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San Francisco’s Beloved EXIT Theatre Takes a Final Bow

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four women on stage in schoolgirl costumes in a play
Ladybird (María Ascensión Leigh, center) and the Witches (L-R: Jessica Waldman, Mikka Bonel, Carla Pauli) in 'MacBitch' by The Breadbox at EXIT Theatre in 2017. (Alandra Hileman)

My first offhand memory of EXIT Theatre doesn’t even take place there. It was at the Potrero Stage in 2018, when I was there to review a show, and I was approached by EXIT Theatre’s publicist. She’d read my reviews—something that always surprises me—and wanted to add me to EXIT’s press list. Having spent the last eight years frequenting the Tenderloin venue, I wasn’t about to refuse. To say the least, I was happy.

I had the exact opposite emotion last month, when I learned that EXIT founder Christina Augello is closing the Eddy Street venue for good. I know that it’s neither the first nor last San Francisco business to close during this still-ongoing pandemic, but for frequent EXIT performers and patrons (I’ve been both), the news was an absolute gut-punch.

We all knew EXIT’s origins, and how Augello started performing in the lobby of a Tenderloin residential hotel in 1983. We journalists who reported on the venue knew to always call it “EXIT Theatre,” no “the.” We knew that the firefighter’s hat above the cafe was temporarily taken down when a firefighter took offense (it was put back up a month or two later). And, of course, we knew it was the one and only home of the San Francisco Fringe Festival.

(L to R) Sabrina Wenske and Cara McClendon in "You Fuckin Earned It" at the SF Fringe Festival.
(L to R) Sabrina Wenske and Cara McClendon in ‘You Fuckin Earned It’ at the San Francisco Fringe Festival at EXIT Theatre. (Courtesy Shoot That Clown)

What few outsiders knew was exactly why we regulars referred to it as “the heart of San Francisco’s indie theater scene.”

Its Eddy Street location puts EXIT just two blocks south of what’s considered the proper heart of San Francisco’s theater district, home to the Curran and Geary Theaters. That’s where you’ll find all the Geary Boulevard tourist traps: countless restaurants; an abundance of art galleries; and who knows how many hotels—all within walking distance of Union Square. It’s where people expect to see world-renowned shows and take a lot of photos.


EXIT, by contrast, is the place where I, as an actor, would hear about critics not seeing my show because they wouldn’t travel through the “gauntlet” of the Tenderloin. (EXIT’s the place where I once arrived for a show, left briefly to get a bite, and returned to find the front display window smashed.)

Keeping out the wealthy riff-raff was always part of its appeal. Everyone at EXIT was someone who wanted to be there.

a shuttered venue with a sign that reads 'EXIT Theatre'
The humble exterior of EXIT Theatre, seen shuttered in 2021. The venue’s location in the Tenderloin was part of what kept its spirit intact. (Charles Lewis III)

Its four stages—the main stage, the black box EXIT Stage Left, the smaller EXIT Studio, and EXIT Cafe cabaret stage—welcomed all the eccentrics and iconoclasts who had almost no chance of appearing on one of those fancier stages a few blocks north. A single night could feature a hard-hitting racial drama, a drag show, a magic act and “DIVA or Die” Burlesque, all under the same roof. Located within walking distance of the Powell BART station and boasting reasonably priced stage rentals, it’s no mystery why broke artists flocked to the storefront fourplex, where paying audiences could absorb our work while consuming microwaved taquitos and sake cocktails, both often served by the wonderful Donna Fujita.

Eventually, one wound up at EXIT so frequently that they started working there in some capacity. Artistically, I’ve been there as an actor, producer, writer, director, set builder, and lighting operator. As a volunteer, I’ve been door greeter (with four stages, you soon find that patrons get lost even when you specify) and stage cleaner. And I did, well, whatever I could at SF Fringe. While I remain critical of the “paying in experience” cliché, the sense of community inside that building was an experience that couldn’t be bought or found anywhere else, even in a city renowned for off-the-wall art.

Quinn (Lyle McReddie) and Caroline (Jeunée Simon) contemplate some strange events in the Exit Theater's production of 'Paradise Street' by Clive Barker.
Quinn (Lyle McReddie) and Caroline (Jeunée Simon) contemplate some strange events in EXIT Theatre’s production of ‘Paradise Street’ by Clive Barker in 2016. (Jay Yamada)

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been inside the venue since the pandemic started. (Even though I’m COVID-cautious, I regret missing the final Fringe.) When I interviewed Christina in late 2020, while all theaters were closed, I was inspired by her statement that theater would soon “rise from the ashes,” bringing back the sense of community we’d lost to cancellations and closures. Yet I wound up reporting about more EXIT shutdowns.

This one is the last. And it hurts.

Yes, Christina suggests EXIT (with a satellite venue in Arcata) will continue as a “nomadic” company, but that’s little comfort for those of us who always knew where to go. Companies like Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Impact Theatre, Ubuntu Theatre (now Oakland Theater Project) and Ragged Wing Ensemble all vacated their longtime venues when prices got too high. Sure, it’s great to see PianoFight and CounterPulse trying to buy their buildings, but that doesn’t make the loss of EXIT hurt any less. In an increasingly expensive Bay Area, it’s one less go-to venue for eccentric and non-conforming art.

I’m hopeful EXIT Theatre will rise from the ashes in a new location. I just hate not knowing where—or if—it’ll be.

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