Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco, Austin Forbord's compact yet ambitious history of Bay Area stagecraft, reminds us how much duller and more conservative this city is today than even 20 years ago. That's not its primary intent, nor is the documentary overly nostalgic. I should also note that adventurous productions are presently performed in countless small venues most nights of the week. But the straight truth is that the once-palpable excitement and unpredictability -- and the way in which the artists and the audience were so intertwined and fed off each other -- no longer exists.
The focus of Stage Left, which airs Sunday, November 11, 2012 as part of KQED-TV's long-running "Truly CA" documentary series, is the period when remarkable talents such as Hibiscus, Sam Shepard, John O'Keefe, Bill Irwin, George Coates, and Chris Hardman made San Francisco the nation's capital of daring theater. The film opens with a rapid-fire montage of Beats, hippies, and Lenny Bruce that evokes the tradition of tolerance that made this city a destination for political radicals, queer pioneers, and genre-busting performers drawn to the stage.
The first tip of the fedora goes to the Actor's Workshop, founded in 1952, which introduced subversive playwrights such as Brecht, Beckett, Pinter, Albee, and Genet to local audiences (including numerous artists, naturally). Its reputation and influence was so widely recognized that New York's Lincoln Center lured the company away a mere 15 years on.
The swath carved locally by Actor's Workshop was considerable, from alumnus R.G. Davis' founding of the S.F. Mime Troupe in 1959 to the courting of William Ball (to fill the void left by the Workshop's departure) that resulted in American Conservatory Theatre making San Francisco its home in 1967. Among its highlights, the film treats us to rare performance footage of the Mime Troupe's controversial 1965 production, A Minstrel Show (or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel), performed in blackface, and Tartuffe, with which ACT began its admirable run.
Former Mime Trouper Peter Coyote is one of three recurring interviewees, along with San Francisco Chronicle (and previously East Bay Express) critic Robert Hurwitt and documentary filmmaker David Weissman (The Cockettes). Weissman contributes his insights into the flamboyant and popular (and often LSD-influenced) gay/drag shows of the Cockettes and their immediate successor, the Angels of Light. Theatre Rhinoceros is saluted for the brave act of staging The AIDS Show, the first play in the country about the epidemic whose toll inevitably included many, many, many gifted theater artists. "Most of the people you should be interviewing died off," performer and director John LeFan tells the camera. "AIDS killed them."
Deftly organized and edited, Stage Left gracefully weaves in every important movement and company without us ever feeling that a (politically correct) box is being checked off. Attention must be paid (as Willy Loman's wife said), and is, to Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino, Larry Pisoni's "new vaudeville" Pickle Family Circus (and his brilliant co-clowns Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle), playwright Philip Gotanda and Asian American Theatre Company, and the physical and visceral Blake Street Hawkeyes of Robert Ernst, Cynthia Moore, and John O'Keefe.
We are reminded that Magic Theatre founder John Lion and dramaturg Martin Esslin were astute enough to promise Sam Shepard that they'd produce a new play of his every year, which paid off with masterworks like Buried Child and True West (though the Steppenwolf Theater clip of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in the admittedly amazing Chicago production feels out of place in a film about the Bay Area theater scene). And, lest anyone forget, the Eureka Theatre on 16th Street commissioned Tony Kushner's coast-to-coast hit, Angels in America, in 1991.
Stage Left isn't a then-and-now film that overtly tries to convince us of the value of live theater. Nor does it consider its role in a disembodied smartphone/Facebook world. The attentive viewer may be compelled to initiate such a conversation at the conclusion of the one-hour broadcast. Or, for that matter, to debate whether modern-day San Francisco still meets the requirement voiced by performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Pena: "I am a citizen of difference. I want to live in a city that expresses difference, that exudes difference."
Stage Left airs Sunday, November 11 at 10pm on KQED-Channel 9. For more information, visit stageleft-movie.com.