SAN FRANCISCO -- The conundrum about the San Francisco Bay Area is that everyone wants to live here because it is arguably the most beautiful metropolitan locale with the most temperate climate in the United States, but the high cost of living throughout the nine-county area presents a problem for actors (and other fiscally challenged artists).
The theatre scene, though, is vibrant, varied, and appealingly experimental. And in recent years San Francisco has become a testing ground for new musicals -- commercial shows such as Wicked and Lestat, but also smaller tuners at nonprofit companies like American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and nearby Palo Alto's TheatreWorks.
The Nonprofit Scene
San Francisco's Theatre Bay Area (www.theatrebayarea.org), one of the most active theatre service organizations in the nation, currently serves about 3,000 individual members, at least 75% of whom are actors, according to Dale Albright, the organization's director of individual services. He estimates that 10% of those actors are members of Actors' Equity Association and 25% are members of the Screen Actors Guild. TBA also serves theatre companies (380 at last count); publishes a monthly magazine of the same name, which lists auditions and openings; holds yearly general auditions at which casting and artistic directors, representing everything from LORT companies to nonpaying theatres, shop for talent; and runs the half-price ticket booth in Union Square.
Of TBA's member theatres -- scattered from the Sierra Foothills to Monterey County and beyond -- five are part of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT): San Jose Repertory Theatre, ACT, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, California Shakespeare Theater, and TheatreWorks. Equity reports that at any given time, 75 to 100 of TBA's theatres are operating under an Equity contract of some sort. Nine operate under the Bay Area Project Policy (BAPP) code, an Equity waiver.
A recent issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine listed 45 auditions, including calls for community or amateur, college, and professional theatres. Of those, nine offered an Equity contract or a stipend under BAPP; 19 others offered "some pay" or a stipend. In TBA's 2005 theatre directory, 95 companies claimed to have either an Equity contract -- including several tiers of the Bay Area Theatre (BAT), Modified BAT (MBAT), Guest Artist, and Western Civic Light Opera (WCLO) agreements, and four tiers of the LORT, Letter of Agreement (LOA), Small Professional Theatre (SPT), and University/Resident Theatre Association (URTA) agreements -- or to offer a BAPP stipend. Some of those companies are no doubt defunct, others produce rarely, and still others cast entirely from within their own ranks. In the summer, the area's many outdoor Shakespeare festivals vie for the best classical actors.
ACT, the Bay Area's flagship theatre, maintains a company of three actors on 52-week contracts and says that over the last three seasons, 230 of the 283 actors it employed were local. At least some were students of ACT's professional training program.
Be that as it may, actors here have long complained about local regional theatres' policies of casting at least some of their available roles out of Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere.
And the average union actor doesn't make much money on Bay Area stages in any event. Consider these statistics for actors under a BAT contract: During the 2004-05 season, 363 BAT contracts were signed by actors (compared to 397 the previous season), with the actors who signed those contracts earning an average of $883 for the season. That same season, 725 other contracts were signed by actors. Figures were not available on how many different performers signed those contracts, but, according to popular perception, most of the work goes to two small, elite groups of in-demand union and nonunion actors.
But actors who truly want to tread the proverbial boards here can eventually find a niche. Theatres range from the quirkiest ensembles to the most mainstream regional companies; from ethnicity-specific and culture-specific to those emphasizing particular types of material, acting styles, politics, or other artistic preferences. This year, 507 actors applied to participate in TBA's general auditions (down slightly from years past): 333 were selected by lottery and 28 were waitlisted, both union and nonunion. Most of those who scored slots were first-timers to the generals.
Since the days when Karl Malden patrolled The Streets of San Francisco and, more recently, Don Johnson's Nash Bridges created jobs for local actors, TV work has been scarce in San Francisco. The scenery is drop-dead gorgeous, but shooting here is notoriously expensive.
Help may be on the way. In January, San Francisco supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier proposed that the city offer various financial incentives to filmmakers. If approved by the full Board of Supervisors, the new law could go into effect in early spring. And that's not a minute too soon for the eager local acting community or for Stephanie Coyote, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission (and wife of actor Peter Coyote). She works closely with Amy Zins, her hard-working longtime counterpart in Oakland, with the two recommending each other's cities for shoots.
The Wayans brothers have proposed building a soundstage in Oakland, and another proposal for a public/private soundstage has come before the Oakland City Council. San Francisco's idyllic Treasure Island has stages, but they have not been adequately soundproofed (which is problematic, since noisy construction continues on the nearby Bay Bridge).
Still, says Sean House, a film prop maker who heads the Bay Area Film Alliance -- formed to attract production to the area -- feature film shoots are starting to make a comeback here. (The Bay Area's indie documentary community is particularly strong, but that doesn't do actors much good.) Fairly recent shoots have included Valley of the Heart's Delight, Rent, Bee Season, and Pursuit of Happiness. To the chagrin of local actors, though, they are hired mostly for small roles; the rest of the cast is brought up from Los Angeles. However, actor Kathryn Howell, president of the local branch of SAG, wants the film commissioners to promote the Bay Area's large talent pool to producers. "Because people want to live here, and because there is quite a bit of professional theatre here, we have a lot of well-trained and experienced actors," she says. She also believes that, compared to SAG members in L.A., a larger percentage of the Bay Area's SAG actors are highly trained.
Aside from television and film productions, the Bay Area attracts a modest number of union and nonunion industrials, voiceover work, and commercials. The voiceover crowd makes a living, but they are specialized -- like the stage-acting pool. A small coterie of casting directors, each with individual specialties, handles the media jobs. The fact that the casting community hasn't expanded much over the years -- nor has the number of local agents -- indicates that the quantity of paid acting jobs in the area has also not increased.
Local actors find occasional or ongoing paid work in several additional arenas: staged readings under special Equity contracts; playing patients in training sessions at Stanford Hospital or jurors in mock jury selections; teaching in one of the many drama programs offered by local colleges and, increasingly, by regional theatres; teaching at summer camps focused on theatre and Shakespeare; and performing at corporate events and in corporate videos.
If the talent drain to New York and especially to L.A. is a sad and perpetual fact of life in the Bay Area, it is balanced by the steady influx of new talent and the continual emergence of small but determined theatrical startups.