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The Yerba Buena question.

Next month, the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens will celebrate its first birthday as the focal point of the San Francisco arts scene, and it's been, by most accounts, a successful year. But in a city that sometimes seems too politically correct to live, it's not surprising that the center--since wel before its opening--has stirred up controversy even as it has drawn much-needed public attention to the arts.

A dreamy venue

Covering a 3.3-acre section of the 8.8-acre Yerba Buena Gardens in which it's housed, the Center for the Arts includes a theatre and, in another building, a smaller multi-use forum, as well as three art galleries and a screening room, all constructed with $41 million from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Yerba Buena Gardens itself is part of a huge 87-acre urban renewal project in a formerly rundown section of San Francisco adjacent to downtown. A convention center, new and remodeled hotels, the center and other as-yet-unbuilt projects are all part of a long-range redevelopment plan that began 30 years ago.

And what a 30 years it's been: the tearing down of Skid Row, lawsuits that challenged rehousing plans for the residents of the demolished low-rent hotels, changes of agenda and of personnel in city government, in-fighting among bureaucrats--and, in 1990, an ill-managed multicultural festival of the arts (Festival 2000) that declared bankruptcy, which some saw as a bad omen for the future of the Arts Center with its multicultural mission. It seemed that plans--in a city where you can't install a cabinet in your kitchen without a permit--would never be approved.

Yet when the skeptical performing arts community was finally convinced that the promised arts center would be a reality, new anxieties surfaced: Who would really benefit from this glitzy affair? Would the state-of-the-art theatre be too expensive, too big, too small, for local groups? Would the emphasis really be on local access, as the organizers proclaimed, or would big-name out-of-town groups monopolize the space? Was the artistic mandate too multicultural, excluding mainstream arts? Was entirely too much money being pumped into this downtown complex when small neighborhood arts groups are scrambling to keep their doors open? And would upscale audiences really come to this part of town at night? Even the opening ceremony incited criticism from some quarters, featuring, as it did, a Trinidadian steel-pan band rather than a local arts group.

But the $22-million theatre designed by James Stewart Polshek is universally admired. With its 755 seats, including a balcony, a 45-foot-deep stage area wit sprung-wood floor, a 44-foot proscenium opening and a fly space nine stories high, it's a dreamy performance venue. The high-ceilinged lobby with glass wall looks out onto the surrounding lush gardens. The auditorium itself is appointed in cool, gray, blue and yellow and has excellent sightlines. The orchestra pit seats 30 musicians and the dressing rooms hold 44 performers.

However, the theatre, a union house, is not cheap, although a sliding rent scal for nonprofit groups ($800 to $1,200 a night) includes top-of-the-line light an technical equipment, a convenient on-the-street loading dock and a tension grid in the ceiling.

Remaking tradition

The center's highly respected artistic director, Baraka Sele, has assured the arts community that there will be plenty of access for every local group that can scrape together the rental fee. There are no long-running shows at the center, nor any anchor tenants; a typical run is just a few nights. Nevertheless, American Conservatory Theater (bouncing between venues since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed its Geary Theatre) will break that trend with its six-to-seven-week run of Hecuba in January 1995. Inevitably, the center's decision to rent to such a large, mainstream theatre has raised a few hackles among champions of the smaller, ethnic groups.

About 30 percent of the shows are not rentals, but are co-presented by the center itself, in accordance with the artistic mission to "support cross-cultural, cross-generational, inter-disciplinary work that addresses a wide range of human issues and reflects a full realm of cultural experience." S far, dance performances have dominated the programming. Grumbles one theatre manager, "There isn't a small theatre in town that can afford to rent the theatre at the Center for the Arts." Like other presenters in town--for example the Mission District's Theater Artaud--the center seems to work better for danc groups, who can accommodate very short runs and who tend to travel light. The smaller Forum, with its sliding-scale rates, is more affordable than the theatre; it's booked up about a year in advance.

The center's director of communications, David Perry, promises an increase in theatrical programming next season. "Our first season should be considered our first two years," he says. "Don't criticize us yet." He's pleased that the center is going in the right direction by bringing in mainstream audiences to see non-mainstream work. "We want to make the non-traditional traditional," he says. "We want to make multiculturalism a fact. This will help expand audiences for small groups all around town." This would be manna from heaven to the city' struggling Asian American Theater Company, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and El Teatro de la Esperanza.

A Traveling Jewish Theatre's recent center-produced, four-day run of a work-in-progress in the Forum attracted the small San Francisco ensemble's regular audience plus many more. The popular three-member troupe Pomo Afro Homo (who deal humorously with issues that face gay black men) played simultaneously and the two groups took part in public discussions on the theme of personal identity. Performer Helen Stolzfus of A Traveling Jewish Theatre was enthusiastic about the "fantastic space," the unqualified support of the center's staff and the accompanying dialogue, although she concedes, "They're not set up to do what there's a crying need for in this city--present intimate theatre where people can do long runs. But their hearts are really in making it available to local groups and in nurturing grassroots performing arts. The center is important," she adds. "There's a lot of bitching that goes on in the theatre community. Let's give it a chance."

Jean Schiffman is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
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Title Annotation:San Francisco Center for the Arts
Author:Schiffman, Jean
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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