Editor’s Note: ‘Backstage Heroes’ spotlights the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly, giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
Any empty theater always seems haunted: seat-backs look out at the stage, expecting something; it’s too quiet. It’s graceful, but missing something.
But not if Ty McKenzie walks in. Even if she’s the single living being in the theater — and she often is — the walls themselves seem to warm up in her presence; rows of chairs still wait, yet suddenly seem happy to do it. As owner of the Mission District’s indie theater, Stage Werx, McKenzie is the glue that connects an empty theater to a loud one - the secret link between audience and performer.
When I meet McKenzie at her Valencia Street venue, she immediately points to the ceiling, to show me the latest improvement: Stage Werx’s lighting system is now all-LED. No more rigging to climb, no more hot lights, and a lower energy bill. McKenzie seems relaxed today, although she is, as always, wound pretty tight; she’s one of those people who seem to be made partly out of springs. Her black canvas jacket is scabbed with embroidered patches and full of holes, and her general aspect begs the chicken-or-egg question: Does riding a motorcycle make one strong, or are lean, muscly people more likely to ride motorcycles? McKenzie’s bright blue eyes under a white-blonde shock of hair signal huge reserves of - what? Enthusiasm? Plain energy? Manic energy?
Pretty much all the things
“As a theater owner, my job is to move items from one place to another, and then back again,” she says, laughing. “That is my job. I do that almost every day of my life. Plus I do the maintenance here. I do the electrical work here. I tech shows. I do the cleaning, I do the ordering, I do the paperwork. Pretty much all the things.” She shrugs. This is all normal to her; there are no employees at Stage Werx. “And the biggest part is moving things from one place to another.”
And back again?
“Seriously. Ask any theater owner, they’ll be like ‘Yeah, that’s what I do.’”
Another thing she does is make the space not merely available, but friendly to amateurs by keeping her rental prices as low as possible. She doesn’t collect a salary, for one thing. Again, this seems normal to her. Every penny that comes in, she plows back into those LEDs, “So that folks who couldn’t afford a 70-seat theater can. Those are the people I want to come in here, you know, the circus folks, solo performers, comics.”
A small handful of shows staged in McKenzie's space would include Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, 30 semi-improv ensemble plays in 60 minutes by the Neo-Futurists; All Atheists Are Muslim, a one-woman show by Iranian-American comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh that tells the story of introducing her “whitey-White” boyfriend to her religious family; and Your F---ed Up Relationship, wherein EndGames improv stages (and mocks) an audience member’s relationship story.
Comedian W. Kamau Bell made use of the Stage Werx space before landing his critically lauded cable TV show, Totally Biased, for which he relocated to Manhattan at producer Chris Rock’s request. Back in the Bay Area before his next show airs, he calls McKenzie a "hero" without even knowing it’s the title of this series, then salutes her determination to celebrate live performance.
“She knows that when you actually get into a room, sit with strangers in the dark, and collectively decide to all focus on one thing, you can have an experience that can't be replicated on your TV, phone, tablet, phablet, or whatever,” he says. “People forget how cool live entertainment is, until they go see it.”
If San Francisco were the creative haven it claims to be, Bell tells me, the city itself would pay the rent here.
Finding a family
Stage Werx also welcomes anything to do with Burning Man. McKenzie and her identical twin Cory (same hair, same tough-punk look, same heart of gold) are longtime Burners, and she credits the desert art festival with years of inspiration. Burning Man’s gift economy (remember that?) and focus on decommodification certainly dovetail with the low-budget/high-quality way in which Stage Werx is run. Likewise, the theater maintains a sense of performances as a connection between participants, as opposed to a product sold to strangers. Cory helps out at the theater, for one thing, and then there are the theater-world people who she says saw something in her long-ago self, like Linda Ayres-Fredrick of the Phoenix Arts Association.
“I think she might have seen that I was this serious, passionate, interested person," McKenzie says about Ayres-Fredrick. "And when you come across someone like that, you grab onto them and you don’t let go. You think, great! What can we do with you?”
Other people helped her along as well, and McKenzie remains wide-eyed about this. The twins, it turns out, have been on their own since their early teens, after what she describes as “a very negative violent horrifying childhood; we’re probably still carrying a lot of that trauma with us.” There were drugs, and homelessness. It’s no surprise they’d be looking for family and willing to work like crazy to prove worthy of same. What’s heartwarming is that Ty, at least, actually found a family (she would say two, including Burning Man).
“I started out at the Exit, with Jason Reis, and anything I wanted to know he was happy to show me, teach me, tell me," McKenzie says. "And the same with Mark Burg [of Beach Blanket Babylon]. And Bart Grady [now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival] — he gave me his first Leatherman. I still have it, I’m so honored, I mean, are you kidding me? What a great gift.”
We talk about the term “monetize,” and how opposed it is to the San Francisco we've known; she points out that although she doesn’t make money (“I eat, that’s it”) she’s enormously satisfied with a life of helping people do what they love. She strings together odd jobs to pay her small expenses: she works plays at the Phoenix, she babysits. But of this, her main labor, she mentions something that can't be bought: People actually appreciate her for her work, “visibly, in actions and words.” She gets thank-you cards from people who rent the place. Little gifts, too. Poor as she may be, with no savings, no hidden family money, nothing, she’s all in: “It’s this great life, it’s a blast!" she says. "I mean, I’ve never been about money. I can’t do that. It’s just not in me to do.”
A rare breed
Another San Francisco institution McKenzie is connected to is self-described “arts facilitator” Chicken John. His years of experience running the Odeon bar (now the Knockout) allow him an insider’s view of certain aspects of her work. “The people who run theaters and performance spaces are a rare breed of person whose job is never done,” he says, “and whose fate is subject to the whim of fickle audience rubes who steal your toilet paper.”
Chicken John’s world might be somewhat different from his friend’s, however. As we sit in the still otherwise-empty theater, McKenzie tells me about plans for the future -- she dreams of starting a self-sustaining, farm-based arts retreat center, maybe to run with Cory. But for the moment, she says she’s pretty happy right here.
“My joy is seeing people perform. I get the joy out of giving them this stage, seeing them in a clean theater with working things that make them look really good," she says. "They get to fulfill their dreams, and I get the joy out of watching them fulfill their dreams, and then seeing an audience enjoy them. It’s all fun and love and happiness, you know what I mean?”
McKenzie’s been sitting still for what I sense is just a little too long. And just like that, she has to run off, to go move items from one place to another and back again.