How many years does it take to gain a worthwhile perspective on a cultural scene? After watching "Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco," a documentary that looks at what laid the groundwork for our area’s present-day theater, I can tell you that 15 years is but a dot on the landscape. That is how long I have been observing and writing about theater in the Bay Area, and if someday the years of my tenure can be viewed as part of an epoch, it hasn’t as yet so registered.
But there are identifiable epochs that "Stage Left" examines, and there is first-hand testimony from those who have survived to tell the tales, and revelatory clips that evoke aches for what one has missed. Austin Forbord’s documentary has been screened in limited runs in select venues in the past year, but will be available to anyone with a television set when KQED presents the broadcast debut of Stage Left at 10 p.m. on Nov. 11.
If you are looking for an overview of Bay Area theater today, this is not the place. While many contemporary companies are referenced, Stage Left is about what came before, when San Francisco was a petri dish that had a magnetism in a national culture transitioning away from lockstep conformity. The documentary opens with scenes from the psychedelic 1960s, but then soon reverts to 1952.
That was the year that Herbert Blau and the late Jules Irving founded the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, which is now considered a seminal part of the emerging regional theater movement. "We began to do things at the absolute extremity of what you could put on a stage," Blau tells the filmmakers. Introducing local audiences to Beckett, Brecht, Genet, Pinter, and Albee, the theater began cross-discipline collaborations that were so well regarded that the newly opened Lincoln Center hired Blau and Irving to operate its theater program in 1965. The Actor’s Workshop soon closed, and actor Peter Coyote recalls, probably with some exaggeration, that "what was left was the dregs, including myself."
An end of an epoch, maybe, but some of those dregs help found the Magic Theatre, and Coyote ended up acting in a series of Sam Shepard premieres. And soon Bill Ball was moving his Pittsburgh-based American Conservatory Theater to San Francisco. Ball was something of a creative maniac, and perhaps the best archival film clip is a scene from his production of "The Taming of the Shrew." Marc Singer, as the Kate-taming Petruchio, expounds on gender issues as he maneuvers Fredi Olster’s Katherina around his body as if she were a snake being charmed.
"Let’s take care of the roots as well as the fruit," Ball says in a period interview as he explains his nurturing concept of theater. His bold visions ran afoul of financial realities that led to his high-profile downfall and eventual suicide.