By Nicole Gluckstern
In August 2022, EXIT Theatre’s Christina Aguello wrote a Facebook post detailing how after 30 years at 156 Eddy Street, the company would shutter its four-stage Tenderloin theatreplex by the end of the year.
“We have concluded that we just donʼt have the capacity to maintain the Eddy Street Theater,” it read in part. “Perhaps this model no longer meets the needs of our time.”
Shockwaves reverberated outward from the comments section, the press, and the hallways of said theatreplex where the staff was busy preparing for the 31st annual San Francisco Fringe Festival. During the festival, emotions ran high, and each hug felt as if it could be the last, even when followed promptly by yet another. But Aguello–EXIT’s founder and artistic director since 1983–welcomed audiences and artists in the hallways like always, and collected Fringe tips at the door as if it were just another regular festival. Her pandemic-long silver hair draped over her shoulders like an ermine cape.
In many ways it was just another festival, one of many that had filled EXIT’s multiple stages over the decades, and spilled over into the streets and neighboring venues of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Fringe Festivals worldwide are about embracing possibility and making space for independent and emerging artists to create in. And EXIT Theatre as an organization embodied that potential for possibility by positioning itself at the center of what is sometimes referred to as San Francisco’s Theatre District and envisioning an interdependent arts ecology that could sustain itself and its constituencies indefinitely. It was a bold vision that felt at times as if it were truly achievable.
Until it didn’t.
Like many folks who showed up for that final Eddy Street Fringe, I was a part of the festival for many years. Beginning in 2000 as a lighting technician and board op, I’d worked at EXIT in a variety of capacities, including as publicist from 2017-2021. Even during years where other jobs or other theatres or other Fringes took me away, EXIT always felt like an artistic home, and the Fringe Festival like a microcosm of what made that home special: an experiment in total democracy. Shows could be exactly what they wanted without censorship. Audiences could take chances on new work. And companies might discover something about themselves they never imagined. Even at its most expensive ($750 for a four-night run in an 80-seat theatre), the Fringe was an affordable place to self-produce, to hone your vision, and to find your people.
Being in the booth at EXIT Theatre provided me with both a backstage pass and the best seat in the house to some of the most iconic performers in the Bay Area. Work at EXIT—and Fringe in particular—was the best crash course in Bay Area theatre a person could hope for. It wasn’t just performers who found their people at EXIT, it was everyone. Technicians who worked at EXIT could always find gigs, both in-house and elsewhere, and our camaraderie was carefully cultivated. In my case, first by Jason Ries who was the Technical Director when I came onboard in 2000, and then by Amanda Ortmayer, who administered us from around 2006 on. Creative collaborations abounded among EXIT regulars. Romances flourished. Hangovers were accumulated.
From its inception, EXIT took its role as a cultivator of underground artists seriously. It commissioned new work from Tenderloin residents, presented new translations of international work, and hosted touring artists from around the country. The Fringe boasted early works and world premieres from Banana Bag & Bodice, foolsFURY, Mugwumpin’, Shotgun Players, and Thrillpeddlers. Sometime mayoral candidate and auteur Cat Brooks brought her harrowing drama, Tasha, there, and the Kilbanes an early iteration of their Ovid-inspired musical, Weightless. At a certain point in EXIT’s trajectory it seemed as if everyone in the Bay Area had trod its lovingly-maintained boards at least once, and the list of companies and alliances formed around Fringe shows read like a who’s-who of local theatre talent.
When did that centrality shift? It’s hard to pinpoint. When I started at Fringe it seemed as if almost every other black box theatre in town was either involved in Fringe or closed in September because of it. But gradually, in my capacity as a freelance theatre critic, I noticed press releases for shows opening elsewhere during the post-Labor Day “Fringe Season” becoming more common. Eventually, it was clear that the festival was simply no longer a thing other theatre-makers took into consideration in their own season planning.
Not only did this split audience numbers between Fringe and other independent theatre productions around the Bay Area, but it also impacted the number of local performers available to be in a Fringe show at all. No longer was Fringe a magnet for sprawling sketch comedy troupes, overly serious theatre companies, and transgressive performance art collectives. Smaller ensembles, standup comedians, and endless solo performers began to proliferate instead. The number of international performers (once a Fringe staple) applying also dropped, as it became almost impossible for them to secure performing visas post 9-11 in any case. A bitter irony, because Fringe artists from the United States, including Augello, could tour to Canada, Edinburgh, and beyond without much extra paperwork or fuss at all.
The effects of this attrition were incremental, but inextricable. And as audience and applicant numbers declined, so too did the Fringe. Letting go of its satellite venues which once stretched across the Tenderloin. Cutting the numbers of companies admitted and the number of showtimes to less than half of what it had been when I joined. In 2000 the Fringe had presented 52 companies in seven venues. The 2019 Fringe presented 20 companies in three venues (there was a last-minute no-show) and the 2022 Fringe presented just 19. It was an impossible calculus. On the one hand, as Augello would point out, it didn’t make sense to have a bigger festival if the audience was not there for it. On the other hand, it felt as if the audience had shrunk specifically because the Fringe no longer commanded its attention. We still loved the Fringe—those of us who were there until the end—it just felt sometimes as if our love was based as much on nostalgia and on our fondness for each other as human beings as it was on the actual event.
In 2000, when then San Francisco Chronicle theatre critic Steven Winn threw down a gauntlet with a column titled “Experimental Theatre Loses its Edge: Local Companies Taking Fewer Risks, Innovating with Less Form” the pushback was immediate. A large community of self-described “nomadic” theatre companies wrote an open letter in response that challenged Winn’s pronouncement, stating “Winn has never witnessed the work of such small experimental groups as Art Street Theatre, Crisus, the Cutting Ball, foolsFURY, and Combined Art Form Entertainment although he has certainly been invited.” Their letter went on to point out that Winn had furthermore “grossly omitted” mentioning the San Francisco Fringe Festival, “a hotbed of cutting-edge work and its contributions to the region’s most dedicated experimenters.”
Signed by representatives from 14 companies all innovating with form—from AfroSolo to Women’s Will—this letter provided a written testament to the importance of the Fringe Festival and of EXIT Theatre on the field. That year, perhaps shamed into it by this passionate appeal, Winn once again attended the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and—according to John Warren, then of Unconditional Theatre—“made a point of seeing at least one show from each of the undersigned within the year.”
In an article I wrote for Theatre Bay Area in 2008 for which Warren was interviewed, I observed that one of the effects of the original dot-com boom was an “explosion” of small theatre companies producing their own work, but not enough spaces for them to perform in. This put pressure on venues (who were already booked six months in advance) to accommodate as many companies as possible, who were all vying for a finite supply of resources. And it put pressure on those companies competing for space to plan months, even years in advance, for a chance at producing just one run – a far cry from the freewheeling “let’s put on a show” spirit that had once characterized the scene.
Vintage flyers from EXIT’s first decade at 366 Eddy Street.
The Paradigm Shift
EXIT Theatre began producing shows in 1983 on the 300 block of Eddy Street, and moved to 156 Eddy in 1993. At the time EXIT shared the space with other Tenderloin-based nonprofits such as the Vietnamese Youth Development Center while staging performances in a single venue located at the back of the building. Within the first three years, they’d expanded that footprint into two spaces, and as time went on, continued to expand, adding a new performance space every few years. By 2010 the company boasted four bespoke stages and a fifth around the corner on Taylor Street, a full bar, a green room, an office, and two mostly ok bathrooms recently converted to gender-neutral.
At the heart of this slow but steady expansion was the understanding that art, like a garden, requires space to grow. There would always be far more performing arts companies than there were permanent homes for them, the reasoning went, so the next best thing was to provide them with a temporary home that was affordable, supportive, and centrally located. But as artists were displaced by booms and busts, as funding became ever more capricious, and as costs on everything from electricity to labor to living rose, a decline in numbers that had been plaguing the Fringe for years now affected the rental model. A small company with a small budget no longer had the desire, the capacity, or the funding to rent a venue for a four- to six-week run. Two-week runs became the norm, with long weekends and one-offs not far behind.
This impacted EXIT in various ways. For over a decade, EXIT was managed by just three full-time employees: Augello, the founding artistic director, managing director Richard Livingston, and production manager/technical director Amanda Ortmayer. For these three, already accustomed to running operations as a skeleton crew, the shift to smaller runs and one-offs significantly increased their workload without increasing the payoff.
This past Mother’s Day I managed to catch up with Ortmayer over Zoom to chat about all things EXIT. As she sipped her mimosa–her three year-old, Hugo, running in and out of their recently-acquired Grass Valley farmhouse–she reflected on that workload. Each renter required the same amount of attention and onboarding whether they were there for five days or five weeks, so what had once been a monthly ritual of handing off the keys and demonstrating the tech specs to incoming renters became a weekly whirlwind. And while rental rates were set in a way that they mostly paid for the maintenance of the spaces, they did not provide enough for a larger salary. This meant that all three of the key staff had to have at least one other additional source of income in order to live.
Another impact was scheduling, as it was EXIT’s practice to leave what their 2016 strategic plan termed “breathing room” between productions rather than schedule different companies back-to-back in the same space. This allowed even short productions the ability to build and store their shows rather than pack them up immediately after each performance. This practice was a huge benefit for space-starved companies. Less so for EXIT. Scheduling a one-weekend run almost assuredly ate up two weekends on the calendar, and if that weekend fell in the middle of a month, booking a two-or-three weekend run in that same month became exponentially more difficult. The logistics of the model had changed. But EXIT’s decades-long expansion was predicated upon it. Reimagining it was going to take a lot of work.
EXIT ameliorated this paradigm shift to an extent by cultivating companies and artists in residence. Cutting Ball Theater took over EXIT’s Taylor Street satellite on a more-or-less permanent basis, and EXIT gave companies such as the now-defunct The Breadbox and Dark Porch Theatre residencies in the 49-seat EXIT Stage Left. In the final few years of EXIT’s occupancy at 156 Eddy, the 35-seat studio became almost entirely the domain of Leela Improv. And the 25-seat cabaret stage in the cafe played host to a rotating lineup of regulars working outside of the constraints of scripted theatrical production.
EXIT also made use of its well-honed “festival model” in order to produce and present works on multiple stages, effectively becoming its own renter—one which already knew the ropes and how to turn on the dimmer packs without assistance. A festival of Absurdist theatre. A festival of storytellers. A Magic festival. The long-running DIVAfest, which experimented over the years with different formats, and often included a visual art component. Like Fringe, the list of notable artists connected with DIVAfest is a long one, including Diane di Prima, Denmo Ibrahim, Lauren Yee, Liebe Wetzel, Mia Paschal, Allison Page, Beth Wilmurt, Rachel Bublitz, Regina Evans, Sadie Lune, and Sean Owens. Despite such talent in its pool, DIVAfest eventually folded as a full festival. But its legacy carried forward as a monthly Burlesque cabaret—DIVA or Die—organized by performer Red Velvet, and eventually in an annual Burlesque festival as well. Pre-holidays, the SF Olympians festival—created by another resident artist, Stuart Bousel—filled a slow month on the calendar, and helped to keep the venues active.
Even so, on evenings I worked the bar or the Front of House there were very few times I would have said we were “busy.” Certainly there were audiences that drank more than others (DIVA or Die attracted a particularly thirsty crowd), and of course there were shows that managed to fill their houses, but the days when we could say we had 250 people seeing EXIT shows at one time were further and farther between. In short, EXIT was not the “destination” it had once been. The entire Tenderloin “arts district” was struggling for visibility and support, despite the early promise that vision—championed in the late 80s by EXIT—had held for that neighborhood.
The Tenderloin Arts Ecosystem
In 1988, after receiving funds from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, EXIT Theatre published the “Tenderloin Performing Arts Plan” which identified four areas of support necessary to sustain a community-centered arts district in the Tenderloin. This plan identified four major goals of this proposed district:
- Support existing and emerging tenderloin performing arts organizations.
- Protect and increase Tenderloin and downtown performing arts spaces.
- Study what other communities are doing to protect and strengthen Performing Arts Districts.
- Nurture audiences and artists in the Tenderloin.
EXIT determined its role would be to increase the availability of performance space in the neighborhood, and set a slow-growth strategy of building five small satellite venues beginning in 1992. They noted in their 2016 strategic business plan that one of the intended effects of expanding the number of small spaces available, rather than building a single 200+ seat theatre, was to create “opportunities for indie artists to ‘take risks’ and produce their own work.” This commitment to encouraging others to establish their own companies and hone their own visions was central to EXIT’s artistic philosophy.
Beyond expanding their own position in what has variously been called the Tenderloin arts district, the Theatre district, and an “arts ecosystem,” EXIT wanted other arts organizations and artists to thrive alongside them. The purpose of the plan, ultimately, was to encourage policy-makers as well as artists to view the Tenderloin as a place of rich cultural exchange and artistic vision. In many ways this vision was embraced variously over the years by funders of specific projects. In 2014 PianoFight received funding to make necessary upgrades on their newly-acquired 144 Taylor Street venue—a multiplex in its own right with three stages and a full bar with an iterative food menu. In 2017 SAFEhouse moved across the street from EXIT, building out a 49-seat performance space with funding from the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) and the SF Arts Commission, among others. And just recently CounterPulse purchased their Turk Street location from CAST, which had bought it for this purpose in 2014, anchoring them definitively in the community for years to come.
But funding that must be competed for, and policy-makers who must juggle contradictory priorities from a variety of stakeholders, cannot be relied upon to maintain an arts district that doesn’t necessarily appeal to tourists and conference attendees. Even as I write this article, four more Tenderloin stages in addition to EXIT have been lost. Three at PianoFight, which shuttered in March of this year, and one on Sutter Street in May, closing the doors on a venue that has housed Actors’ Theatre of San Francisco, CustomMade Theatre Company, San Francisco Playhouse and, most recently, Landmark Musical Theatre. This loss of eight Tenderloin spaces from December 2022 to May 2023 has been a mere blip in the media, and does not appear to have been substantially acknowledged in it by new Tenderloin supervisor Dean Preston, former Tenderloin supervisors Matt Dorsey and Matt Haney, Mayor London Breed, or really anyone in city government at all.
San Francisco’s arts sector is made up of a constellation of small business owners who are generators of city revenue–a fact City Hall has seemingly failed for decades to grasp. According to a report published in 2021 by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, arts organizations employ over 27,000 people in San Francisco alone. In 2019, attendees of live performances in San Francisco numbered over seven million people, spending on average between $32-$75 on non-performance costs such as transportation, dining, and lodging, injecting over $422 million dollars into the local economy. And as much lip service as local government has given recently to “improving” Downtown and attracting new businesses to enliven it, it seems myopic if not downright obtuse to quietly allow existing small businesses, injecting real money in the very areas targeted for “improvement,” to close up shop.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit small venues and entertainment spaces particularly hard. For months they were simply not allowed to operate at all by government mandate. For months afterwards as COVID-19 cycled through and mutated and spiked, self-imposed closures and postponements became something of an industry norm. But for venue operators, there was still overhead to pay every single month. It’s a received wisdom that ticket sales alone do not cover the costs of making theatre. But for an organization like EXIT, which covered 60% of its costs with earned income despite its non-profit status, or PianoFight, an assemblage of three for-profit LLCs plus a non-profit arm, losing revenue was a particularly deep cut. And even with much-needed disaster support—PianoFight receiving over $260,000 and EXIT $146,999 in Federal grants and direct payments—without clear timelines around reopening, there was no way to plan ahead.
To 50 Years on Eddy Street
Planning ahead had characterized EXIT’s existence for a long time, as evidenced by their fulfillment of the 1992 plan to create five venues anchored in the Tenderloin. But their Achilles heel may well have been their inability to envision EXIT Theatre the entity under new leadership. And it poses an interesting question: to whom does an arts organization “belong?” To its founders, who poured decades worth of sweat equity, emotional labor, and mental energy into envisioning, building, and maintaining it? To the staff and board who run the day-to-day operations, guide its decision-making, and keep both the physical and metaphorical lights burning? To the communities it has nurtured and built over time, and if so, how much responsibility is then on the community to keep that organization alive?
As an intellectual exercise this question may have many answers. But for EXIT the answer almost inevitably defaulted back to the first option. As business partners and as platonic life-mates, Aguello and Livingston had run EXIT together from its inception in 1983. And like the best partnerships, they developed systems and operations that were unique not just to EXIT the entity, but to them personally. They talked frequently while we were all in the office, but so much of what they did and understood about their processes remained unspoken, and therefore unknowable by the rest of us. Office meetings were usually quotidian summaries of everyone’s deadlines. In other words, we all knew what everyone else was working on–but not how.
“The partnership of Christina and Richard is really a remarkable thing,” Ortmayer reflected in our interview. “It’s so solid, it’s so sturdy, it’s so clear on what it is, that that partnership, I think, is what made the EXIT possible in the first place.” The level and breadth of institutional knowledge each of them held was so vast and intricate, it may have seemed impossible to transmit to a new leader or team of leaders.
“The amount of things that Richard did that was explained to no one was epic,” Ortmayer emphasized. “From just keeping up to code, which makes a huge difference…to staying on top of grants, to being aware of everything that’s going on to community development. Like there is so much that he did that he just kind of kept to himself, and he was too tired, I think, to teach somebody else that too.”
It was true that Richard kept much to himself, though he was a constant, if often quiet presence in the office and hallways of the theatreplex. A consummate Jack-of-all-trades he could be encountered in the course of a single day on top of a scaffolding making repairs, laying out the cover design for a new title in the EXIT Press series of published local plays, and even working the front door, clad in his legendary checked flannel and a pair of Doc Martens. While Christina was often the public face of EXIT, Richard was its solid, stoic foundation. And their mutual devotion to their shared business was, perhaps, its greatest asset.
In 2019 I traveled to Portland, Maine and Winnipeg, Canada to run lights and stage manage Augello’s touring Fringe show, Denial is a Wonderful Thing. Over beers one afternoon she told me she couldn’t see that anybody would want to take over her role at EXIT for as little money as she made: around $35,000 per year. It was the first and only time she said anything at all about succession to me. Was it the beers talking? I didn’t really know what to say in response and the moment passed. But I thought about it a lot. Was Augello admitting to me that succession was not a part of EXIT’s exit strategy? Was she testing the waters to see who would refute her claim about the salary and ask for the challenge? It was a hard claim to refute. But if she had asked someone to step in, who knows what they might have been willing to say yes to? Would I have said yes to it? Would Bousel? Would Ortmayer? The subject never came up between the two of us again.
“I asked Christina for the theatre at one point, because and I told her I said, ‘no one has worked harder for this theatre outside of you and Richard than me and no one deserves it more than I do,’” Ortmayer recollected, estimating that this conversation took place around six years ago. “That being said, there wasn’t a plan and I don’t know if it’s just we didn’t have the energy to do a plan…And I don’t know if Christina and Richard really didn’t want to change, which is a possibility.”
EXIT’s own 2016 strategic plan (optimistically titled …To 50 Years on Eddy Street) did prominently mention succession “by 2023” as a goal. The topic was certainly on the minds of EXIT founders and board. But as for the finer points of that transition, none were to be found in the plan or discussed with existing staff. In public, the stated successor—or as Augello would introduce her at parties the “heir apparent”—was Ortmayer, whose byzantine list of responsibilities variously included production management, facilities management, and technical direction. On top of these she frequently directed and designed shows, in part, perhaps, with an eye towards lowering the production budget, but mainly because it was her artistic and creative outlet—one which helped to make up for the many less glamorous tasks under her purview. On staff at EXIT since 2005, Ortmayer’s own institutional knowledge was formidable and hard-won, but limited to her own areas of expertise. As overworked as everyone was, she told me, there was simply no time for her to be trained on new processes. Eventually, struggles with her health and the physical nature of her work began to have an impact on her ability to consider giving even more time to the theatre, as did adopting a child.
“I was earning less than child care costs,” she said. “So basically paying them to be there.” And while Ortmayer speculated that she would have most likely taken over mostly from Augello’s side of things, she recognized that she would not be able to take over the entire operation alone, meaning without replacements for her jobs and for Livingston’s. Here, like Augello, she commented on the low rate of pay for the workload.
“I no longer wanted to underpay people, and so, unless someone made it their passion project like it was for Christina, Richard and I, there wasn’t really someone available to do that. There are people who love the theatre like Stuart (Bousel) and you (myself) and Curtis (Overacre), but we weren’t gonna be able to pay any of you to live.” And like the intellectual exercise from earlier it was a moot point anyway, as Augello and Livingston did not set up Ortmayer to take over, and Ortmayer quit the organization in 2021–though she made an appearance as a House Manager for the final Eddy Street Fringe Festival in 2022.
While EXIT leadership, currently based in Arcata, CA, declined to comment on most of the specifics of this article, they did offer one on the question of succession. “EXIT Theatre is strong and there are no plans for succession,” Augello wrote in an email on May 8. And although EXIT maintains one last venue on Taylor Street–where they will stage this year’s one-venue Fringe festival in August–once the lease on that space runs out, it’s difficult to imagine them staging much of a San Francisco comeback. Having recently founded a 35-seat theatre space in Humboldt County, they seem content to continue their expansion of EXIT on a smaller, more manageable scale, albeit far from the Tenderloin arts district they once championed so fervently.
As for the Tenderloin arts district, money earmarked for “improving” that part of Downtown is going primarily not to bolstering existing (or recently shuttered) businesses on an operational level, but towards sidewalk improvements, Urban Alchemy “ambassadors,” and the SFPD. This despite the fact that the reported hotel occupancy for 2022 was 43% higher than in 2021, generating much needed arts funding via the Hotel Tax.
“We did speak with OEWD (Office of Economic and Workforce Development) before we closed but our funding gap was too much for them to fill,” PianoFight co-founder Rob Ready told me when asked about the details of his company’s own abrupt closure. This despite PianoFight’s heroic pandemic efforts to not only survive having to close their own doors for most of 2020 and 2021, but to channel their time and influence into advocacy organizations such as the Independent Venue Alliance, the San Francisco Venue Coalition, and the Tenderloin Business Coalition. If anyone in the Tenderloin arts district had made themselves visible to City Hall it was certainly PianoFight. But, as noted above, this visibility still did not save them in the end.
Meanwhile, two blocks away, a stretch of Powell Street, a corridor I associate mostly with its chain stores past and present—Burger King, the Body Shop, Urban Outfitters, Walgreens—will receive six million dollars in renovation funds as reported in May 2023. Of this, two million will be earmarked for “subsidizing improvements made by (retail) tenants, or by helping new businesses get off the ground.” A proposal, Mayor Breed promised, that will “send a message that we are going to do everything we can to make our Downtown a successful and thriving place for decades to come.”
On December 4, 2022, a crowd of EXIT staff and supporters celebrated together in the style of an Irish wake; one part cathartic, one part chaotic. I acquired a 12-channel lightboard and a coveted papier-mâché mask of a Rhinoceros head from a past production of the Ionesco classic. There was a live parrot at the festivities. There was inadequately-labeled, cannabis-infused shortbread. There was a huge platter of shrimp. There were hugs and tears and laughter and speeches, and at one point we all trooped out together onto Eddy Street where Augello and former EXIT TD Jason Ries painted over the EXIT Theatre sign out front while perched on a giant orange ladder. Almost immediately after the last brushstroke was completed it began to rain. You couldn’t ask for a better ending to the Act.