Mark Ellinger spent six years living on the streets, addicted to heroin. When he shot some bad dope and ended up in the hospital for two and a half months, he resolved that things would be different when he got out.
"It was a decision I made that whatever door opens, I was going to walk through it," he said. "That was my modus operandi, and it worked. "
The door that opened was getting a digital camera from a neighbor who didn't want it anymore. Ellinger, who had studied at the S.F. Art Institute when he moved here from Ohio, lived in a single room occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin. When he returned from the hospital, he started taking pictures of the neighborhood, particularly the Beaux Arts architecture .
"The perspective that I started working on and continue working from is to look past the veneer of crime and decay," he said. "Look up, actually. Look up above the street level, because that's where you'll see the architect's original intent."
Ellinger started a blog, Up from the Deep. http://upfromthedeep.com/ This is how director and writer Annie Elias found him when she sought people to interview for a documentary play for the Cutting Ball Theater, about the neighborhood where it resides -- the Tenderloin.
The result, Tenderloin, has its opening tonight (Friday) at Exit on Taylor.
Ellias, who lives in Fairfax, says a year ago when she came to the theater, she parked as close as she could and tried not to engage at all with the neighborhood, which she thought of as a scary, violent place. Now, she says, she sees the love and care people here have for one another, and she looks in people's faces. She hopes audience members will start to do the same.
"My hope is through the piece we sort of uncover that humanity, and we get to the heart of it and people will leave feeling differently," she said.
Ellinger gave Elias a long list of people to interview who live and work in the neighborhood, including Kathy and Leroy Looper. Leroy (who passed away last fall -- the show is dedicated to him) was a drug addict who wanted to help other drug addicts. He and his wife started halfway houses and owned the Cadillac Hotel on Eddy.
Rebecca Frank portrays Leroy Looper in the show, along with a young man who works at the Boys and Girls Club and a high school senior who loved growing up in the Tenderloin. Frank, who takes BART in from Oakland, says hearing people's stories changed how she feels about the neighborhood.
"I find it still such a challenging place in the best kind of way," Frank says. "Sometimes I leave the theater and I find I'm far more open than when I came, and I've had far more interactions with people. I'm much more open to stopping and having an exchange."
Among the places Frank discovered is Aunt Charlie's Lounge, where she and some other members of the cast enjoyed a drag show. A waitress from the lounge is in the play.
David Sinaiko plays Kathy Looper as well as Ellinger. He says Ellinger, with his admonitions to look up, made him notice the beauty in the neighborhood, which was designated a national historic district in 2009. Now he walks around the Tenderloin, marveling at cornices and brickwork.
"Mark talks about the aesthetics of decay," Sinaiko said. "He sees beauty in that, and now I can see it too."
Tenderloin starts at 8 p.m. (and continues through May 27) at Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), S.F. Admission is $25-$50.