TBA Online: News & Features: March 2017

Bay Area Performance Spaces Brainstorm Ways to Avoid Displacement

Wednesday, March 1, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
Share |

by Rotimi Agbabiaka

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Russell Blackwood stands in the middle of the Hypnodrome surveying the SoMa hideaway that has been home to his theatre company, The Thrillpeddlers, for thirteen years. Just three days ago the space was ablaze with the music and flash of a company party but now it is stripped bare—the seats, risers, and proscenium are all gone and the company’s stock of outlandish costumes and props lie in boxes awaiting a liquidation sale.

“These were my resources when I was running a company with a home,” he says, referring to the one-of-a-kind items. “I saved things religiously because there’s always a chance of [a show] coming back.”

But after a week of farewell performances and company goodbyes, Blackwood is preparing to hand the keys over to the building’s owners, who are selling it to a wholesale furniture dealer. While Blackwood hopes to continue the Thrillpeddlers's freakishly fun fare in some form, he concedes that it will be difficult to replicate the scale of spectacle made possible by the company’s special home.

Company members say goodbye to the Hypnodrome at a farewell party. Photo by David Allen.

“Having a physical space that has storage for all of our costumes and room for shop space, having these resources close to hand has made a difference for our production staff,” Blackwood says. “Having a space that we can make so unique, that was not a prefab kind of [space], made for a really special theatre. The shock boxes, the Turkish lounge, seating elements that were as nontraditional as you’d ever seen were all a part of our theatre and that was a big deal to me.”

It’s also been a big deal to the many artists who have found a home at the Hypnodrome. Steven Satyricon, who has appeared in “at least 12 different shows” with the Thrillpeddlers, according to his estimate (and not including multiple revivals), recalls being gutted by news of the space’s loss.

“People who find [the Hypnodrome] feel like they’re coming home,” he says. “We’re all kind of like the fringes of the theatre community … the weirdos of the weirdos.”

The Thrillpeddlers host their last variety show at the Hypnodrome. Photo by David Wilson.

The space is the latest casualty of a Bay Area real-estate market that makes it difficult for performance venues to remain open. Skyrocketing rents triggered by the recent tech boom have shuttered spaces like CellSpace and Supperclub. A 2016 survey by Northern California Grantmakers found that 68 percent of Bay Area nonprofits, many of which are arts organizations, fear they will have to move within the next five years due to rising rents.

When the Thrillpeddlers first moved into the Hypnodrome in 2004, they were only supposed to be in that space for two years but were able to remain for much longer at below-market rates because their landlords—who Blackwood considers benefactors of the company—took their time finding a buyer for the space. The arrangement wasn’t destined to last.

“I knew it couldn’t go on forever,” he says.

As financial pressures increase, performing arts venues are trying to adapt. At this year’s Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference, which takes place on March 13 in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep,, Peter Papadopoulos, co-artistic director of Mojo Theatre, will lead a roundtable discussion on how to keep performance spaces open given current displacement trends.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Papadopoulos says, “but hopefully collectively we can come up with some strategies for maintaining our spaces.”

Jonathan Youtt, cofounder of the recently closed CellSpace, will take part in the discussion as will representatives from CounterPULSE and The Flight Deck, two organizations that have defied real estate odds and established new performance spaces in prime Bay Area locations in recent years.

These companies, along with others like Golden Thread Productions and Cutting Ball, have benefitted from new municipal initiatives aimed at stemming the tide of nonprofit displacement. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development came together in 2014 to launch the Nonprofit Displacement Mitigation Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to help organizations at the risk of displacement negotiate lease renewals, find new spaces, and develop sustainable business models.

Joanne Lee of the Northern California Community Loan Fund administers this program, which focuses on arts and social service organizations and accepts applications on a rolling basis. More than just supplying funds, the program helps its beneficiaries make long-term adaptations to growing financial demands.

“Performance arts spaces are so unique and that makes it hard to find the right space. I think that a lot of performing arts organizations [also] need assistance with finding the right business model,” Lee says. “We do help them with analyzing their financial health and if their model is working and help them … figure out how to put together a business model that is sustaining.”

On February 22, 2017, the city of San Francisco announced the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, an investment of $4.2 million over the next two years to help nonprofits keep and acquire secure spaces. Up to $2.7 million will be awarded in the first round of funding, which has an application deadline of March 28.

Programs like these have helped produce success stories like that of SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts, which recently signed a 15-year lease at 145 Eddy, the former Tenderloin home of gay porn theater, The Tea Room, after bouncing around from space to space for the past ten years.

SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts just signed a 15-year lease at the former home of the Tea Room Theatre. Photo courtesy of Google Street View.

“This will actually be our fifth space since we started in the Mission in 2007,” says executive director Joe Landini. “[145] Eddy street is an opportunity for some stability because we spent so much energy finding a place, moving, it ends up eating up a lot of your time.”

Working with the city, Landini was able to outline his goal of occupying the Central Market space and when the Tea Room decided to close he enlisted the city's help in negotiating a lease and securing grant money to finance the move.

And in a twist of San Francisco fate, the Thrillpeddlers's legacy will live on in SAFEhouse’s new home. While preparing to reopen the space, Landini realized that he would have to replace the Tea Room's seats, so Blackwood brought over the Hypnodrome’s seats.

“The [Tea Room] purple seats will now be fake-blood-and-whatever-stained seats,” laughs Blackwood.

“Those are very historical seats,” Landini says. “And I’m happy that we're going to have very historical seats in our space.”

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at rotimionline.com