Words like simple, basic, naked — these recur repeatedly in any discussion of the theater with company member and Intersection program director Sean San Jose, who founded Campo Santo in 1996 with fellow actors Margo Hall, Luis Saguar, and Michael Torres. The occasion was a production of Octavio Sol??s's Santos y Santos, a major dramatic success when Thick Description premiered it at Theater Artaud in 1993. San Jose, with Saguar and Torres (who had both been in the original production), staged a new version. Sol??s, who has since worked repeatedly with the company — most recently on 2005's world premiere of The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, a modern folkloric joyride set in the bars of the Mission District — remembers that first production as a portent of things to come.
"I found the production totally different but equally exciting to the one Tony Kelly had directed at Theater Artaud," he told me. "It was such a pressure cooker situation — I didn't think it would ever work in a small space like New Langton Arts. But it was stirring. I knew this company had a future. I saw it as very hungry and focused — intense, brooding, and always on. Never a second wasted."
The decision to stage Santos at New Langton came out of another experience with bare bones performance. "These guys read the play in a youth correctional facility," explains Deborah Cullinan, who at the time had just been hired as Intersection's new executive director — financial straits having temporarily shuttered the arts organization — and was tasked with reviving it. (The rise of Campo Santo and the resurgence of Intersection are intimately tied together, as it turns out.) "They were just reading it for these youth and the water pipe broke in the auditorium, so they got stuck in one of the living quarters, this tiny space. But Luis, Sean, and Michael will all tell you that's when they understood that the words could drive something forward, because the boys were riveted."
The full production impressed Cullinan, and after their next one — an equally successful staging of a very different play, Erin Cressida Wilson's Hurricane — she was convinced this was the sort of broad-ranging company Intersection wanted on board. In turn, Intersection gave Campo Santo crucial support, not least the Valencia Street space, to continue doing the kind of theater it had been groping toward.
The key to the company, Sol??s explains, is that "each actor is a dramaturge. They know what the play needs. They start to intuit it. It's just part of their aesthetic now."
"It's very much a playwright's theater," notes Philip Kan Gotanda, whose A Fist of Roses was a thorough surprise last year, an exploration of male domestic violence whose highly original and unusually collaborative nature did as much credit to the veteran playwright as to the small company. "You just don't find it that often — especially if you're interested, as I'm interested, in writing pieces that are a little off the beaten path, both in form and content."