The SF Bay Area may not hold a candle to New York when it comes to theater offerings, but you may not be aware of the rich array of small local and regional theater companies, some of which operate well under the radar, all serving a diverse Bay Area fan base for live theater. Below, a selection of the best you'll find this side of Times Square.
Berkeley Repertory Theater
Arguably the best regional theater we have, Berkeley Rep has been in operation across the Bay since its heady, hippie beginnings in 1968. They've won the Tony for outstanding regional theater, and every season they present some of the more provocative, smart, outside-the-box, and polished works of theater you'll find anywhere, complete with gorgeous sets on two different stages. They sometimes bring in shows directly following acclaimed runs in New York, like 2013's Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. And they boast a ton of world premieres and recent shows that went direct to Broadway from their stage, including Green Day's American Idiot, Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, and Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. Also they attract major talent, like Kathleen Turner last fall, Sirs Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in 2013, and Frances McDormand who'll be appearing in Macbeth this winter. To boot, it's not nearly as far from SF as it may sound hop on a Richmond-bound BART train to Downtown Berkeley and you're talking 30 minutes tops. (Also, it's good to note for the twentysomethings that if you're under the age of 30, tickets are half price, always.) Jay Barmann
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Small but bold, the Magic Theatre was named and founded in 1967 for a scene in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf in which an invitation is extended to an “Anarchist Evening at the Magic Theatre / For Madmen Only / Price of Admission Your Mind.” At the time, John Lion, the theater's founder and a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley working under Jan Kott, had put on Eugène Ionesco's The Lesson at Berkeley's Steppenwolf Bar. The Magic's focus is solely on the production of new plays, and many of those have been Sam Shepard's. It's likely the company will always be associated with the actor and playwright: Shepard's first work produced at the Magic was the West Coast Premiere of La Turista, and he joined the theater as Playwright in Residence in 1975. More recently, under current Artistic Director Loretta Greco, the Magic has played host to fresh, notable works by Taylor Mac, the writer, singer, and drag performer who, for a time, donned the hats of Beach Blanket Babylon fame. Those productions were The Lily's Revenge (2011) and Hir (2014). Caleb Pershan
Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, 3rd Floor (Theatre), 2nd Floor (Offices)
An image from A.C.T.'s 2015 production of 'A Little Night Music.' Photo courtesy of ACT
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)
The other major player in terms of regional theater, next to Berkeley Rep, is A.C.T., where there's a long history of both big names gracing the stage, and direct-from-Broadway imports, often with New York-based cast members. Work here can vary from the wildly original (like this year's Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, directed by the late Mark Rucker), to the staid and academic, like last year's Major Barbara, or 2012's Elektra. Always, though, the shows are well cast (in part from the full-time company of actors), and very often they're beautifully designed, with some of the most elaborate and expensive sets you'll see in the Bay Area and A.C.T.'s home base, The Geary Theater, is a refurbished, ornate landmark that rivals the loveliest Broadway houses. The brand new Strand Theater on Market Street promises to give A.C.T. the ability to branch out into edgier, newer works with a smaller house to fill, and fingers crossed that that will happen, because it too is a beautiful space. Jay Barmann
405 Geary Street
Inside SHN's lovely Curran Theatre. Photo: SHN's website
Launched in 1977 as SF's venue for national tours of Broadway shows, SHN's empire has expanded to include the Curran, Orpheum and Golden Gate theatres and is behind shows at the Marines' Memorial Theatre in Fort Mason, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, Davies Symphony Hall, and the War Memorial Opera House. Not just the place for touring companies and West Coast premieres these days, SHN is also the place to catch the pre-Broadway "test" runs of some occasional big-name shows, which means they enable you to lord over your NY pals with a "yeah, I already saw that in SF" when they mention scoring opening-night tickets to the Great White Way's hot new thing. Eve Batey
An image from Cutting Ball's recent production of 'Mount Misery, A Comedy of Enhanced Interrogations.'
The Cutting Ball Theater
Tops among local companies when it comes to avant garde theater, the Cutting Ball was founded by a couple of passionate theater artists, Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers, in 1999. Their mission: to produce "experimental new plays and re-visioned classics, with an emphasis on language and images" and "to produce plays that reveal a poetic truth as opposed to a naturalistic or realistic one." They've remained small-scale, doing work by a variety of international playwrights in residence at the EXIT theater on Taylor Street, and often producing very ambitious things, like an entire cycle of Strindberg plays over one month, in repertory, in 2012. They're opening this, their 17th season, with a new translation of Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life Is a Dream, from 1635. Jay Barmann
277 Taylor Street
This ambitious troupe from Berkeley, founded in 1992, last year pulled off the feat of performing all three parts of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia with its dozens of characters and Russian novel length in repertory, to great reviews. This season they devoted to women playwrights only, including Anne Carson's Antigonick, and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. After years of roaming, their home became the Ashby Stage in 2004. And in high Berkeley fashion, that stage was the first 100 percent solar-powered theater in the country and is a Green Certified Business. Caleb Pershan
1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley
An image from 'The Cable Car Nymphomaniac.' Photo: Kevin Bronk
The newest theater company in this bunch, the FOGG Theatre, deserves props for their vision and chutzpah out of the gate, with their first commissioned new musical, The Cable Car Nymphomaniac hitting all the right notes earlier this year. Their mission is to produce new Bay Area-based work for Bay Area audiences, and the first play was based on the infamous story of Gloria Sykes, a 23-year-old Midwestern girl who, after an accident aboard a San Francisco cable car, got a knock to the head that supposedly caused her to become a sex fiend, and for which she got a half-million-dollar settlement from Muni. Though they've yet to announce their next work, or even to schedule a full season, they're on this list as a daring company to watch. Jay Barmann
An image from 'Company' courtesy of SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli
Apart from the smaller Ray of Light Theater company, SF Playhouse is one of the only theaters in town producing revivals of recent and classic musicals, which are performed in the ornate environs of a former ballroom in the Kensington Park Hotel near Union Square. A recent (if modest) production of Promises, Promises did not disappoint, despite some difficult music and some tricky set changes to pull off, and they're currently doing an equally ambitious show, Stephen Sondheim's Company, which KQED said possesses "an effortless swing." Fans of musical theater don't need to look much further than her to get their fix year-round, and without the high pricetag of seats from SHN. Jay Barmann
450 Post Street, Second Floor
California Shakespeare Theater
Every summer, CalShakes presents a four-play season bookended by two reimagined Shakespeare plays (this year it was Twelfth Night and the upcoming King Lear), and also including classic plays of the last century, from Coward to Chekhov, as well as modern plays inspired by Shakespeare. Under the artistic direction of Jonathan Moscone (new artistic director Eric Ting will oversee next season), the company has blossomed into a legitimate force in the local theater scene, often producing work of terrific power and insight on a comparatively shoestring budget 2012's The Tempest comes to mind, as does 2010's bloody and chilling Macbeth. But equally great as the shows themselves is the setting, the outdoor Bruns Amphiteater in Orinda, which comes complete with a picnic ground and the ability to tote your wine bottles and picnic gear right into the theater with you. On warm summer (and Indian summer) nights, I can't think of any more idyllic setting for theater, and you need to experience it at least once. Jay Barmann
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (formerly 100 Gateway Blvd.), Orinda
One of Beach Blanket Babylon's grand finales. Photo: Beach Blanket Babylon's website
Beach Blanket Babylon
While the broad comedy of the 41-year-old musical revue isn't for everyone, there's no doubt that it's a San Francisco tradition. Known for giant hats and topical(ish) humor, this song and dance show has entertained over six million people from across the globe. It's a great show to take visiting relatives to, as the show feels far more outrageous than it is, guaranteeing guests who will feel like they had an outré SF experience without any outré mess. -- Eve Batey
Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard (aka Green Street)
Once the somewhat-controversial home of the Thick Description theatre company, since 2008 Thick House has been owned and operated by the non-profit Art Space Development Corporation. Half community center, half venue for world-class theatre from organizations like Theatre Rhinoceros, 3 Girls Theatre Company, and Crowded Fire, it's also home to my favorite theatre event, the Best of PlayGround Festival, a whirlwind annual staging of short original works that's been running since 1997. Without Thick House, a lot of San Francisco's greatest emerging theatrical talents would have nowhere else to present their work, something to consider spending money on the next time you're bitching about how there's no art in SF these days. -- Eve Batey
1695 18th Street between Arkansas and DeHaro
Marin Theatre Company
Dating to 1966 and a professional company since 1987, Marin Theatre Company or MTC owns and operates its own theater complex. As, in its words, "The leading professional theater in the North Bay and premier mid-sized theater in the Bay Area," it remains one of our better funded local theaters, often playing host to world premieres of new work. This year MTC has scored the West Coast premiere of The Oldest Boy, a new play by the acclaimed Sarah Ruhl. Caleb Pershan
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
New Conservatory Theatre keeps the gay and lesbian theater crowd covered with a full season of LGBT-themed shows every year, including an upcoming production of recent Nathan Lane vehicle The Nance.
Theatre Rhinoceros, the Bay Area's "original queer theater," has always done interesting work, and will kick of their 38th season in November with Shakespeare Goes to War.
Custom Made Theatre Co. is moving into SF Playhouse's old digs at 533 Sutter Street, and now in its 16th season is focused on producing plays that awaken social conscience and play to the strengths of their ensemble. Last season that included Albee's Three Tall Women and Late: A Cowboy Song by Sarah Ruhl, and this month they're doing This Is Our Youth, just after its Broadway run that featured Michael Cera.
The Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma opens its 43rd season this weekend with the musical City of Angels, and they are well known in the North Bay for producing excellent work.
And the 14-year-old Ray of Light Theatre company fills in SF's serious gap when it comes to contemporary musical theater, with the recent well received Heathers: The Musical, and the upcoming Rocky Horror Show.
Also, the rotating array of drag musicals and drag reenactments of TV shows deserve mention at Oasis, as does the kooky, always entertaining work of the Thrillpeddlers in their SoMa home, the Hypnodrome, including their recent sendup of 1990s San Francisco, Club Inferno, and their annual Halloween Grand Guignol horror extravaganzas.Max (Jax Jackson) and Paige (Nancy Opel) in HIR at the Magic Theatre. Photo: Jennifer Reiley