Curtain Up on ODC

By Wendy Rein

November 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

After 27 straight years housing some of San Francisco’s most memorable dance performances, ODC Theater will be going black at the end of this year. The theater, whose programming needs long ago outgrew its capacity, will then undergo a 13-month renovation project to be finished before a grand reopening event in May 2009. “We want to create a facility that’s worthy of the artists we serve,” says Theater Director Rob Bailis. “We’re really ensuring that the space can continue to grow programmatically, remaining available to a broad range of creative artists in perpetuity.” From the sound of things, the new space promises to be bigger, better, and more beautiful than ever.

By the time this goes to print, final designs will have been agreed upon and submitted to the city for all the necessary permits. As one might guess from the newly built ODC Dance Commons, ODC isn’t thinking small. Current plans include:

• The Theater’s annex (ODC Theater is actually two buildings—the theater space, which dates back to the early 1900s, and the adjacent two-story annex, built in 1983, which housed the organization’s admin offices, school, and loft studio) will be demolished. A new three-floor structure will take its place, featuring a community area with a help desk and computer stations for the many artists creating and showing work at ODC, and two new studios on the top floor. The former loft studio will remain, serving as a 50-seat solo performance space.
• A small restaurant / café will be added on the 17th Street and Shotwell Street corner.
• The roof of the original Theater building will be raised by about 15 feet to allow for a mezzanine level of offices over the lobby to house the theater staff.
• The lighting grid will also be raised by about 10 feet and will feature a system of trusses capable of dropping to the floor, cementing the Theater’s commitment to quick turnarounds for self-producing artists. Site lines will be greatly improved by a combination of the new height of the space and a new raked seating system.
• The brick walls in the Theater will remain, so each artist may continue to decide to use it as a black box, white box, or more distinctive brick box.

The designs, unlike those of the new ODC Dance Commons, are the creation of Mark Cavagnero Associates, an award-winning architectural firm that also designed the new Brava Theater Center in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. ODC will be launching a capital campaign in the very near future to finance construction.

During the renovation period, ODC has no plans to abandon the more than 1,000 artists served annually by the theater. Instead, the organization is in the final stages of negotiating a 9-month lease agreement with Project Artaud Theater. Under the lease, ODC Theater and tech staff would move into Artaud; the staff from both organizations would share management of the theater and lobby area. This kind of partnership is quite unusual in the theater world, but both organizations stand to gain from the relationship. ODC will be able to maintain its presenting activities, mentorship programming, and theater rental services. Artaud, which has put a great deal of money and effort recently into building itself back up as a significant San Francisco performance venue, will have the freedom to address some of its main infrastructural needs since ODC will be providing consistent staffing, material support, and high production values. ODC’s technical crew will move into Artaud alongside the theater staff, offering performers a full-service theater experience as well as mitigating what have become crippling add-on costs for renters and self-producers.

Though its 2008 season will be slightly condensed, ODC Theater is maintaining all of its programming during the renovation process by taking a creative approach to relocating performances. The first Pilot show, for instance, will be site-specific. Other mentorship programs and most music programming will be moved to Studio B, a studio/informal performance space at the Dance Commons. The Theater’s anticipated 12 weeks of presenting will be consolidated into four festivals, each serving a different sector of the dance community: Politics, Storytellers (spoken word), State of the Art I – Touring Artists (including choreographers from LA, Holland, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Philadelphia), and State of the Art II – Local Artists (including ODC resident artists and others). In general, Bailis describes the works he’s selected for Artaud in 2008 as a “year of big visuals full of beautiful realized multimedia work.” To utilize Artaud’s unique structure, ODC plans to show installation pieces in the lobby/gallery area in addition to its theater performances.

The politics-focused festival will be the first of ODC’s presentations at Artaud. Slated for sometime in April/May 2008, it will feature works by Sara Shelton Mann (environment politics), Jo Kreiter (government politics), and Miguel Gutierrez (body politics). The first two works are commissions of ODC Theater, Sara Shelton Mann through the San Francisco Foundation’s Fund for Artists program, and Jo Kreiter via a special grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which created a Director’s Fund for Rob Bailis to commission five new works from regional artists.

To celebrate the transition and pay tribute to the last 27 years, there will be a major event on the eve of the Theater’s closing, most likely at the end of December. “I don’t want to let that cat out of the bag just yet,” said Bailis, “but it’s going to be a real humdinger of a closing party.” There is indeed a lot to celebrate, but it’s going to be tough letting go of the old building. When ODC acquired the Theater in 1980, it became the first modern dance company in the country to purchase its own home. Founders Brenda Way, KT Nelson, and Kimi Okada were among the many who worked to lay the dance floor themselves; for their very first performance at the Theater, they sat the audience on lawn chairs on dirt and danced on the half-finished floor. “That floor is so beloved among dancers in the community, and was so much a labor of love for our founders, that we desperately wanted to save it. Unfortunately, with the new foundation needed to support the building’s increased volume, we are having to let it go,“ says Bailis.

In the end, the flooring will most likely pop up somewhere else in the building—it’s had too much of a life to be discarded—and though we can be pretty sure future audiences won’t be seated on lawn chairs, we can also rest assured that the new theater will, as always, be dedicated to the artists and community who make their lives here.

Wendy Rein is Co-Artistic Director of San Francisco-based contemporary company RAWdance. Founded in 2004, the company is preparing for its first international tour to Singapore in January 2009.