Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 2. 1967.
Insignificant American theatre
Insignificant American theatre
On my last night in San Francisco I asked my friends to take me to the theatre; I had seen hardly any professional theatre during my seven months stay in the United States, mainly because there was very little to see.
As far as I know, there is at the moment no permanent professional theatre company in San Francisco, except the Committee. Consequently, that was where we went.
It's quite a small and insignificant - looking place, jammed incongruously between two topless nightclubs in North Beach, the centre of San Francisco's night life.
As soon as I entered the theatre I was struck with its resemblance to Downstage in Wellington. We first went into a large split-level foyer, where there was a bar and a lounge filled with people waiting to get in.
Every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered with a conglomeration of huge posters—scenes from war films with snide slogans inserted by members of the Committee, cartoon parodies of Uncle Sam, LBJ, Tim Leary ("high priest of LSD"), Stokely Carmichael, Mao Tse Tung," and other favourite personages; psychedelic paintings, revolving eyeballs, pictures of Great Beauties of the 1920's, pop-art collages made from advertisements, paper flowers and purple ostrich feathers, and bits and pieces from every junk store and antique shop in the city.
A Tynan-type word describing Communism covered most of the back wall.
The theatre itself is bigger than Downstage, but much barer—no carpet, nothing on the walls; above the stage the large wooden beams of the ceiling meet in a peak. The seating arrangement is even less comfortable than Down-stage, with seven or eight people squashed around each table; it was amazing to see the dexterity with which the culotte-suited waitresses manouvred between the tables with their trays and menus.
The food was more varied and palatable than at Down-stage; we did not have a meal there, but were able to order rum and cokes and cheesecake—at exorbitant prices, however.
The show is always divided into two halves. The first half is a series of skits, sketches, and parodies which the players devise themselves, changing the programme at two-weekly intervals. Then during the interval they ask the audience to suggest themes for improvisation, which they do impromptu in the second part of the show.
The first hall was excellent; the eight players, all extremely talented, changed costume and character with amazing rapidity, whizzing in and out of the three doors at the back of the stage, swinging from the rafters, and leaping into the audience like characters in an old silent movie.
Like Downstage, their material is geared towards a certain kind of audience. American people, politics and pastimes are ridiculed in a hilarious but hard-hitting way, which would probably be highly offensive to any clean-living, all-American patriot who happened to wander in unawares. LBJ and his various activities are the main target but movie stars, football players, business tycoons, state governors and hippies are treated in similar vein.
There were skits portraying SFL party (meaning the Sexual Freedom League, one of the biggest off-campus organisations of the University of California), an LSD trip, a religious radio broadcast, and an interview with Robert Shelton (Head of the KKK), among many others. The second half, consisting entirely of improvisations, was brilliant on the part of the performers, but the lack of imagination in the audience made it a little inane, and towards the end, extremely boring.
Considering that the Committee relies entirely on donations from its supporter as well as profits from the show, the quality of the performance, and the enthusiasm evident in the theatre itself and in the relationship between the Committee members and their audience, was very impressive. It had a professional flair and glib style which Downstage tries to but never quite achieves. However, their material is all comic—the Committee has never put on a serious or tragic play, as Downstage has; it has built its fame on satire, not on drama.
The Committee is packed every night, and prices for the show itself are cheap enough for it to be a constant hangout for university students, hippies, intellectuals, radicals and like-minded people from all over the Bay Area, whereas Downstage has become more exclusive, and now that the initial enthusiasm has worn off, lacks the professionalism essential to maintain its force as the centre of theatre in Wellington.
Lindy Mason tells of her experiences in an American professional theatre.
She compares it with Wellington's theatre-cafe — "Downstage"
Lindy recently spent seven months in the United States.