Theater of Others is a San Francisco theater company with a special mission: To add a fresh cultural resource in the City’s Tenderloin district, offering classical theater with a Pay-What-You-Will admission. All performances are open to the public in the beautifully refurbished Auditorium at the Kelly Cullen Community, 220 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.
Theater of Others has its origins in two places. The first is the partnership that emerged from a production of Hamlet that went on in 2014 in San Francisco. Two actors, playing the King and the Ghost respectively, were drawn together by similar ideas about how a classical theater company might be artistically directed. One of the actors had an extensive background in production and stage direction, while the other was a talented dramaturg and writer. They agreed that a company dedicated to Elizabethan and Jacobean plays could fill an important niche by offering full productions of lesser known works. They understood that their own interest in the complete canon of available plays would find an similarly enthused audience that had already seen Twelfth Night a dozen times. They knew that they had a “wish list” of plays that they wanted to do and that experienced theater goers had their own “life list” of plays to see, like bird watchers on the lookout for rare species.
Fundamental to the concept of the Theater of Others was a thorough dramaturgical inquiry into each play, with table work that examined the texts, the histories, and the critical traditions of each play produced. The goal of clearly communicating well understood performances remains at the heart of the company’s mission. At the core, the group is a merry band of Shakespeare nuts that wants to share the words, the characters, and the stories with a good grasp of the concepts and themes. It also became a goal to include as many new people in each production as possible, and in major roles when possible. This policy has played out well and to date the group has, in nine productions so far, directly involved over one hundred different people as actors, directors, designers, stage managers, operators, and crew.
The second part of the equation was the timely opportunity to establish their company in a beautiful, newly renovated Edwardian jewel of a theater in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. One of the founding partners is employed by the City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and works in the Tenderloin with other neighborhood service organizations. One of these NPOs, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, owns numerous buildings, with the mission of providing low income housing. They had recently acquired and renovated what had been the downtown YMCA, a building of great historical significance. Renamed the Kelly Cullen Community, it had opened in 2012. In restoring the building, they had refurbished its auditorium, with its large ornate proscenium arch stage. The connection was made not between producer and venue, but between community service professionals. The idea was that the two new friends would add a cultural adjunct to the mission of the TNDC and provide a fresh cultural resource to the hard-pressed Tenderloin.
The decision was made early on to present all performances with a Pay-What-You-Will admission, assuring that no one who wanted to attend would be excluded. This has made the company a source for entertainment for the many TNDC residents, as well as for the Bay Area theater community. This low-revenue model is supported in part by a generous partnership with the TNDC and the KCC building management that has so far kept the rental costs down.
Theater of Others’ first show ran at the KCC Auditorium in November of 2014, only six months from the first meeting of the original partners. Measure for Measure was chosen to establish the company’s identity as the classical company that dared to take on the unfamiliar and difficult material of the late 17th / early 18th Century. Done in modern dress, it brought this complicated play down to earth and revealed layers of relevance to an attentive audience. It was staged on the deck, in front of the curtain, and even on the floor surrounded by the audience, showcasing the versatility of the venue that would be exploited in future stagings.
Starting with Measure for Measure, Theater of Others began their policy of building at least one upgrade to the Auditorium to develop it into a theater space that maximized the audience experience. For that show the company built two step units, custom sized to the height of the stage from the Auditorium floor.
For their second show the Others chose The Taming of the Shrew. Included was the rarely staged Induction, with its depiction of the deception perpetrated on the drunkard Sly by the Lord and his men. It also delivered the play as a kind of interactive entertainment for the Lord and his household, as they were drafted into the performance by the players to play characters themselves. The play was staged entirely on the open floor of the Auditorium, with the audience seated on one side. The Players entered through the Auditorium front door and were seen to set up in the room. This production introduced the policy that popular Shakespeare plays would be done unconventionally. For Shrew, lighting mounts were constructed to fit over the front of the balcony.
Next was Macbeth, staged on the floor, the stage, and around the audience. Using two newly built Lighting mounts, it was an environmental piece that turned the Auditorium into a dark and menacing cavern.
Following Macbeth, one of the original partners had to leave the group for health reasons. By then, the company had attracted talented and experienced people and the remaining founder decided to expand the artistic direction to include a four member cooperative that would make artistic decisions by consensus. Also included were two other technical directors who oversaw the design and tech requirements. Together these six conferred on administrative matters.
The first show with the new direction was the dense and difficult Cymbeline. It was staged as a dark fairy tale. The experiment was to present the story on the stage only, but with extensive technical design, including fantasy costuming, complex lighting effects and vivid projections. For this production, a major construction project was undertaken. A sectional assembly of audience riser platforms was built. This allowed the viewers to get closer to the stage. The modular system included eight-foot walls behind the risers to decrease the reverb in the large, open room. Cymbeline marked a huge step forward for the Theater of Others and put production values on the level of a small professional company that might charge $30 or more for a ticket.
Emboldened by the success of Cymbeline, and as an effort to create shows more collaboratively, the director and the dramaturg created a daring and innovative adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. The company dramaturg remade the script to reimagine a gender-swapped version in which a woman played Benedick (as a woman called Beatrice) and a man played Beatrice (as a man called Benedick). Further, the role of Hero’s father became her mother instead, as Leonora. The resulting switches made for a necessary re-evaluation of the play. In a modern dress setting, the military veteran Benedick was recognizable in a woman and the conflict became less about boys vs. girls. It became a story about conflicting families, about the nature and structure of families, and the misunderstandings that break them apart. For this show, an 18’ x 16’ muslin screen was hung on the back wall and vivid photographic images were projected onto it to create the scenery.
Resuming the company mission of doing the obscure pieces, the Fall 2016 show was the rarely seen King John. This was the first piece directed by someone other than one of the two founders. A company member who joined the group for Shrew brought his edited, tightly wound script to the stage in a version that emphasized the family drama at the core of the dynastic rivalry. Again, with the dedicated work of the company’s dramaturg, an obscure play was made clear and understandable to an appreciative audience. The venue enhancement this time was a series of masking screens and curtains to mask the sides of the stage and enclose the audience.
The Merchant of Venice was given an updated suit-and-tie look to reinforce the timeliness of the bigotry and suspicion. The three Jewish characters were cast with African-American actors to emphasize the obvious difference that marked the ghetto community of Venice. A menacing supremacist movement led by Gratiano subsumed the characters and by the end, even Antonio and Portia were swept up in its momentum. The audience was shocked by the recognition of the themes and many found the relevance of the piece disturbing. The venue enhancement was made by the acquisition of two tall light trees that were placed behind the stage curtains and used to project abstract patterns of color on the screen. A leap was made in the use of animated projections that displayed the scrolls found in the caskets and other visual enrichment.
Breaking away from the Shakespeare canon for the first time, the Others produced the audacious Jacobean city comedy The Roaring Girl, by Middleton and Dekker. This outrageous play featured a depiction of Moll Cutpurse a cross-dressing, hard-drinking, street brawling woman who agrees to assist a young man to foil his father’s plans to derail his marriage to his true love. It was boldly staged by the company dramaturg, a first-time director, in an “alley” arrangement. The audience risers were set up on opposite sides of the room with a large rectangular playing area between them on the auditorium floor. The light trees were set up on the stage apron. A new velour canopy was draped over the floor to make an appealing ceiling for the stage and to assist in reducing the reverb. Scenery was constructed to be shop fronts and the wealthy father’s living room. Extensive stage combat was professionally choreographed. The unfamiliarity of the piece was a draw for curious audiences and we hope there will be many more revealing productions of deserving Jacobean plays.
The Others’ most recent show was a re-thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged as a counter-argument to the recent political turmoil as a celebration of love and magic. It reconsidered the Rude Mechanicals and gave them the dignity of being good actors. The play-within-a-play became a triumph for them and for the reunited lovers. Conceived as a simple DIY production, the show's spare design lent an immediacy to the words and the characters spoke with simplicity and clarity.
Currently, as of February 2018, we are preparing a detailed production of All’s Well That Ends Well, another complicated late Shakespearean romance. It will be presented as an enactment of an old, familiar fairy tale. A complicated tale told simply. We will use projections and more lighting than usual to give it a meta-theatrical hyper-realism and to reduce the grand size of the stage to the human proportions of the characters.