‘Store-front Theater,’ an Interview with Richard Livingston

by Eric Schaefer on April 11, 2005

Since 1983 the EXIT Theater, now located at 156 Eddy street and 277 Taylor street, has served up some of the freshest and most original shows in a town crowded with great theater. The EXIT is now a self described “theatreplex” at the corner of Taylor and Eddy streets, with four small stages and a bistro and puts on about a hundred shows, with a total of 500 performances, per year. In fact, Livingston estimates that 20,000 people per year take in a show at the EXIT and half of them are under 35.

In many small theaters, the management has a chance to focus on a particular program and to create a unique experience. Like those theaters, the EXIT provides a unique experience, but it’s not about creating a particular kind of theater or a particular “house” feel, it’s about letting the performers take it where they want it to go, with a minimum of interference. “We’re looking for artists that have their own vision,” says Livingston, “we’re all about putting on performance.”

At the EXIT, and at most small theaters, “Artists are the ones that are supporting it,” taking the time to develop and produce their own shows. “It is a grassroots anarchistic effort that’s happening out here,” Livingston says, and he estimates players routinely put 2,000 person hours of production work into a show, providing tens of thousands of dollars in subsidy. To Livingston that hard work is not only a valuable contribution to the show but an education for beginning and underground artists: “You can’t just sit on your rear end and wait for ACT to hand you a leading role.”

Of course, says Livingston, “Media is something small arts groups have to struggle for,” and when the Chronicle and SF Weekly have only one dedicated theater critic each, “The big guys always get covered first.” In fitting with the EXIT’s performer-focus, most shows are advertised by word of mouth, often through friends and acquaintances of the actors. Also, they do not sell season tickets, so “The shows really attract unique audiences to each show.”

In addition to its special emphasis on the artist, the EXIT Theater has a unique space. Though many alternative companies flit from space to space, the directors at the EXIT decided decided early on that they wanted a dedicated space, one that they could call their own. Of course, commercial real-estate in San Francisco is hard to come by at the prices that an off-beat theater can afford. So the EXIT hit on a novel idea, and rented the commercial store-front space of the William Penn Hotel, a non-profit run housing provider. Non-profit residential hotels often rent their commercial store-fronts to social services, but those services typically close up at night. According to Livingston, “We fit with their social mission” and the EXIT’s neon sign is lit late into the night so “We bring positive night-time activity into what is often a difficult area.”

The EXIT is now one of the oldest businesses on the 100 block of Eddy street, helping other “store-front” spots like Rx Gallery, the Comedy Club and Original Joe’s Cabaret to inject the “positive night-time activity” that the neighborhood desperately needs.

In Livingston’s words, “There cannot be too much theater, the more there is, the more people get used to it.” Here are the three of the EXIT’s major productions.

For the last four years the EXIT has produced DivaFest, “a theatrical collage of the female creative” dedicated to new plays by women. The festival will showcase eight different pieces, finished plays, workshops and poetry readings, April 20th through 30th. Tickets on a sliding scale $12-$20, more information at sffringe.org/divafest.html.

Later in the summer, the EXIT will host the theater portion of Laborfest, a celebration of working people and the labor movement that will include a wide variety of events across the city. This year the EXIT’s own artistic director, Christina Augello, will perform her one-person play about a depression era drifter and activist “Boxcar Bertha”, which premiered at last year’s DIVAfest.

But the biggest of the EXIT’s events is San Francisco’s Fringe Festival, a cousin of Fringe Festivals in Edinburgh, London, Winnipeg, Orlando and other cities across the country and across the world. This year the EXIT ‘s 4 stages will pack 250 performances by 44 companies into a 12 day “marathon of theater”. The Fringe Festival is an “audience friendly” event, with cheap tickets and hour-long plays timed to finish so that three or four others start soon after. Livingston says that the fringe “attracts an audience that is risk-taking” and creates a uniquely social atmosphere, in which “certain of the performances take on a life of their own and become the ones that people are talking about.” Many small groups use the festival’s openness to build an audience following and take off, like the Crowded Fire Theater Company, whose play “One Big Lie” is playing now.

The Fringe festival also fits perfectly into the EXIT’s mission: it is completely open access, with a bare minimum of intrusion between performers and their audiences. Submissions are tossed in a hat and chosen randomly, and all of the ticket revenue goes to the players. “It is the most open source thing that we do,” says Livingston, “the first person that makes a judgment about a piece, apart from the creator, is the audience.” The Fringe Festival plays September 7th-18th.

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