How does a small, intrepid theater company survive and thrive in turbulent economic times? Look to SoMa's Climate Theater
I've heard about a fortuneteller with a tarot deck and a dead fish. I can smell the fish, but I'm daunted by the line in front of the curtain, so I wander into another room and stand before a terrycloth sculpture of some tropical beach getaway. It looks a little like a desert nomad's tent in Technicolor, and comes fronted by an immobile bare-shouldered woman in vertical repose, cast like a caryatid and basking in cat-eye shades under some imagined equatorial sun for, I'm told, hours on end.
I try not to stare at her beach towel, which not only conforms to her shape but also a life-size photorealistic representation of what you imagine to be the body underneath. Somebody finally offers her a color-appropriate drink through a straw as my eyes dart over to a bedroom scene of vaguely subconscious associations: an inanimate, incongruous couple pokes out from under a duvet, the whole scene partially obscured by a murky plastic curtain on which a playfully frenetic lightshow dances. Titled Sea of Dreams and fashioned by Joegh Bullock landlord and Anon Gallery proprietor, in addition to being one of more than 20 artists with work on display here tonight it stands just to the left of a DJ booth, and attracts a group of costumed art lovers who also break into dance.
Taking in Unseen/Unsaid, as this one-off evening of curated art and performance is called, is a lot like trying to take in the history of the Climate Theater itself, full of blurring boundaries and strange echoes. In some ways it's as labyrinthine as the floor plan of the former bordering house at Ninth and Folsom streets whose second floor contains the theater, its offices, and Anon Gallery. Branching out in several directions at once, it also stitches together the fringe arts, tech, and underground party scenes of the mid-1980s to those of the present.
Next year the Climate turns 25, an impressive run for any theater, and probably a better occasion than just now to trace this one's full baroque lineage. Suffice it to say that the Climate Gallery, as it was originally known, was an accidental theater started by artists who, by their own admission, had no background or even interest in theater per se. But in opening its doors in 1985 to Nina Wise, who had recently lost a performance space, it quickly became a vital scene and vibrant avenue for some of the most dynamic and promising crossover and experimental work around.
In the last year and a half, as a result of a spurt of new energy via new management as well as a larger recrudescence, if you will, of some of the old SoMa arts scene of the '80s the Climate has been looking pretty spry for a decades-old theater. Granted, this is happening at a time of supreme social and economic uncertainty. But what's particularly striking about this fresh whirl of eclectic programming, as well as some wider neighborhood networking, is how naturally it harks back to the early history of the quirky black box, founded by artists and famed trend-setting party impresarios Bullock and Marcia Crosby also founders, with Mark Petrakis, of the famed Glashaus parties of the '90s and the still-influential Anon Salons. The current vibrant and dedicated bustle on this little corner of the city frankly inclines one to wax wise: do not the biggest downpours also give rise to the most unexpected blooms?
Then again, a few months ago Great Depression II: the Reckoning was just the big coming unattraction. By now it has officially hit theaters, and already set more than one teetering. Most dramatic cases so far: the Magic Theater whose recent close shave with the bill collectors put in jeopardy the rest of the current season before a massive donor campaign was launched and Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which underwent a similar, narrowly averted disaster. If this can happen to established, midsize institutions, what of the little guy? And with funding for the arts promising to be an even shakier proposition than usual $50 mil in the stimulus bill notwithstanding it's small wonder that GDII is the inevitable topic of conversation in theater circles.
Climate Theater artistic director Jessica Heidt, however, is talking to me about sloths. We're parked at a table outside Brainwash, a couple blocks east of Climate, and it's becoming clear she admires them. "There's this theory," she says, "that the reason sloths are so sedentary and stay in one tree is that they then fertilize their tree."
I wait for the relevance of this remark to wash over me. I had thought we were discussing the Climate.
"I'm really interested in being rooted in the neighborhood that you're living in," she continues. "So you can fertilize what's around you and have a more symbiotic relationship."
Heidt took over Climate in September 2007, shortly after leaving her associate artistic director position at the Magic. Since then, and true to her words on symbiosis, she has been strengthening the theater's area ties. Recently she banded together with colleagues from other small neighborhood theaters and dance venues under the banner of the newly formed SOMA Culture Coalition, organizing the first theater crawl between the Garage, Boxcar Theater, and Climate.
Meanwhile, Heidt has been coordinating some theater and dinner packages with Climate's downstairs neighbor, the Medici Lounge. Then there are the collaborations she's facilitating between Climate artists and neighborhood organizations. She describes one involving women in the penal system based out of the women's re-entry program on Bryant Street. "That's been key with the resident artist program," she says, "figuring out partnerships for my eight resident artists to go work with social service organizations, specifically in this neighborhood, where they can give back a little bit the sloth theory."
So much sprang from the Climate's operation in the 1980s and '90s that the outfit was soon labeled "the biggest little theater in San Francisco." And no wonder, since the space managed to be at the precise center of some mighty major trends. Tapped into the local vanguard geek scene of the burgeoning tech industry, for instance, Climate opened the country's first Internet-wired restaurant-bar downstairs, the Icon Byte Bar and Grill. Meanwhile, the same confluence of art-types and venturesome techies spurred on new social networking strategies, including the earliest version of ex-Climate board member Craig Newmark's ever-expanding online message board.
In the performance world, Climate helped spawn the storied Solo Mio Festival in 1990, a jaw-dropping who's who of the form which enjoyed a real vogue as the most promising segue out of a performance art shtick everyone was getting pretty bored with. Solo Mio's principal curator was also, as it happens, its second performer, after Wise, to grace the Climate's new stage in 1985: former SF denizen Bill Talen, a.k.a. Reverend Billy, followed by a runaway hit that solidified Climate's new status as a serious alternative venue, "avant-vaudevillian" Helen Shumaker's turn as Mona Rogers in Person, which ended up ensconced off-Broadway. One could go on. There was the international avant-puppetry performance showcase Festival Fantochio ...
Climate worked with the hand they were dealt: once, Winston Tong, one "performance art crossover guy" who sparked Fantochio, was stabbed onstage. "Suddenly there was this big blood-spurting thing that we knew wasn't special effects," remembers Crosby with a cringe. Soon afterward she discovered, while putting up flyers for the show, that the accident had helped them in the all-mighty word-of-mouth department. "'Is that the show where somebody got stabbed?' they asked. I said, 'Yeah, you should see it.' They went, 'Yeaaah!'<0x2009>"
Bullock while still a practicing artist and one of the biggest events presenters around, associated with everything from the Sea of Dreams NYE parties to the SF Burning Man events, Decompression, and Flambé Lounge notes wryly that these days he's not always recognized when he strays from Anon to the other side of the building. In truth, his and Crosby's involvement with the theater side of Climate is limited. "I'm still a board member, and I'm still sub-landlord of this space," he says. "But I don't have much to say about the programming."
The theater itself is the Climate's second incarnation after a progressively overtaxed Bullock and Crosby finally decided to hang up their theater hats and vacate the storefront space at 252 Ninth St. in the late '90s and it's the handiwork of magician, actor, showman, and impresario Paul Nathan of Dark Kabaret a lavishly popular event that has served in part, like Bullock and Crosby's famous Glashaus parties, as a fundraiser for the theater.
Nathan happened to be driving by, contemputf8g a sojourn in Europe in the wake of the dot-com bust, when he saw the for-rent sign at Ninth and Folsom. He knew the space well from Glashaus party days and the old Billboard Café, which derived its name from the sheets with painted messages that regularly hung from the roof. "I thought, you know, small theater is a dumb idea," he says. "But with a billboard there, we might be able to make a go of it." He got a good deal on the rent from Bullock, built a stage in the empty space, and took on the Climate name again with Bullock's hearty approval.
"We started with Devil in the Deck and Titillation Theater," Nathan recalls. The evolving smart and sexy sketches of Titillation Theater (favorite program title: Let's Pretend I'm Not Your Mother) produced another long-running success for the Climate. "We got huge crowds, but we were also advertising in the Chronicle, so our advertising budget was just insane," he adds. "We were breaking even, or making a little bit of money each week. But we really didn't know what we were doing. There was no grant money." Eventually, Nathan says, they couldn't afford to continue: "You do the numbers it just can't happen."
Journey across the gulf of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, during which the theater briefly disappeared along with many other art spaces and artists, to the moment when Heidt joined the Climate in 2007. In step with the intrepid optimism she detects in her SoMa environs, she has cheerfully and tirelessly overseen a remarkable resurgence of activity at the 49-seat black-box theater. With its all-volunteer staff, the venue hit a high point in February, presenting in that one month 16 downright disparate shows, including the current West Coast premiere of Skin, a smart, bold, adults-only rumination on lust and fidelity by the sharp and whimsical young Atlanta playwright Steve Yockey, a coproduction with Encore Theater, which coproduced Yockey's Octopus at the Magic last year.
As offbeat as any play by Yockey promises to be, it remains one of the more straight-ahead components in an unusually varied theatrical lineup. The Climate's programming stretches beyond the average small theater fare and its audience, to encompass a range of performance and visual art styles and solid Bay Area microscenes like those around clowning or belly dance as well as a laidback, brew-in-hand atmosphere of cultured fun, or just funny culture, amenable to a more general bar-hopping crowd.
The first show Heidt produced, You Tubed, a performance series codirected by the artistic director and Richard Ciccarone, was a crowd-pleasing blend of quotidian Internet technology and live reenactments. At the same time, Climate is also making forays into exploratory works in other media: one of Heidt's first initiatives was establishing both a music and (now defunct) film series. She also repeatedly brought in acclaimed clown and Cirque de Soleil vet John Gilkey's rollicking band of bad-boy "anticlowns," Your New Best Friends.
"The great thing about this space is that we get to try stuff out and to be much more experimental," Gilkey explains, taking a break from rehearsing a new show he's developing for the Climate stage. Gilkey's association with the Climate runs back at least 15 years, but it's not nostalgia that brings him back.
"The history of San Francisco is that of producing amazing clowns," he says, citing Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin, and Larry Pisoni. "I think we have to push a lot harder to be more subversive, more daring, and bolder in the kind of clown we're creating. This is the place that has open doors for the forward stuff, and that's what excites me."
Climate's forward programming last month included installments of the Wednesday night Music Box concerts; another Improv Soapbox open jam session hosted by resident champs Crisis Hopkins; the Monday night Clown Cabaret directed by Paoli Lacy and showcasing students and grads from the Clown Conservatory, as well as faculty and seasoned clowns of the likes of Gilkey, Joel Salom, and James Donlon; another boisterous staging of the matchmaking show and runaway hit, The Dating Game; and Unseen/Unsaid, one in a series of irregular, curated, multi-artist, multidisciplinary, and multi-roomed art parties.
Looking back at its history, the Climate's success then, and now, has resided in its talent for bridging not just disciplines and genres, but audiences and whole scenes in what was once and increasingly is again a flourishing hub of arts and nightlife in SoMa. While it remains to be seen if this gradual crawl back to life can weather the full brunt of the coming economic storm, Heidt's sloth theory dovetails comfortably with her vision of a diverse but tight-knit artistic community.
Her extensive theater background has held her in good stead: Heidt knows how to produce, direct, and write grants although ticket sales are still the main source of operation revenue. At the same time, she's been inspired by what she was not familiar with. "For me that's been one of the most exciting things about being here going to Burning Man, knowing it's a city of crazy artists, incredibly talented people, and it's all sort of below the surface of what you're seeing in the mainstream," she says. "To be able to tap into that world a little has been really fun."
As for Bullock and Crosby, who both have remained deeply involved in the culture and organizing of Burning Man and its year-round Bay Area events, they are clearly gratified with a direction they see as consonant with the theater's long, remarkably fruitful tradition of cultivating crossover communities and promoting the edgy, fun, experimental, and unexpected. "She's doing the kind of programming that we used to do," says Bullock, "which is eclectic."
I'm hearing echoes again. "South of Market is starting to come back," he continues. "I think there's a resurrection of the arts right now. I think this corner and this block are key to it, with New Langton Arts and Eighth Street. I mean, this is becoming what it used to be 20 years ago." Bullock laughs. "It's like, what the hell?"
Through March 21
Thurs.Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7:30 and 10 p.m.; $15$20
285 Ninth St., SF
For info on this and other events, go to www.climatetheater.com