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Marines Memorial Theater

by Sue Krumbein

If you've recently seen a show at Marines, you probably noticed that although it's a plain auditorium, it's in pristine shape. This is due, in large part, to the current manager, Roxanne Goodfellow. She was also instrumental in redoing the Post Street Theatre some years ago, but unfortunately, that space has closed. These are both important houses in San Francisco theatre history, but Marines holds an especially pivotal place in the history of regional theatre in the United States.

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Scene from Britannicus at the Marines Memorial Theater in 1958.

Until the 1920s, regional theatre was alive and well in San Francisco. Then the Shubert brothers, among others, came on the scene, and bought and built theatres where they brought shows from New York City. Regional theatre essentially dried up until the 1950s when theatre people all over the US began establishing companies in their cities. This happened in San Francisco when Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, professors at San Francisco State College (now SFSU), established The Actor's Workshop in 1952, perhaps to keep their actress wives busy in a city without much theatre. It was intended to be a place where each individual could practice his craft, but when a theatre critic came to see their production of Lorca's Blood Wedding, and praised it, the public became interested in the group.

Although they were working out of a loft behind a judo school, The Actor's Workshop soon moved to a former Ford Motor Company warehouse where they created a 180-seat house with a platform stage. In 1955, they moved to the 650-seat theatre at Marines' Memorial, a servicemen's club on Sutter. That same year, The Actor's Workshop signed with Equity, which was the first off-Broadway contract ever issued to a group outside New York City. Of course, this meant little in good salaries for actors in 1959, as the five Equity actors in the company were receiving only $20 per performance and nothing for rehearsals. In 1960, the group began a rotating repertory which was a radical idea at the time. They opened a basement theatre down the street, the Encore, for small, esoteric productions such as Beckett's Endgame.

After eight years at Marines', The Actor's Workshop had a budget of $330,000 per year. It was well known and respected among theatre people, but its work was anti-establishment and the company was never widely accepted in San Francisco. The Workshop's most amazing and successful show was The Caucasian Chalk Circle which opened late in 1963, and received a standing ovation on opening night. This reaction resulted in a run that lasted for many weeks. People who had never heard of the playwright Berthold Brecht arrived at Marines', eager to see what the excitement was all about.

Two years later, in 1965, the board of directors of the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center in NYC, led by Robert Hoguet and two colleagues, were looking for someone to establish what they hoped would become a national theatre. Hoguet, familiar with Herbert Blau's book The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto, went in search of him and convinced Blau, and his co-director Julius Irving to come to the Repertory Theater. This meant that they, and many of the actors and staff at The Actor's Workshop, left San Francisco to establish themselves in New York City.

The move was a blow to San Francisco, even though the city hadn't been particularly supportive of The Actor's Workshop. Clearly the city wanted a major theatre company in town. Thus when William Ball arrived in 1967, with his company called American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), the city made him a good offer and ACT filled the gap left behind by The Actor's Workshop. For this reason, the next time you walk by Marines' or see a show there, remember that the theatre played an important role in the resurgence of regional theatre in San Francisco and the United States.

Sources: Regional Theatre, The Revolutionary Stage, Joseph Wesley Zeigler

Photo courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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