Arts organizations in the South Bay have often struggled for survival in a region where people sometimes seem too busy with their jobs for an evening of entertainment.
“I always ask myself when we’re choosing plays: Are we speaking to our community?” says Lisa Mallette. She’s executive artistic director for City Lights, and she directed this production.
“We’re in the heart of Silicon Valley, and this play is about video game programmers and artificial intelligence. And it speaks directly to those people in their language.”
"Build" gives us two programmers, one in a bathrobe, the other in a designer suit, mostly in front of their computers at a kitchen table in a Palo Alto ranch house, trying to beat a deadline. Meanwhile, one of the programmers is in love with an artificial intelligence program he’s created to simulate his late wife.
(Golamco wrote this human-AI love story a year before the 2013 release of "Her," the Spike Jonze film with a similar theme.)
The play and another audience-building strategy made for an unique pre-show experience on a recent night.
City Lights had partnered with Rockage, a vintage video game festival, and founder Eric Fanali set up a few games in the theater lobby before curtain time, including Super Nintendo’s "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" from 1991.
Fanali says the cliche of techies too busy with work to do anything else is often all too real.
“There’s a big interest, and people are all about supporting the arts down here. It’s just a matter of getting people away from their busy schedules and jobs enough to do it,” he says.
Gaming culture got at least one audience member in the door. Brandon de la Cruz is a freshman at De Anza College attending his first play ever, to fulfill a class requirement.
“ 'Cause I’m a big gamer myself,” de la Cruz says, with his eyes glued on a monitor and his fingers flicking a game controller, “and I was really interested that I can see a play, my first play would be about games. So that really hooked me on.”
De la Cruz’s attendance may not seem like a big win, but South Bay arts groups are fighting for audience members just like him, part of a changing demographic, younger, more Latino, more Asian.
But even a full house doesn’t guarantee success. Ticket sales rarely make up more than 50 percent of a company’s revenue. The rest comes from donations and grants, and that has often been a frustrating process for City Lights, said development manager Anne Younan.
“There are a lot of high-tech companies in this area with a lot of money,” she says.
But Younan says tech companies often tell City Lights they’re focusing their philanthropy on what’s called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
For instance, San Disk stopped funding City Lights' student education program a few years ago
“We submitted our grant,” Younan says, “and got the response, ‘Sorry, we aren’t doing that anymore. We’re pulling the arts and culture out of our funding priorities, and we’re just sticking to STEM.’ "
“That was a big blow.” Younan says. “That was $10,000 annually that we won’t get anymore.”
City Lights also submitted a grant to Adobe to pay for software and a microphone used in the production of "Build," but was turned down.
KQED emailed spokespeople at Adobe and San Disk last week, but didn't hear back in time for this story.
Back at the theater, the cast and staff were handing out cheese and wine for the after-show party.
“I’m not much of an arts guy myself. I’m an engineer,” says Steven Meredith, a not-so-young white techie, an engineering vice president at Citrix in Santa Clara. “I had a long week this week at the office, and this is something that’s very different for me. And it’s a real change, a real break from what I do. So, I really enjoy it.”
Meredith says his wife had to drag him to the theater, but he adds that he’ll be back.