Raising a Roof: Rob Bailis Give the Lowdown on the ODC Theater Renovation

By Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

After three decades of use, the ODC Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco is finally on its way to a much-deserved renovation. While only the brick walls and original foundation lay bare on 17th and Shotwell Streets, exciting visions for a new home for performance fill the negative space. In Dance approached ODC Theater Director Rob Bailis for an update on these developments.

Were you able to watch the demolition of the old building?

Yes! It was rather early in the morning when it all went down, so a bunch of us packed a picnic breakfast and camped out on the sidewalk across the street. The piece of equipment that did most of the wrecking is called an excavator–one part wrecking ball, one part bulldozer. It had these enormous jaws that literally ate the building. It was amazing to watch. We were all cheering and so excited to finally break ground. The construction crew was totally taken aback. Later they said, “Usually when we see a crowd of people gathered at a site where we do demolition, the crowd is protesting. We didn’t know what to think of you guys!”

The opening of the new ODC Theater was first slated for the Spring/Summer of 2009 but for various reasons the development got moved to Fall 2010. Why the delay?

The delay was from the San Francisco Planning Department. We were ready to go, but they held up our permitting process for over a year. In fact we had raised at that point almost $5 million of the $6.5 million total construction cost. Possibly the only upside of this delay was that we raised almost the entire remainder of the construction cost while we were waiting; we just have $250,000 to go. There are other fundraising goals attached to the campaign, which include facilities and artistic venture funds we are still pursuing, but the bricks and mortar are almost in the bank.

I’d be lying if I said that the planning commission delay didn’t cost us dearly–it was crippling to the Theater to not have a venue to move into last year, and we were truly walking a wire just trying to survive the year off-site presenting work at Project Artaud Theater. We really took a hit. On the positive side, our temporary home at the Dance Commons for 2009 has provided rich rewards and felicitous discoveries. ODC Dance provided us with a beautifully equipped venue by outfitting the Studio B Theater, and I think our community better understands the relationship among ODC’s many organizational components—school, company and theater. Working under the same roof helps demonstrate how the Theater program exists within the whole.

Compared to the previous theater what will the new space look like and what can an audience expect when they enter?

We approached the design of the Theater building with a desire to honor its history and enhance its function. The new facility will reflect its predecessor, but it will also tie-in to our campus in the way it will play with its big sister down the street, the ODC Dance Commons. Familiar attributes are the original facade of the building on 17th street, and our trademark brick walls inside the Theater venue. One will still enter on 17th street and be greeted by a visual arts gallery in our lobby, and the addition of a café on the ground floor will be among the most noticeable improvements. As well, the side of the building that used to house the ODC School offices, the Loft Studio space, and the ODC administrative offices, will be three stories instead of two. It will house two new studios, a 50-seat studio theater venue for small scale and solo work, and an office space which will serve both ODC staff and a community help desk program we’ll launch in 2011.

But far and away the most exciting enhancement is that we’re raising the roof 10 feet in the theater venue itself, which will greatly enhance our technical capacity and production values, as well as radically improving sightlines for audience members. The raising of the roof will provide for a mezzanine level in the building over the lobby, which will house the production and booking offices. For those who have sweltered with us through so many memorable performances, or tapped patiently, legs crossed, waiting for the bathroom at intermission, the new heating and cooling system and vastly improved bathroom facilities are also worth a mention! Essentially, what was an 11,000 square foot facility will expand to a 13,000 square foot facility.

You have developed wide-ranging, unique and sustainable programming during your tenure as ODC Theater Director.

Wow, thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment and I really appreciate it!

Our focus has always been program based, rather than project based. This is to say as a theater director I am more drawn to long-term investment than short-term success. There is always someone out there with a great piece or a new idea that is beautifully rendered which I’m happy to snatch up, but my platform for ODC Theater from the start was to design opportunities for artists that didn’t come just once every couple years, nor were they overly concerned with every single work we engage being the best work ever made. There is a longitudinal view at play; the lifecycle of the artist and the art work is a major driver for us. I personally spend a lot of time with our house artists helping to move them along in their careers, so my motivations for support may not boil down to “I liked the show” or “I didn’t like the show.” If I think an artist or a company is on to something, I’m willing to stay in the game even when the first drafts fail.

Describe your vision for future programming and presenting.

We do have three extraordinary new programs rolling out. One has to do with the intersection of technology and live performing arts and the impact of communication technology on audience perception/participation (it’s one part think tank, one part applied practice for artists in multi-media genres). The most exciting element of this program is that, if we can get it funded properly, it will provide four week-long residencies for artists, selected through a competitive process, who will be invited to rehearse and create multi-media works at full production values. Often the transition from studio to stage is the first time an artist sees a work “on its legs.” Our technology and media lab will provide the rare opportunity to experiment with media in the Theater as an integral part of the creative process.

The second program will be modeled on the Help Desk program in New York City. Our version will consolidate aspects of the service components already developed for our Artists in Residence, but we will make them available to a broader cross section of our community. We are looking to add a cultural concierge component to our Help Desk that will include a community calendar with interest specific recommendations as well as an archive of performance works available for viewing in our facility. Of course the 50-seat studio theater on the third floor, though not a new program, will bring a curatorial expansion that I’m looking forward to.

And finally, we are rolling out INNERSTATE, which launches later this year. INNERSTATE is a complementary program to our long running SCUBA National Touring Network, which offers national tours to ODC Theater artists and brings work from Seattle, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis here through artist/presenter exchanges. INNERSTATE is a major infusion of funds from the James Irvine Foundation that has honored us with $450,000 over the coming three years to create a touring network for California artists in a similar import/export model. The first call for proposals for INNERSTATE hits the stands in August. As far as curation goes, you can count on us drawing from our present pool of Artists in Residence, who range from inkBoat and Liberation Dance Theater, to RAWDANCE and Holly Johnston’s Ledges and Bones Dance Project. From the national tier, I am in discussion with several companies but it is premature for me to go public!

So, moving forward, know that we will maintain the programs we’ve invested in from the get go. Pilot/Migrations/House Special which are our mentorship programs will continue to offer entry- level professional choreographic opportunity, production and marketing experience, and short term residency activity. ODC Presents will continue to focus on presenting selected Artists in Residence alongside other world class work from within our region and around the country. And our community partnership and rental programs will continue to serve self-producers and community organizations in keeping with our mission of space access.

Since the theater has temporarily moved to the ODC Dance Commons, the focus has been towards “lean, simple, elegant works without a ton of flash, but with twice the heart.” With the new stage space and technical capabilities, do you see this focus changing and how?

Just by virtue of the capacities of the space, yes it will be very different. This is not to say we are suddenly going to dedicate ourselves to high production values as a rule of thumb! We will have twice if not three times the lighting, projection, and scenic capacities that we had in the old Theatre, and considerably higher ceilings. I think it is safe to say there was a world of work we couldn’t imagine showing that now will be well within our grasp. Equally, with these tools at the disposal of our Artists in Residence, they will no doubt be influenced by these possibilities in their own creative endeavors. But keep in mind, as an artistic director I have never been interested in bells and whistles as a means of evaluating work. I am drawn to formal, articulate, expressive work that can locate itself both in its specific inquiry and in a broader aesthetic conversation. I am drawn to experimentation, risk, and raw potential, and I loved a free-spirited romp in search of a new point of view. But personally I require rigor to become engaged. While one could certainly argue this point, I do not believe formal control is an aesthetic question, I believe it is a question of best practice regardless of your expressive means. This is why it has not been difficult for us to program and equally value traditional artists along side contemporary artists, abstract performance artists alongside sketch comedy. That aspect of our range and that value system remain high priorities. That said, when you have lots of theater magic hanging from every overhead pipe, a moveable grid, and twice the number of dimmers you had before, you better believe things will look great, and the creative capacities of those we present will be seen at full tilt.

ODC has announced that The Kresge Foundation of Troy, Michigan has approved a challenge grant of $750,000 for the ODC Theater Capital Campaign. The new theater will help ODC continue to realize their mission of promoting the creation and performance of new work, facilitating creative and technical training, encouraging artistic networking, and fostering audience and community in their San Francisco-based Mission neighborhood and throughout the Bay Area. In the coming months ODC will let their community know how to help them meet their Kresge challenge. For more information call or email Constance Geisler at 415-863-6606 ext. 117 or constance@odcdance.org.

This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of In Dance.