Powerful writers and equally intense actors play a vital part in Campo Santo's success, 10 years on
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Campo Santo is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, a significant milestone for any small theater company. But this one really does have something to celebrate. The past decade has been an intense, vibrant, unconventionally structured experiment in multicultural communal theater that's not your typical "community theater," but an ambitious undertaking that takes seriously both its own immediate community and the various communities making up society at large. Along the way, it's consistently produced by far some of the most exciting and risk-taking productions around. And with more than 30 world premieres to its credit as the resident company at Intersection for the Arts (San Francisco's premier multidisciplinary alternative arts organization), it's fair to say Campo Santo's output has been nothing short of awesome.
But Campo Santo + Intersection is more than the sum of its production history, as anyone who goes to a performance knows. Not just situated in the Mission District but very much a part of it — it's a place, a space, an environment, a neighborhood, and to many, precisely the hallowed ground the company's name implies. With a loose and flexible network of individuals and groups capable of supporting and elaborating on each other's artistic and social work — as well as an atypically astute and diverse audience — Campo Santo and Intersection's personnel, setting, and semipublic work process all contribute to making it a conspicuously unique site on the theatrical landscape.
There's probably no more ready proof of that, or the success of its formula, than the willingness of so many nationally prominent playwrights to repeatedly collaborate with Campo Santo on new work — a list that includes Naomi Iizuka, John Steppling, Greg Sarris, Jessica Hagedorn, Erin Cressida Wilson, Philip Kan Gotanda, and Octavio Sol??s. It's even famously coaxed the first stage works out of well-established writers and poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca, Dave Eggers, and Denis Johnson.
The series of events marking Campo Santo's 10th anniversary — from workshops, open discussions, and staged rereadings of past productions with the playwrights to a major blowout planned for June 3 — comes as a rare opportunity for company and audience to reflect on a decade of feverish, often brilliant work that has always looked restlessly ahead, as if to the next fix.
The retrospective has been something of a revelation to the company's members and associates, judging by the rapt discussion that followed a rehearsal last week for the Denis Johnson program.
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."
"They're a writer's theater in that they do exclusively new work, and find the playwrights that appeal to them," Sol??s agrees. At the same time, however, he believes Campo Santo is a strong actor's theater. "There's a reason why they're drawn to Erin Cressida Wilson or Naomi Iizuka. There's a real reason why they're drawn to Denis [Johnson]. And Denis now, as I do and I'm sure the other writers are doing — we're writing to suit the company. They have a great core of talent. They really know how to stretch and take chances. They do very dangerous acting."
Remarkably, 10 years along, Campo Santo continues to convey that sense of immediacy, a sense of raw intensity, risk, and daring, while always matching it with exceptional skill and a youthful, street-smart confidence.
Sol??s puts the formula succinctly: "They like passion. They like works about passion. And passion also in that religious sense." SFBG
Campo Santo 10th anniversary
Gala, Sat/3, 7 p.m.
Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St, SF. $25
Real Women, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Karaoke:
The Work of Campo Santo and Jessica Hagedorn, June 9, 7:30 p.m.
Finale: Finding the Future, June 10, 7:30 p.m.
Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia, SF. $9–$20