SF cranks up ‘Music’ in quiet times

ACT forges ahead with pricey production

SAN FRANCISCO — In today’s economy, many regional theaters are looking for cost-effective productions to keep their subscribers happy without stretching their already strained budgets. So it might seem risky to stage a 13-actor epic based on Homer’s “The Iliad.”

The world premiere of “War Music,” adapted by director Lillian Groag from Christopher Logue’s contemporary, English-language version of the Greek classic and bowing April 1, represents everything San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater stands for, according to its leadership.

Artistic director Carey Perloff commissioned the production 2½ years ago. In the cast are five of the company’s six core actors, all on seasonal contracts; the rest, except for one, are locals — thus, moving and housing fees are negligible compared with productions at least partially cast in New York and elsewhere.

Of course, ACT has had to face financial reality. A second-stage play, scheduled for spring, was cut. Staffers were laid off; some open positions remain unfilled, with seven fewer people doing the same amount of work. But, says executive director Heather Kitchen, “We’re here to benefit the community in which we live. When we needed to make cutbacks, we wanted to make sure the artistic programming continued with as much strength as possible.”

That, plus its commitment to its students, was ACT’s first priority.

Most of the fund-raising for the $1 million “War Music” was done at least eight months ago, when times were better. Also, because the company has not been drawing from its endowment, it has solicited extra, multiyear gifts from individual donors to keep values intact.

Specifically, the develop ment process and final production of “War Music” were supported by grants from the NEA, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and individual donors.

Despite its large cast, “War Music” is not this season’s most expensive show (that honor goes to Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll”); rather, it’s in line with the cost of John Guare’s “Rich and Famous,” which had live music; and Jane Anderson’s four-character drama “Quality of Life.” Using live musicians was discussed for “War Music,” but instead it has an original, recorded score. “It’s a matter of checks and balances,” Kitchen says.

ACT’s income is 70% derived from ticket sales, and with a 1,000-seat house, filling seats is Kitchen’s greatest concern. “People don’t necessarily want to go out,” she explains. Marketing was enhanced, with more placards than usual on taxis and in transit stations.

“I’m just hoping the solution in part for a theater like ACT is not to retrench,” Perloff says. “Not to do one- and two-character plays, but to create such an event that audiences feel they have to see it.”

“This keeps a lot of artists employed,” she adds. “I feel those of us who have institutional theaters should be doing our own little mini WPA to keep artists on the payroll.”

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