities. Stage Left includes commentary by 47 theater luminaries who represent 6 decades of the creative ingenuity that defines the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Bay Area lays claim to pioneers like Herbert Blau and Jules Irving of The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop (1952), who premiered and staged works by the most avant-garde playwrights of the day. Blau expanded the boundaries of theater to incorporate many disciplines, collaborating with musicians, dancers and designers. These included artists who would go on to have distinguished careers of their own including composer Mort Subotnik, choreographer Anna Halprin, and designer Bob Levine. Contemporaries of the Beat poets and the first 1950’s happenings, Blau and company produced some of the very first postmodern multidisciplinary performance events in the United States. SF Mime Troupe (1959), founded by Actor’s workshop assistant director R.G. Davis, has long provoked audiences with its history of political engagement employing Comedia Della’Arte on the streets of San Francisco to confront the pressing issues of the day. The troupe cemented its radical reputation with A Minstrel Show in 1965 forcing audiences to face issues of race in America using a historically racist form to attack racism in both its redneck and liberal varieties. The production was condemned as vulgar and praised as honest, and started a tradition of arrests for troupe members on the grounds of obscenity. The Mime Troupe also spawned provocative and political companies such as Teatro Campesino, the first Chicano theater, and The Pickle Family Circus with its socially minded animal-free traveling circus. The SF Mime Troupe today continues to engage its audience with plays that address critical issues of our time.
In a more literary vein, The American Conservatory Theater (1967) under the direction of Bill Ball, was a leader in the American regional theater movement and established San Francisco as a serious theatrical city. This fostered smaller theaters like the Magic Theatre, which rose to prominence through its prolific relationship with Sam Shepard, one of America’s most important playwrights responsible for True West, Buried Child and Fool for Love. Within this rich theatrical environment, the counter culture revolution in San Francisco spawned many experimental performance groups. The Cockettes (1969) and Theater Rhinoceros (1977) reveled in alternative and gay culture exploring sexual freedom and identity. These groups eventually confronted the AIDS epidemic culminating with the Eureka Theater producing the premiere of the worldwide phenomenon Angels in America (1991). This seminal play opened the country’s discourse to include the impact of religion, sexuality, homophobia and politics on the public health crisis of AIDS. Simultaneously, George Coates, Soon 3, Snake Theater, The Blake Street Hawkeyes and Antenna Theater led groundbreaking experimentation in the 70’s and 80’s encompassing new modes of theatrical expression, including site specific, improvisation, multimedia, and multidisciplinary performance. This rich tradition continues to this day.
Through compelling interviews, vivid archival footage of early performances, photographs and video of current productions, Stage Left lushly illustrates the important, intriguing and sometimes outrageous theatrical innovations of Bay Area artists. These artists have been largely underrepresented in the history of American theater due to their distance from global performing arts centers London and New York City. Many rejected the harsh and unforgiving, make it or break it lifestyle of New York City in favor of the experimental freedom of San Francisco. In San Francisco, artists had the liberty to redefine performance—where it took place, how it was staged, and what it encompassed. Theater broke free from the bonds of formalization and artists sought to explore issues far beyond the scope of traditional performance. Performance not only happened in theaters both large and small, but also in the streets, in airport hangars, in parks, on the beach, on top of buildings or on the steps of City Hall. On any given day in the last 50 years, a person in the Bay Area might attend a performance for the sake of pure entertainment, a theatrical political protest, a bacchanalian festival, a humorous satire, a surrealist manifesto, a gay fantasia, or perhaps all of the above. Stage Left allows you to experience this rich and diverse culture first hand through engaging film clips of these groundbreaking performances, and by hearing from the artists themselves about the impetus behind their creativity.
Many of these artists helped pave the way for today’s young adventurers. At present, there is a thriving and diverse scene that rivals, and perhaps even surpasses, the theater scenes in comparably sized American cities. Recognized as the third largest theater community in the United States, Bay Area performing arts continue to flourish, creating rich and distinctive multidisciplinary theater that inspires artists and audiences alike.