Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco

"Stage Left" posits the San Francisco Bay Area as a particularly rich breeding ground for the artistically and politically progressive in post-WWII American theater.

'Stage Left: A Story of Theater

“Stage Left” posits the San Francisco Bay Area as a particularly rich breeding ground for the artistically and politically progressive in post-WWII American theater. Mixing intriguing archival materials with explanatory insights from observers on both sides of the footlights, this entertaining docu makes a marginally less compelling case than helmer Austin Forbord’s prior “Artists in Exile” did for S.F. as an underappreciated locus for experimental modern dance. But it’s still a valuable record of regional innovation that should appeal to arts-focused educators and broadcasters.

The chronicle commences with the Actors Workshop of San Francisco, which from 1952 introduced the area to modern playwrights and ultra-modern stagings (notably via electronic scores). Not long after its major talents decamped for New York in the mid-’60s, something big came traveling in the opposite direction: Bill Ball’s American Conservatory Theater, a new repertory company that chose San Francisco as its permanent home. Wildly ambitious early seasons took the city by storm, but eventually Ball’s mercurial personality led to a painful decline; he committed suicide after finally leaving for Los Angeles in the late 1980s, leaving others to stabilize the now-healthy institution.

Simultaneous with this grand endeavor came numerous companies conversely bent on no-budget, vigorously political and/or experimental work, many still extant today. The S.F. Mime Troupe articulated 1960s radicalism with rabble-rousing free park shows, most notoriously the blackface-performed racism parody “The Minstrel Show”; devoted entirely to new plays, the Magic Theater hit a legendary mid-’70s patch when Sam Shepard was its resident playwright. The Pickle Family Circus (whose alums include Bill Irwin) pioneered animal-free entertainments that were not at all just for kids, kickstarting an adventuresome New Vaudeville movement.

The late 1970s and ’80s were a fervent period for performance art, the area’s tilt toward visually striking multimedia work illustrated by tantalizing clips and stills from Soon 3, George Coates, Snake Theater and so on. Around the same time, myriad demographically focused companies started up, in many cases the nation’s first of their type (gay, Latino, African- and Asian-American).

A long period of diverse artistic growth seemed to culminate in the triumph of Eureka Theater commission “Angels in America,” which premiered in 1991. But shrinking funding, AIDS deaths and other losses had already exacted a toll. The late 1990s dot-com boom saw rents soar, driving out many creatives and companies. Nonetheless, a new generation of smaller-house innovators are keeping a tradition of innovation alive.

Structured in rough chronological form aided by an animated timeline, with nearly 50 interviewees — actors, designers, directors, writers, critics, fans (like Robin Williams) — “Stage Left” could prove a bit of an information overload for the previously unacquainted. Still, the knowledgeable might quibble over an omission or short-shrifting even within this cluttered canvas. (The most conspicuous of these is a rather late, cursory treatment of Berkeley Rep, which in recent decades has, for many, outflanked ACT as the Bay Area’s most highly regarded and influential legit institution.)

Nevertheless, the docu reps a colorful introduction, with some footage that leaves one begging for more: Highlights include a glimpse at Ball’s wildly physical 1976 “Taming of the Shrew,” and Gary Sinese and John Malkovich in the original Magic production of Shepard’s “True West.” Assembly is pro.

Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco

  • Production: A Kenneth Rainin Foundation production in association with Rapt Prods. Produced by Austin Forbord, Paul Festa. Directed by Austin Forbord. Written by Forbord, Paula Festa, Dr. Zack.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Forbord; editors, Jeremy Briggs, Paul Festa, Forbord; music, Eli Nelson; animation designer, Sony Green. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Oct. 12, 2011. (In Mill Valley Film Festival -- Valley of the Docs.) Running time: 81 MIN.
  • With: With: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt. Narrator: Marga Gomez.