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The first SF Weekly Black Box Awards

Wednesday, Apr 8 1998
San Francisco theater has always consisted of two barely overlapping worlds. For the great majority, theater is but one of these worlds: ACT, Berkeley Rep, the Broadway touring shows promoted in the pink pages, and perhaps the Magic or the California Shakespeare Festival -- decently funded operations supported by unions, grants, and subscriber lists.

But there's another world as well -- the world conjured by the phrase "black box," an empty room in which artists with an imagination create new worlds.

The phenomenon of the black box grew out of financial necessity: Buildings that were not meant to be theaters were painted black, rigged with simple lighting, and outfitted with seating. The result was a scaled-down concept of theater: raw, visceral, and unapologetic. Theater grown in black boxes ranges widely in style, genre, content, and audience, but it all has one defining characteristic: It's low budget and no one is making a living wage.

Black-box theater can be dangerous, as a consequence both of its uncensored subject matter and its potential for subjecting its audiences to performative torture. At its best it's a darkly enlightening experience: art unbleached by commerce. At its worse, it's a painful void: a waste of time for all involved.

Black boxes for theater, performance art, and dance have proliferated in San Francisco for many years; but with dwindling grant money, only the most resourceful (or masochistic) theater tribes can survive. The people who remain are the die-hards, the dreamers, and the youthful trust-fund babies. Each year from this shadow world a few artists manage to catch the attention of the gleaming other world -- and they go professional. But such instances are rare.

It's not only the law of numbers; it's the law of ignorance. A colleague of mine recently described a promising new actor to a local artistic director. "How could he be good?" she cried. "I've never heard of him!" Many audience members -- myself and other critics included -- display a similar myopia. After years of attending theater all over the Bay Area, I've never gotten over the surprise I feel when I go to some unsung show and it knocks my socks off. But it happens again and again.

The Black Box Awards were devised to acknowledge those utterly unexpected gifts created when something is born of nothing more than a black box and a rabid imagination. The awards were selected by consensus by Michael Scott Moore, Julie Chase, and me, with Apollinaire Scherr and Heather Wisner focusing on dance. We limited our selections to performances presented roughly during the last year. (Though note that Scherr's been covering dance for the Weekly only since September.) We left in categories for mainstream theater and touring shows, and we readily admit that there's a great disparity between a black box like the Aurora -- which is, after all, fairly well-funded and an equity theater -- and 848 Community Space, which survives on little besides pure chutzpah (and its sex nights). Our choices are listed in alphabetical order; a few particularly notable figures are described in the accompanying stories. We left out the word "best" because we didn't see everything, and we didn't rank our choices because not all of us saw the same shows. But we did see some stuff we liked, and this is our way of sharing our discoveries.

-- Carol Lloyd

Traditional Performance

Aurora Theater, Dear Master
Dorothy Bryant's 1991 adaptation of a series of letters between the French novelists Gustave Flaubert and George Sand made the musty material interesting to modern audiences without pandering, and proved that dialogue on its own can be dramatic.

Exit Stage Left, Endgame
John Warren has directed several good small-venue shows in the past year, but Endgame is worth singling out because the total effect was so pure. The play is one of Beckett's bleakest and most fantastic, and the characters -- Nagg and Nell, who live in trash cans; Clov, the crippled servant of an obscure blind king; and the king himself, Hamm -- were all played with great "dereliction," a quality Beckett admired.

Pour Boys Productions and Genesius Theater Company, American Buffalo
450 Geary Street Theater
For actors willing to serve the strict rhythms of David Mamet's writing, American Buffalo is a potent show. The Pour Boys turned in a powerful, junk-shop-trashing performance early last year that matched the sad grittiness of Dustin Hoffman's film.

Shotgun Theater Company, Henry V
La Val's Subterranean Theater
The set and costumes were monochromatic black, hand props and accessories were few, but the aggressively Spartan staging allowed the production to be rich in every other aspect. Superb ensemble performances filled the tiny basement of La Val's Pizzeria with Shakespeare's thundering language and the fields of Agincourt. The simple elegance made a large play incredibly intimate.

Theater Factory, Road to Mecca
Jewel Theater
Helen, in Athol Fugard's very satisfying script, is an eccentric artist and widow living in a gaudily self-decorated house she calls "Mecca." She struggles not only against pressure by her South African town to leave but also against an encroaching psychological darkness. Myrl Britton's performance as Helen made for a simple, stirring show.

3rd Set, Suicide in B Flat
Justice League
The improvisational energy of jazz informed Sam Shepard's experimental play. The disorder that makes jazz compelling is something of a curse in most dramatic work, but director Val Hendrickson struck the perfect balance by making the music as important as Shepard's abstract script; lucky for him he found fabulous musicians who could also act. The symbiosis made the production a remarkable event, and a stunning example of why written text is only the start of good theater.

Cross-Genre Performance

Art Street Theater, R & J
450 Geary Street Theater
This fast-forward, cut-up version of Romeo and Juliet was told as much with dancelike movement and pop music as with well-acted speeches from Shakespeare. "Movement theater" of the un-self-indulgent variety is not easy to find, but Art Street Theater made it gripping.


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