Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco

Stage Left is a documentary film celebrating the Bay Area's unique theater community. This timeline is an interactive tool based on the film created to collect a comprehensive cultural history. Our first story begins post-WW II in 1946 with the founding of the Interplayers.

Inspired by a Western history of risk taking and exploration, a climate of political and social activism, a particular multicultural mix, and a geography that is seismically unstable, San Francisco theater artists have focused on pushing the boundaries of the form. Their interest in redefining performance—where it takes place, how it is staged, and what it encompasses—has had a lasting influence on theater in the United States and around the world. Stage Left brings together the directors, actors, composers and playwrights, the artists and the eccentrics that have made the Bay Area theater scene an experimental, multidisciplinary and political hotbed. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Please contribute your story to this dynamic and important history.

SF Actors Workshop

The first post-war San Francisco theater company to garner national attention, San Francisco Actors Workshop was founded by San Francisco State College professors Herbert Blau and Jules Irving. The founders chose the name to reflect their belief in the actor as the central element of theatrical performance, in the hopes that the workshop would be “a place where each individual could pursue his craft.”

The Minstrel Show Premieres

San Francisco Mime Troupe has long provoked audiences with its history of political engagement employing Comedia Della’Arte on the streets of San Francisco to confront the pressing issues of the day. The troupe cemented its radical reputation with A Minstrel Show in 1965 forcing audiences to face issues of race in America using a historically racist form to attack racism in both its redneck and liberal varieties. The production was condemned as vulgar and praised as honest, and started a tradition of arrests for troupe members on the grounds of obscenity. The Mime Troupe also spawned provocative and political companies such as Teatro Campesino, the first Chicano theater, and The Pickle Family Circus with its socially minded animal-free traveling circus. The SF Mime Troupe today continues to engage its audience with plays that address critical issues of our time.

American Conservatory Theater

In 1965, Herbert Blau and Jules Irving left San Francisco to take over the direction of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center, itself a troubled theater that had struggled under the leadership of Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead. Without the strong direction provided by its original leaders, The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop rapidly foundered, but the nascent American Conservatory Theater, a nomadic company visiting from the East Coast, and its indefatigable leader, William Ball, would soon fill this void in the San Francisco theatrical landscape.

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The Cockettes

The Cockettes were a psychedelic drag queen troupe founded by Hibiscus in the late 1960s in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. The troupe performed outrageous parodies of show tunes (or original tunes in the same vein) and gained an underground cult following that led to mainstream exposure.

Angels of Light

In early 1971 a few members of the original group broke away from the Cockettes and formed their own theatre group, The Angels of Light. The Angels became a well-known and highly creative San Francisco theatre group during the 1970s. Angels performances were free, with no admission charge. The Angels lifestyle included communal living in an old three-story Victorian house in San Francisco on the north side of Haight Street just west of Divisadero Street.

Teatro Campesino

is a theatrical troupe founded in 1965 as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers. The original actors were all farmworkers, and El Teatro Campesino enacted events inspired by the lives of their audience. Luis Valdez, who had worked briefly with the San Francisco Mine Troupe, founded El Teatro Campesino to raise social awareness of political realities with his work as a cultural component of the United Farm Workers strike spearheaded by Cesar Chavez. The ETC is the nation’s oldest and most prolific Chicano theater company. Calling his theatrical vision a mix of Brecht and Cantinflas (often referred to as the “Charlie Chaplin of Mexico”), Valdez began his directing career in 1965 with a sketch called “Three Grapes” at the Delano headquarters of the UFW. Early performances were on flat bed trucks in the middle of the fields in Delano, California, and the theater is now located in San Juan Bautista, California. Teatro Campesino's early performances drew on varied traditions, such as commedia dell'arte, Spanish religious dramas adapted for teaching Mission Indians, Mexican folk humor, a century-old tradition of Mexican performances in California, and Aztec and Maya sacred ritual dramas.

Black/Arts West Founded

Ed Bullins, one of the country’s most important Black playwrights, received his first production in SF in 1965, when the San Francisco Drama Circle performed three of his one-acts at the Firehouse Repertory Company on Sacramento Street. Bullins had attended San Francisco State College for a short time in the early sixties and in 1966 started two theater companies — Black/Arts West and Black House, Inc. — in the Fillmore district of SF.

Interplayers Founded

Begun by four conscientious objectors and Quakers, the Interplayers emerged in the 1950s as a reputable force for the presentation of serious drama in San Francisco. Founders Martin Ponch, who had worked with New York’s Washington Square Players, Kermit Sheets, Joyce Lancaster and her husband, Adrian Wilson, met and formed a theatrical practice while in Civilian Corps camps. The company’s first season, in 1947, featured works by Chekhov, Lorca and Shaw, at the Washington Street Theater in North Beach.


Interplayers produced the West Coast premier of Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal play “No Exit,” which was written in 1944, at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. For the 1949-50 season, the Interplayers moved to a new venue at Hyde and Beach streets but the building was shut down by the Fire Department Bureau after only eight weeks of performances for a building code violation.

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