"I kind of want to apologize for the noise," said Julia Heitner, co-artistic director of San Francisco Theater Pub. "But I feel like this is good. It's your army training for the show."
It was the first rehearsal for Pint-Sized Plays, Theater Pub's flagship annual event. Like the performance itself, the read-through was taking place in a bar: Café Royale, the TenderNob establishment that has been the theater company's home for the past three years. But the bar didn't take the night off for the rehearsal; on the contrary, preparations were well under way for someone's surprise birthday party, meaning the read-through, in Heitner's words, was more of a "scream-through." Nonetheless, the 20 artists present persevered, scrunching tables together so all could make out the first stage direction, from Tom Bruett's "Put It on Vibrate": "In blackout, a phosphorescent dildo flops around."
Pint-Sized, which premieres July 16, is a series of short plays, none lasting longer than the time it takes to finish a beer — literally. Submissions to the event must follow three rules: be shorter than seven pages and include three or fewer characters, one of whom must drink a beer. This year's works include Marissa Skudlarek's "Beer Theory," a boy-meets-girl story with a Nietzschean bent; William Bivins' "Celia Sh*ts," in which boy dumps girl over taking a dump; Seanan Palmero's "Circles," about ruefully self-aware NASCAR fans; and Stuart Bousel's "Llama," whose titular character, played for three years now by Rob Ready, has become the event's mascot.
"You have to use the reality that it is a real beer in a real bar as leverage for the dramatic situation," says Megan Cohen, three-time Pint-Sized playwright and author of this year's "Beeeeeear," about a world-weary dancing bear. Kirsten Broadbear, a veteran Theater Pub performer, concurs. "As an actor, I get to engage with the audience a lot more because there is no fourth wall. That ups the ante for me." That also means improvisation: In one recent performance, three audience members dropped glasses onto the floor. Thinking on her feet, Broadbear incorporated the incidents into her lines.
Theater Pub doesn't just do beer-centered plays, though that is an annual highlight. The company began over three years ago out of necessity: One of its founders, Bennett Fisher, was considering staging a production in his parents' suburban backyard. Rather than ship audiences to the South Bay, Fisher, along with Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, and Brian Markley, drew on an existing relationship with Les Cowan, erstwhile owner of Café Royale, to stage the show in the bar. Since then, the company's monthly performances have ranged from staged readings to full productions of classical dramas, Shakespeare, and world premieres. No matter the show, the company's motto, "Make it good, keep it casual, have a beer," prevails.
It's the casualness that makes Theater Pub unique in the Bay Area theater scene. Current artistic directors Heitner, Bousel, and Markley see themselves as creating a community for artists and audiences seeking alternatives to the conventional theatergoing experience. At every event, audiences are encouraged to order drinks and be merry before, during, and after the event. They are free to hoot and holler, or get up and leave at any time. It's also free (with a suggested $5 donation), and it usually only lasts 60 to 90 minutes. For Cohen, all these qualities remove "the barriers to entry, the baggage, people have with the performing arts." Theater Pub, she feels, works well as a "gateway drug" into theater.
Café Royale, which specializes in beers from local breweries, has a number of qualities that make it ideal for Theater Pub. It's a true "public house" in a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of bars with a welcoming, community vibe. It's a host for other groups — Opera on Tap, visual artists, pop-up chefs — who don't otherwise have a home. And it features acoustics and architecture — with tall ceilings, lots of smaller but easily visible alcoves, and a four-sided balcony — that lend themselves to performance.
On the night of the scream-through, though, it was someone else's performance. About an hour into the rehearsal, the birthday boy walked in, and "Surprise"s and "Happy Birthday" ensued. The Theater Pub actors, ever ready to improvise, paused their rehearsing to join in a song for a stranger.