Space is what makes theatre possible, to paraphrase Peter Brook. But in the life of a working theatre, space can be a lot of things: an artistic home, an aesthetic challenge, an economic burden, a social arena, a field of possibilities—even a set of question marks.
You could say the cheerful throng squeezed into the lobby of a small basement theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District one Monday night last April was hungry for space of one kind or another. The crowd had mingled in close proximity for the better part of an hour, beer bottles and wine glasses clutched to chests like playing cards. Finally the house opened, and the crowd rushed to fill the vacuum: an 88-seat black box vacated a year earlier by the Jewish Theatre, a celebrated company that disbanded after 34 seasons in mid-2012.
Lisa Steindler stepped onto the theatre’s small stage a few minutes later, relaxed and beaming. The forty-something artistic director of Z Space savored the moment, delivering grateful words to assembled friends and colleagues. A toast followed, live music erupted, the party rolled on, and a theatre was reborn. Dubbed Z Below, the well-appointed basement stage had become the compact complement to the cavernous 286-seat house immediately upstairs—an iconic post-industrial cathedral formerly known as Theater Artaud, which Z Space has called home since 2009.
Founded by David Dower in 1993 as a performing arts incubator, the Z Space Studio, as it was originally known, sprouted from the ground laid by Z Collective (1987–92), which in turn had sprung from Dower and several co-workers at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Since then, Z Space has played a uniquely vital role as a Bay Area hub for new work and artistic cross-pollination. It turned 20 this year, but given the significance of the 2009 move to Project Artaud, it’s fair to see the organization, from a certain perspective, as a highly precocious four-year-old.
Indeed, Z Space traded up big-time that year, moving from 1,000 square feet of offices south of Market to the 13,000 square feet at Theater Artaud, a legendary site for dance and performance that had fallen into disrepair. The move, orchestrated by Steindler (who replaced the Arena Stage–bound Dower in 2007), offered Z Space a real home at last and a chance to put the organization on a sounder financial footing. This last goal was achieved in part through rentals to the larger performing arts community, which has done more than keep the lights on—it also demonstrated that Z Space intends to be a public-minded steward of the beloved venue.
The move has come with challenges, too: rebranding a facility many still habitually, or stubbornly, refer to as Theater Artaud, and significant renovations, some still awaiting future financing. While the move to Artaud (which comes, like Z Below, with a 10-year lease and a 10-year option) has put the organization in the black, without deep-pocket donors, money is ever an issue. Foundations and rentals have made up most of the organization’s still smallish $1.3-million budget.
Z Space’s move to the Artaud has meant expansive development of its programming and mission. Its innovative technical residencies ameliorate the cost and time limitations of building out a show for larger, more expensive houses like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—artists get free access to Z Space, its equipment and technical staff. This year also saw the inauguration of a three-year playwriting residency as part of a nationwide Mellon Foundation program. Its first playwright-in-residence is Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Boom, Bob), an apt choice—his breakout hit, Hunter Gatherers, was polished in a corner of Z Space’s old offices at the invitation of Dower. “I remember David saying, ‘You’re welcome here any time there’s an empty corner, come and use it,’” Nachtreib recalls. “I did for several years—and I kind of never left.”
By joining Z Below to its larger venue, Z Space now has two stages that together offer unprecedented opportunities for developing and presenting work. The expectation that it will make the most of them rests in no small part on a cooperative, eclectic vision and a flexible, artist-focused mission that have sustained Z Space from the beginning.
It almost didn’t happen at all. Dower, now director of artistic programs at Boston’s ArtsEmerson, recalls that after five years together, the fledgling Z Collective “had done all the plays we had to do together,” and felt a desire to “develop our own voices in relation to each other, not as a collective identity.” The studio gave them that opportunity.
Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, two Bay Area actors, were early studio recruits. At Z Space they formed Word for Word, a long-popular San Francisco company that stages literary texts verbatim; the company reached its 20-year anniversary in August with a production of stories by Zona Gale.
“It was a really different model,” remembers actor/playwright Brian Thorstenson, an original member of Z Collective. “At the time, there wasn’t any space for theatre artists, where you’d have actors and designers and performers and writers, people who had this idea or that—both an actual physical space and a community of artists to respond to your work.”
Dower’s vision of a hub where artists could pursue their craft and ideas without the burden of a production was a powerful engine for new work, but none of it would have been possible without a unique subsidy model.
“The angel of all of these early days was Michael Palladino,” Dower says. “He was trying to build a computer consulting business, and he liked working with artists. He hired a bunch of us to build his business.” Growth was fast enough that the company could afford “a place that had a rehearsal space in it, then a bigger space on Mission. We had 10,000 square feet. His business paid for that.”
Though Palladino got an award from the Business Council of the Arts and a profile in Wired magazine about his hiring “theatre geeks,” Dower says, “mostly he’s unsung in this story.” But without him, Dower avers, “There would have been no space in Z Space.”
Z space’s upstairs and downstairs theatres are part of the block-sized Project Artaud, built inside the repurposed husk of an old American Can Company tooling factory. Abandoned by 1971, it was occupied by a group of artists, who renamed it for a patron saint of the theatrical avant-garde and turned it into a collectively owned arts complex and live/work spaces for artists.
Given its massive size and tricky acoustics, Theater Artaud tended to be more popular with dance companies or experimental work than theatre troupes. David Szlasa, Z Space’s programming director, helped shape the new space both physically and programmatically, drawing on his ties to the dance and performance scenes to encourage more forays into the theatre.
When Szlasa left in 2011 to pursue an independent career, Steindler concentrated more on artistic programming and production. In 2012, Lori Laqua, former managing director of San Francisco’s ODC contemporary arts institution, came on as executive director.
“I’m trying to bring to Z Space organizational development in particular,” says Laqua. “Lisa’s vision actually has grounding now. Finding a way to keep that pipeline flourishing is key to the next five years of Z Space.”
Z Space’s openness to other artists, companies, and institutions of the Bay Area has been a major part of the revitalization of Artaud and the continued evolution of Z Space under Steindler. And the traffic of dance companies and experimental performance has had a reciprocal influence on Steindler as an artist, programmer and producer.
“That’s why I did The Companion Piece,” says Steindler, referring to a devised work she produced in January 2011 that memorably made full, striking use of the enormous stage. She recalls an early meeting with director Mark Jackson and scenic designer Nina Ball at which she batted away their initial set idea.
“It was a proscenium with curtains. I said, ‘Wait, the whole point of this project is to use the space as much as possible.’ They said, ‘Oh, okay,’ and scrapped that. Then it was us just getting in there, finding out that those beams moved, how far back can you go, climbing the ladders. That piece was about getting to know the space.”
Exploring the space’s potential has clearly broadened Steindler’s perspective and, in specific ways, shaped the organization’s programming and mission. “Five years ago I was very interested in text-based work and finding new voices. That’s partly why I love [playwright and longtime collaborator] Adam Bock; he’s playing with fragments, with what’s not said. Now, you can’t really do that in the big space—you have to somehow fill it, so it was a whole new challenge aesthetically. I’m becoming more interested, as I get older and am in that space more, in the human body as part of the work. That’s because of the dance I’ve seen there.”
But Z Space isn’t just the stage; it’s also where people meet, exchange ideas, share resources, fill the void and ultimately create a theatre with nothing more or less than their bodies and imaginations.
Word for Word’s JoAnne Winter recalls the hurlyburly of Z Space’s former venue on Mission, and feels that the new space is recapturing that. “Joe Goode’s here right now,” Winter says, speaking of the inventive Bay Area choreographer. “I can walk into the theatre and watch rehearsal or bump into somebody on a break. That’s a large part of what David had in mind—not only to give artists time and space to develop ideas, but also to create a space where artists would mingle just because they’re in the same place at the same time.
“That’s what’s great about being here in this space,” Winter concludes. “We’ve gotten that back after not having it for a while.”
Robert Avila is a critic and arts reporter based in the Bay Area.