History

 

The Actor’s Workshop of San Francisco (TAW), California, had its origins in a theatre study group organized in 1952 by San Francisco State College professors Jules Irving and Herbert Blau and their wives, Beatrice Manley (Mrs. Blau) and Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Irving). Its off-Broadway contract of April 15, 1955, with the Actors' Equity Association (the first ever awarded to a group outside New York City) marked the beginning of the most recent wave of decentralization in the professional theatre of the United States. TAW gained international acclaim for its American premieres of plays by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Bertolt Brecht, and Jean Genet, and it was a true repertory theatre, presenting a number of plays in nightly rotation at two theatres. It offered employment and training for an ensemble of performers that numbered more than one hundred at its largest. It also established a reputation for conceptually brilliant and technically adroit productions.

Blau and Irving rented a studio in a loft above a judo academy at 275A Divisadero Street and invited friends in the theatre to join the group. Professional road shows came regularly to the Geary, Curran, and Alcazar theatres; and a few amateur groups flourished in the area. Irving and Blau wanted a workshop in which each individual could perfect his or her talents and in which untried and esoteric drama could be experimentally produced.

Irving and Blau chose Philip Barry's Hotel Universe for the group's inaugural presentation (to an invited audience of about fifty on February 28, 1952) because, as Blau later explained, "it had substantial roles for all the actors, and because it could be done in modern dress around the unused brick fireplace [in the loft on Divisadero]" (The Impossible Theatre [New York: Macmillan, 1964], p. 139).

A little over a year later, after five successful productions for invited audiences and a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle of their work on Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, directed by Irving, the company incorporated as The Actor's Workshop of the San Francisco Drama Guild.

In August 1953 TAW abandoned the studio on Divisadero and moved to the second floor of a warehouse at 136 Valencia Street, in San Francisco's "market" district. Aristophanes' Lysistrata, directed by Irving, opened the theatre.

The company's greatest asset was a roster of over seventy volunteers who acted, built scenery and costumes, staffed the box office, and underwrote all the group's functions with their time and energy. All productions were cast from among members of the group wherever possible, but outside talent was occasionally used. Each production received about one month of rehearsals, exclusive of readings and preliminary discussions. Casts rehearsed seven nights a week and on weekend afternoons. Company members were seldom paid for any of their work.

The next milestone for TAW was the production of the Arthur Miller drama, The Crucible, which opened December 3, 1954, at the Elgin Street Theatre. Irving and Blau soon arranged the lease of a 630-seat theatre on the second floor of the Marines' Memorial, just a block off Geary Street in the heart of San Francisco's theatre district. The Marines' Memorial Theatre offered inadequate offstage space,and no room for offices, but its size and location more than made up for its inadequacies.In August 1955 TAW began to produce plays at the Marines' Memorial and the Elgin Street theatres.


A subscription sales campaign in 1956-57, headed by business manager Alan Mandell and stimulated by a production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie, starring Viveca Lindfors, provided resources to launch the season. The group inaugurated an annual children's show in 1956.


Another milestone for TAW was a U.S. Department of State invitation for the group to represent the American regional theatre movement at the 1958 International Exhibition in Brussels. Irving and Blau offered the workshop's production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, directed by Blau. Godot was enthusiastically received in New York (where it had a six week run Off-Broadway) and in Brussels.


TAW had to this point produced eighteen major works, including four original plays and one American premiere of a foreign play. Its only source of income was box-office receipts, which were growing rapidly, but not fast enough to permit the upkeep of the Marines' Memorial Theatre and the maintenance of a full-time ensemble. The need for a studio continued to press on the company. The group located a space just around the corner from the Marines' Memorial. The Encore Theatre, as the 140-seat facility was called, opened May 10, 1959, with a production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame directed by Blau.


In 1960-61 TAW abandoned its weekend-only performance schedule and then struggled to fill the theatre. Blau's King Lear, the group's first Shakespearean production, was an unqualified success; Irving's Henry IV, Part I, was the next season's greatest popular and artistic success. These two works established TAW's proficiency in still another genre; subsequent productions of Ben Jonson's Volpone, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, and William Wycherly's Restoration comedy classic, The Country Wife, all of which were directed by Robert Symonds, sustained the company's reputation for vibrant, innovative revivals of classics of the English theatre.


The Ford Foundation, recognizing the group's high ideals and its communal, self-sacrificing spirit, provided a grant to continue the professional salary scale it had helped to establish. Other signs of the group's growing reputation included notices in Nation and the New York Times as well as an invitation to present its productions of The Birthday Party and Waiting for Godot at the Seattle World's Fair.


The 1962-63 season was the group's most successful, both financially and artistically. Blau's productions of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo and Jean Genet's The Balcony brought further critical acclaim for TAW.  Growth in the size of the ensemble (now including twenty staff personnel and thirteen resident actors, as well as nearly one hundred part-time assistants and volunteers) and increasing specialization seem not to have impeded TAW's ability to mount productions that unified acting styles with vivid scenic spectacles. The TAW initiated a thriving theatre-in-the-schools program.


Only six major productions were planned for the 1964-65 season, but early on Irving and Blau were asked to take over the artistic direction of New York City's Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center and they accepted the offer.

Clip from a documentary on SF Theatre History titled Stage Left:

http://vimeo.com/25742439