A Brief History of West Coast Theatre

A Brief History of West Coast Theatre
Photo by Kind and Curious / Unsplash

We’ve covered the roots of performance theatre in Chicago and New York (a more accurate description would be that we’ve barely scratched the surface), and the West coast theatre scene is just as fascinating. Keep in mind we’re only splitting up the East and West Coast hypothetically for our articles here. In reality, both coasts worked together as limbs of one body with patrons and governments alike. The United States is large enough to enjoy the diversity that independent theatres spread across 3.7 million miles creates.  From the early days of mellow dramas to the avant-garde experiments of today, West Coast performance theatre can be dated back to the early 1700s; although it’s well known that the Spanish and Native Americans were putting on theatrical performances before the first English colonies in 1607. A small tangent; the first official theatre of the colonies was Dock Street Theatre in Charleston in 1736, where the first company started performing in 1752, when Lewis Hallam brought a complete company of actors from Europe. First, theatres, THEN form a country with a constitution, the colonies honestly had great priorities. But we digress, the first theatre in California was established in 1850 in Monterey, but isn’t currently in use (and probably won’t be any time soon as it’s registered as a historical landmark). The second oldest theater in California is the fabulous Nevada Theatre, established in 1865 and located in Nevada City, California. Miraculously this theater is still in use today and just recently celebrated its 150th birthday. If you stop by the theatre, put a word in for us!

In the early 1900s, a wave of change swept through the theatre landscape, giving rise to progressive theatre companies that brought forth a fresh gust of creativity and innovation, kind of like the gust of your booming ticket sales if you switch to Fourth Wall Tickets. San Francisco, a hotbed of artistic experimentation, witnessed the enchanting performances of trailblazers like Isadora Duncan in the early 1900s. Her ethereal barefoot dances captivated audiences and laid the foundation for an innovative movement that transcended conventional boundaries. She toured the US and later Europe with Loie Fuller, before creating an innovative dance school that broke many dance norms. Fascinatingly, Duncan even legally adopted all six of her first proteges, who were called the Isadorables. Duncan would go on to create schools in the US and Russia.

Another of these trailblazers, the Group Theatre emerged as a powerhouse. Originating in New York in 1931, the Group Theatre left an indelible mark on the entire nation's theatrical fabric, extending its profound influence to the vibrant West Coast scene. The Group Theatre (no connection to the Group Theatre in London) had a branch called the Group Theatre West, which operated in Los Angeles from 1933 to 1941. The unwavering commitment to portraying authenticity and the power of meticulous self-analysis resulted in extremely disciplined productions that resonated deeply with patrons. The first production was Paul Green’s The House of Connelly , and interestingly enough when the Theatre Guild offered to fund the production if the ending was changed back to its tragic origins and certain actors were removed from the cast (Mary Morris and Morris Carnovsky), The Group Theatre refused and managed to secure half of the funding on its own. The play was an instant blockbuster, igniting a wave of change that reverberated across West Coast theatre companies. These visionary troupes eagerly embraced the Group Theatre's ethos (which expanded on the system of famous Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski), embracing realism and ensemble acting as guiding principles, thus shaping a dynamic theater movement that captivated audiences and pushed artistic boundaries once again.

Other notable pioneers of performance art on the West Coast, such as Anna Halprin, who established the San Francisco Dancers' Workshop in 1955, and Yvonne Rainer, a luminary of the Judson Church in 1960s that went on to write choreography and cinematic works, pushed the envelope of theatrical expression in ways similar to the Isadorables, where dance treats "the body more as the source of an infinite variety of movements” than purveyor of plot. These and other visionaries' contributions paved the way for a resplendent eruption of creativity in the 1970s, along the West Coast.

As we’ve written about in our East Coast posts, during the disrupting 1930s, President Roosevelt's visionary New Deal program breathed life into the all arts including the West Coast theater scene through the establishment of the Federal Theatre Project. This bold initiative not only injected vital funding into theater productions but also served as a catalyst for the emergence of countless talented bodies in the realm of acting, writing, and directing. As curtains rose across the West Coast, the Federal Theatre Project became a beacon of inclusivity, steering performance theatre toward the working-class populace and effectively democratizing the art form. It was within this tapestry of artistic endeavor that funding sowed seeds in gifted cast and crew, sprouting into remarkable expressions of creativity.

As the 20th century progressed, West Coast theatre continued to evolve and experiment with new styles and forms. Theatre companies like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and others were making big strides as part of this movement, using non-traditional techniques like puppetry, physical theatre, and multimedia to create innovative and boundary-pushing performances. During this transformative period, the art of improv also flourished, finding a happy home in San Francisco. The Committee theater, founded in the 1960s by Alan Myerson and Jessica Myerson, (alumni of Chicago's Second City), blossomed in the sunny North Beach neighborhood. The Committee broke apart in 1972, but three major companies rose from the ashes: The Pitchell Players, The Wing, and Improvisation Inc. Among them, Improvisation Inc. became the torchbearer for Harold improv, captivating audiences with recurring themes in connected scenes through its exceptional performances. Meanwhile, in the heart of San Francisco's Old Spaghetti Factory, two former members of Improvisation Inc., Michael Bossier and John Elk, established Spaghetti Jam in 1976. Their ingenious blend of short form improv mesmerized audiences until 1983, attracting even stand-up comedians from the nearby Intersection for the Arts. John Elk's influence extended across the Atlantic, as he introduced the art of short form improv to England in 1979, teaching workshops at Jacksons Lane Theatre and becoming the first American to grace the stage of The Comedy Store in London, situated above a Soho strip club.

The West Coast's rich theatrical history obviously boasts talents who made their mark before soaring to Hollywood stardom. The inspiring story of Annette Bening comes to mind, a celebrated actress who embarked on her artistic path on the West Coast. She began acting on stage in The Sound of Music during middle school, and delved into the study of theater at San Francisco State University. Ms. Bening got her start with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival company in 1980, and later graced the stage of the renowned American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, holding a lead role in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth. She also acted with the Denver Center Theatre Company for two popular productions, Pymalion and The Cherry Orchard. This was her etch in the city's theatrical legacy before her breakthrough in the realm of film with the motion picture The Grifters.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this other actor reigning from the West Coast theater circuit, his name is Gene Hackman, the brilliant Academy Award-winning actor. Although wanting to act since age 10,  at the age of 16 Hackman boldly enlisted with the United States Marine Corps (illegally since he was a minor) and served four and a half years as a field radio operator overseas. After a discharge, a few random jobs in New York City, and some incomplete studying at the University of Illinois, Gene moved back to California to pursue acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met another upcoming star, Dustin Hoffman. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the Pasadena Playhouse was brutal on Gene, giving him the lowest score in their history and voting both him and Hoffman as “The Least Likely To Succeed”. Of course, the playhouse couldn’t be more wrong. This kind of treatment only fueled Hackman to be more relentless. He moved to New York City again, this time sharing rooms with his fellow struggling actors Hoffman and Robert Duvall. While fighting for bit roles Hackman worked odd jobs to make ends meet and had multiple encounters with both marine officers and Pasadena Playhouse instructors where they told him that the odd jobs were proof that he "wouldn't amount to anything". Again this only inspired Hackman more, he would later state,

“It was more psychological warfare, because I wasn't going to let those fuckers get me down. I insisted with myself that I would continue to do whatever it took to get a job. It was like me against them, and in some way, unfortunately, I still feel that way. But I think if you're really interested in acting there is a part of you that relishes the struggle. It’s a narcotic in the way that you are trained to do this work and nobody will let you do it, so you’re a little bit nuts. You lie to people, you cheat, you do whatever it takes to get an audition, get a job.”

Hackman would go on to act in several Off-Broadway plays before a Broadway debut in 1963, where he performed in However Any Wednesday with actress Sandy Dennis, which was a huge Brodway success. The networking this performance provided for Hackman allowed him to enter film, and the rest is history.

There are countless inspiring stories of success in theatre on the West Coast, one of the most notable for comedy being The Improvisation (The Improv), a club started in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in 1963 by Broadway producer Budd Friedman. The club was initially meant as a place for Broadway actors to hang out after their shows. The stage at The Improvisation was dominated by singers for the first year, but slowly transitioned to a comedy club as comedians started testing their material frequently. We tip our hats to that first comedian, Dave Astor, who started the snowball effect that made Budd a bona fide comedy connoisseur and manager. Renovations were never made to the exposed brick wall behind the stage and it became an iconic staple for The Improv. The club became so popular for live comedy that every comedian started fighting for Budd’s attention, since more stage time meant more time in front of the talent scouts in the audience, who were looking to fill roles in New York-based television shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Big names like Jay Leno would drive from Boston every week and hang around, hoping to be noticed by Budd for stage time. The place was overflowing with talent, so much so that even some of the door hosts and waitresses would eventually go on to star in hit movies. In the 1970s Budd wanted to expand West, which manifested as a second club location on Melrose avenue in Hollywood, California. Budd started the club himself in 1975 and left Chris Albrecht to manage the New York City location (who would go on to be the Chairman and CEO of HBO, wowza). Melrose Avenue in Hollywood proved to be the perfect place for a second location, as up and coming producers and managers worked the establishment, such as Jimmy Miller (Jim Carrey’s manager) and Judd Apatow (producer of Knocked Up and 40 Year-Old Virgin), with Leslie Moonves, the former CEO of CBS making your drink at the bar. Despite a talent strike in 1979 that resulted in arson and a large portion of the building burning down, Budd was able to rebuild thanks to fundraising shows by Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman, who got their start at the club. The club even went on air when television was breaking onto the scene with An Evening at the Improv, where Budd wore a monocle during the shows and helped bring comedy into the homes of American viewers. As a result of the show’s success, Budd was able to partner and expand into 13 new club locations in various states and even one in London. Quite predictably due to copycat clubs in the 90’s, there was an oversaturation of clubs and not enough comedians to go around, which caused a bit of a slump in the industry. The silver lining being that the disruptive new TV technology also gave birth to a new style of comedy, comedian-as-actor roles in film. We all know the household names Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen, Ellen Degeneres, and they have The Improv to thank for their break into television as comedy actors. Those big names and the reach of TV likely created the comedy boom of the 2000’s with new comedians like Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Jeff Dunham, Dane Cook, David Spade, Pablo Francisco, Brian Regan, Sarah Silverman, Daniel Tosh, Gabriel Iglesias, Jo Koy, Sebastian Maniscalco, Todd Glass, Aisha Tyler, Bobby Lee, Anjelah Johnson, and Jamie Kennedy to name a few. This explosive resurgence allowed The Improv to expand into eight more cities across various states. Budd if you're reading this, we'd be happy to discuss how Fourth Wall Tickets can streamline your theatres.

Today, West Coast theatre continues to be a diverse incubator for new talents with a wide range of styles and approaches. While we’ve only covered a few of the theatre related histories, there are hundreds and thousands of others worth reading, and we encourage you to do so! As we dive through other fantastic theatre achievements in our future posts, maybe we’ll have a chance to dig deeper into one of the stories already mentioned. What do you want to learn about? Let us know by sending an email to hello@fourthwalltickets.com!