Z Space Breathes New Life into Theater Artaud

By Kate Law Hoflich

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The tall cathedral-like room at the north end of the Theater Artaud lobby is being used as make-shift office space for Z Space and its affiliate companies. My first thought upon seeing the room with desks set up like cubicles, while the warm light of dusk filtered in through the ornate floor-to-ceiling windows, was that it was one of the most beautiful architectural spaces for an office that I’ve seen. The desks are in groupings on the multi-leveled tiers sometimes used as a small stage. David Szlasa, my tour guide and the Managing Director of Z Space, let me know that the arrangement was only temporary. The fleeting nature of the beautiful office is not because Z Space won’t be there long. On the contrary, it is because Z Space has just signed a ten-year lease (with a ten-year option) and they see it as their new and permanent home. So they have big plans for the Theater, not the least of which is creating a new office space within it.

Yes it’s official. As of July 29, Z Space has taken over the iconic Theater Artaud. Many members of the performing arts community are welcoming the news. “With this move to Project Artaud Theater, Z Space is poised to add tremendously to our entire performing arts community,” said Kenneth J. Foster, Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Before going into all of the noteworthy details of this new arrangement let me give you some context.

In case you aren’t familiar with Project Artaud & Theater Artaud, here is a brief history of what it is and how Z Space came to be associated with the Theater inside of it. Project Artaud is the large building that takes up the entire block that sits between 17th and 18th and between Florida and Alabama. In the ’70s the building became one of the first zoned “Live/Work” spaces in San Francisco and the space that is now a theater, was a wide-open “playground” for the artists who lived and created there. Eventually, in the ’80s the performances that were happening there attracted the attention of city officials resulting in the theater having to be brought up to code. To head the renovations Theater Artaud Incorporated was formed and the theater became its own entity separate from the Project Artaud live/work spaces. In 2002 Theater Artaud Inc. dissolved and the Project Artaud board took control of the space. The huge task of managing a theater was unwieldy for working artists in the collective. In 2007 they put out a request for proposals for a new organization to step forward and manage the theater. Many proposals were submitted over a 22-month process.

Up until the announcement, Z Space had inhabited an administrative office and rehearsal studio space on 10th Street between Mission and Howard in SOMA. Z Space Studio was founded by David Dower in 1993. The current Executive Director is Lisa Steindler. The Z Space website states that the organization’s primary mission is “to fuel the development of American theater on a national level by nurturing new voices, new works, and new opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area.” This has been more of a behind the scenes role and so they do not necessarily have the name recognition you might expect from such an established organization. They also have a presenting program, which previously consisted of presenting about 16 weeks of their own programs in theaters around San Francisco. Their direct programs are Word for Word, Youth Arts, and Z Plays Development. There are currently three resident companies that share the Z Space administrative offices: Encore Theatre Company, Fools Fury Theatre Company, and Golden Thread Productions.

Now that Z Space is in charge of Theater Artaud what should be expected? The availability of the theater as a rental venue will still be an option, but they are exploring more options than this. One major thing that will shift now that they have their own theater space is their relationship to presenting work. They will be, and are already beginning, to look for new ways to partner in presenting to use the weeks that aren’t booked by their own programs. And while Z Space traditionally has worked more with text-based performance, they are now more interested in facilitating multidisciplinary collaborations and many genres of performance. One option that Mr. Szlasa is interested in is using the stage as a platform on which to develop and tech shows that can then be taken to YBCA on union time. This would offer artists the opportunity to polish the technical aspect of their shows more economically.

For programming Z Space has historically been Bay Area-focused and they plan to keep that focus intact at Theater Artaud. Z Space would like to position itself to be able to get bigger names into the theater while remaining affordable for smaller companies. A major advantage in achieving this goal is that they are the largest non-union house in town. With 286 seats, the theater is a unique size in the city and is the step between CounterPULSE, Dance Mission, and YBCA.

“I am very excited about the prospect of Z Space introducing a new phase of artistic leadership at Theater Artaud,” said choreographer Joe Goode. “I have great respect for the organization. They have the artistic management and leadership capability to make the theater thrive again.” And it seems that Goode is right, Z Space has hit the ground running on their path to revitalization.

They haven’t wasted any time at all in beginning to work with artists and book their new space. The first show in the space, commissioned and produced by Z-Space, was “You Can’t Get There From Here,” on September 10th. This will be followed by a Fall season of dance and theater. January through June 2010 is filling up with a great roster of premiere works, proof that the new arrangement for Theater Artaud is welcomed by the performing arts community in the Bay Area. Their planned lineup includes several Z Space productions, and additional world premiers by Kronos Quartet, Deborah Slater Dance Theater, Hope Mohr, Pamela Z, and Fresh Meat. For the first time in their history, Z Space is courting people to premiere work at Artaud. Szlasa says that the organization “is trying to give a fresh face and improved reputation to presenting work at Theater Artaud.”

The fresh face will be more of a serious face-lift for the theater, with many improvements that will be welcomed by the dance community specifically. One change they have already completed is the transformation of the office space that was behind the box office—the former administrative offices for Theater Artaud—into a modern and open conference room. First off for the immediate future is replacing the stage with a sprung dance floor that will be level all the way to the back wall of the theater—thus enabling the middle section of the stage, which used to drop down—to be used. This will be accomplished by the end of October. Other planned upgrades include better lighting, bringing the tech possibilities on par with those at YBCA, by the end of the year. They will be making cosmetic improvements to the dressing rooms and eventually enclosing them. They will also be getting new curtains and a new genie lift.

The lobby will also get some attention. It will be brushed up and used as an art gallery which Szlasa will be curating. They have already enacted the plans for their first exhibition: Peter Bonner “works on paper” – a series of very large watercolors by the Australian abstract painter. Future shows will include new works by local and international artists and designers. The shows that hang in the gallery will be separate from the events going on the theater but thematically related. They will hang for 6-8 weeks. This will be another way that Z Space plans to bring multiple genres of art together under their new roof.

In the slightly more distant future Z Space has even more ambitious improvements planned. They are making plans to replace the scaffolding that currently supports the second tier of seating with a permanent structure. There will be raked seating on top, just as there is now, but the space beneath it will be enclosed and soundproofed and will become the new and permanent administrative offices for Z Space.

I asked Z Space Executive Director Lisa Steidler what she saw as her biggest challenge about taking charge of Artaud. She answered frankly, “Money. I know that is the obvious answer, but it’s true. This is a magnificent iconic space that needs a lot of repairs, love and time to get her back into glorious shape.” However, leaders in the San Francisco Arts community agree that she is up to leading the task. Deborah Cullinan, Executive Director of Intersection for the Arts, offers her confidence saying “They know how to share space, support artists in developing new work, forge national collaborations, and manage their operation even in the face of serious challenge. There is no organization as poised as Z Space to activate Theater Artaud and realize a future making vision for the arts community of the Bay Area.”

The considerable investment that is planned for Theater Artaud is important to Z Space because they want to create a space that artists want to be in. When I asked Szlasa about this he explained, “We are trying to revitalize Theater Artaud as a cultural destination through creating the opportunity for different kinds of work to come here, through improving the theater, it’s administrative capacity, and the experience of creating and performing work here.” Specifically for the dance community Szlasa says that although Z Space has historically been, and will continue to be focused on producing text-driven work, “we know and understand and value the history of the space and are working to expand what Z Space does for more diverse types of artists from different disciplines to develop ways for them to interact and partner with us.”

I asked Steindler what she was looking forward to the most about being in the new space. She said, “I am looking forward to the day when we can throw the doors open and hundreds of people walk through them, looking at the art we have in our gallery, sipping a cup of coffee or a glass of wine from our bar, and waiting to see the next performance we have in the big theater. I envision this as a hub for all people to call home that is a vibrant bubbling cauldron of art happening right here in the heart of San Francisco.” I think that it is safe to say that as community we all look forward to this same thing and can’t wait for it to come to fruition.

For more information on Z Space’s programs, or to find out when you can see the next show at Theater Artaud, check out zspace.org. For booking information, contact David Szlasa at dszlasa@zspace.org.

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

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community. Katelaw.org, bowandsparrow.org