Presidio Theatre Relaunch

By Heather Desaulniers

September 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Front of Presidio Theatre from an angle

Photo by Terry Lerant

Renovation is a tough, arduous process. Making major changes always is. Setting goals, crafting plans and then finally breaking ground, with the ultimate purpose of building something new.

Consider for a moment a structure under renovation. When you walk into such a space, what are your first thoughts and observations? Is your eye pulled to the work that still needs to be done – the unpainted wall, the exposed wiring, the flooring not yet installed. Maybe your curiosity is piqued by budget or deadlines. Is the project staying within its financial limits? Is it going to be completed on time? Or are you someone who is able to envision the next chapter? Someone who pictures glorious experiences and deep collaborative relationships developing in this new environment, both today and for decades to come. The latter is certainly a powerful perspective, one that can be even more potent when shared. Multiple gazes, together, cast on what might be possible; a cohort buoyed by a remodeled space’s potential.

Aerial view of Presidio Theatre under construction
Photo by Terry Lerant

The renewal of the Presidio Theatre has been full of this rare and special spirit. A massive undertaking brought to fruition by a group of passionate, dedicated individuals who imagined another life for an empty building. For the past few years, these folks have worked tirelessly to transform the historic theater that sits on the Presidio grounds (the former army base, now National Park) into a contemporary performance center. Something that could help fill a gap in the San Francisco performing arts ecosystem. “The theater opened in 1939, and was primarily a place for military personnel and their families to go and see movies, and from time to time, some other performance events,” explains Robert Martin, Presidio Theatre’s Executive Director, “it was a hub where people could gather, for entertainment, sure, but really, as a community.” It is this legacy of community impact that has fueled the renovation plans, with the hope that the revamped space will become a similar hub for today’s audiences and artists – a place to encounter innovative creativity and showcase an array of art practices and disciplines. Mid-September, the updated Presidio Theatre opens to the public. As the multi-year endeavor nears its end, everyone involved is reflecting on the epic journey, one that Martin describes as “a labor of love.”

While construction began in earnest two years ago, getting a broader sense of the project’s trajectory requires going back a bit further. In the mid-1990s, the Presidio ceased operation as an active military base and since that time, the theater has been vacant. A lack of financial wherewithal seemed the primary reason for its long dormancy, “I think the Presidio Trust [the organization responsible for the park’s care and maintenance] would have loved to have done something with the venue, but the lack of funding and other resources made any attempts extremely difficult,” Martin shares. That is, until Peggy Haas, whom Martin credits as the driving force behind the new Presidio Theatre, entered the picture approximately five years back. “When passing by the building one day, Peggy found herself brimming with questions – what is this doing here; why isn’t it being used; how could it be repurposed?” recounts Martin, “and being keenly aware of the need for Bay Area performance spaces, an empty theater seemed like an incredible opportunity.” With the seed planted and the ideas percolating, the next step was to take the proposal to the Presidio Trust. “She took her plan to the Trust, who said that if the resources could be secured, they were on board,” says Martin, “Peggy was able to take it on financially, through a major gift from the Margaret E. Haas Fund.” It took two more years to get the lease signed, and by fall 2017, the renovation had begun, and Haas’ vision for a Bay Area artist haven – all levels, all groups, all fields, professional and community – was truly underway.

Inside view of Presidio Theatre under construction
Photo by Terry Lerant

Every detail of the refurbishment had to go through careful scrutiny because of the necessity for historic preservation. So gutting the theater and starting from scratch wasn’t an option. Nor was changing whatever they wanted to change – approvals had to be sought at many points along the way so that historic integrity could be maintained. Having said that, much was done to make the space viable and operational for its future artistic visitors. Because it had initially been built for cinematic use, the proscenium had to be moved about twelve feet, which Martin describes as “a major engineering triumph.” The theater housed a basement, which had thus far been underutilized, so in the redesign, that area was excavated and expanded to twice its size, which allowed for the inclusion of dressing rooms, public restrooms, a lobby and rehearsal space. Two outdoor pavilions were also added – one houses the elevator/stairs to the basement level; the other, a catering area, green room, offices and the stage’s load-in point. If you were to visit the Presidio Theatre today, you would find it in a phase of “final touches.” Martin reports that everyday, something is being checked off the list, “while work on the lighting grid is ongoing as are some tasks in the outdoor plaza spaces, the house itself is mostly finished – the six hundred audience seats are in place and the stage is done.”

Another exciting part of the relaunch process has been happening away from the construction site: programming and curation for the Presidio Theatre’s inaugural season. Such amazing theater, film, music and choreography has been planned for the coming year and beyond! Dance-wise, one of the partnerships that Martin is very much looking forward to is with the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, who will be celebrating their 42nd season in 2020, “a long-term goal is for the Presidio Theatre to become the festival’s home; this January, we begin that journey as the festival holds their auditions here and then returns for their annual event next June.” The Presidio Theatre team has also organized and curated a number of riveting movement concerts during the fall months. Sintonía is bringing the world premiere of Tattooed, a mixed discipline piece of music, Flamenco and spoken word that facilitates a discourse between traditional and contemporary Flamenco forms, while simultaneously tackling an urgent narrative, surviving abuse. In addition, October plays host to some significant milestones: San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 60th anniversary and the 40th birthday of Balinese dance and music institution, Gamelan Sekar Jaya. And on October 11th, ODC/Dance, another constant thread in SF’s artistic fabric, will reprise Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson’s Path of Miracles, a collaboration between the company and choral ensemble Volti that looks at and to the spiritual Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The full-length work debuted at Grace Cathedral in 2018 and since then has typically been performed in church settings, which makes this one-night engagement particularly noteworthy, “not only will this will be a chance for our patrons to experience transcendent choreography and music, but we also hope that it provides an opportunity for ODC to experiment and explore how the site-specific piece translates to a more traditional proscenium environment,” adds Martin.

Before this impressive programming can really get under way, the San Francisco/Bay Area must first be introduced to the new Presidio Theatre. Slated for the weekend of September 21st and 22nd, the grand unveiling features two wonderful events. Saturday’s ticketed evening includes bites and libations as well as an artistic collage of excerpts and offerings from White Crane Lion & Dragon Dance Association, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Beach Blanket Babylon, and Tahitian performance group Te Mana O Te Ra. The following day, the entire community is invited to tour and celebrate the updated space during a free open house. The Presidio Pop Up Orchestra will be on hand revisiting the glorious tunes of the 1930s and 1940s; a nod of honor and recognition to the theater’s original opening eight decades ago.

Eighty years is indeed a substantial legacy, and everyone at the Presidio Theatre cannot wait to contribute to the next chapter of the story. And while the road to this finale has been long and occasionally bumpy, they are so thrilled to see Peggy Haas’ vision fully realized. “We hope the Presidio Theatre will be a place of discovery with a vast mix of programs, and most important, that it will be user friendly for artists/arts groups in the community,” Martin relays, “we are eager to welcome regional, national and international artists to the space, but the Presidio Theatre will always have a commitment to local Bay Area artists and making it a home for them.”

This article appeared in the September 2019 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.