Making theater dance – an ode to collaboration

One of the most exciting things about the world premiere of American Conservatory Theater’s The Tosca Project is that it shines a big old spotlight on the riches of the Bay Area.

Here is a revered local theater company venturing into risky territory – a play mostly without words told through dance and recorded music of all kinds – in collaboration with an artist from another revered local company. But get this, that other revered institution is not a theater company.

Yes, ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff has spent four years working with the San Francisco Ballet’s Val Caniparoli to create The Tosca Project, a story inspired by – hold your hats again – a piece of San Francisco history. Are you getting all this local, local, local stuff? The legendary Tosca Cafe in North Beach is the subject, from its opening in 1919 by a trio of Italians to its current status as the royal court of Jeanette Etheredge and her literary and cinematic pals, and that history is related via dance, music (opera, jazz, standards, rock) and even some beat poetry.

There are thrilling, beautiful moments in this 90-minute piece, and the stage pictures – created by Robert Wierzel’s lighting, Douglas W. Schmidt’s warm, inviting set and Caniparoli and Perloff’s staging – are often stunning in their visual poetry.

This “Project” should be the start of many such projects that take full advantage of the extraordinary resources we have in the Bay Area. Think about the history we have yet to explore in dramatic and musical ways. “The Tosca Project” focuses on one bar in one neighborhood. The city, as they say, is full of a million stories. Let’s hear more of them. And let them be told by local arts groups of all kinds working together.

I know it’s naive to think that arts groups can just join together and create. There are little hurdles like budgets (or lack thereof)and grants (or lack thereof). But the biggest hindrance seems to be the silos everyone works in. ACT, Marin Theatre Company and the Magic Theatre are busting out of their silos to present Tarell Alvin McCraney’s
The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy next season. Why are there so few of these inter-Bay Area collaborations? With any luck, such fruitful teamwork may be an inspired byproduct of this horrendous economy.

California Shakespeare Theater has collaborated brilliantly with Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts as well as with Word for Word. Think of what they could do with a little help from San Francisco Opera. Or the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Or Oakland’s flammably adventurous The Crucible. Think what might happen if Beach Blanket Babylon and Killing My Lobster decided to join forces. Or Thrillpeddlers and Lamplighters. The mind fairly boggles.


ACT’s The Tosca Project continues through June 27 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10 to $89. Call 415 749-2228 or visit

Above photo: The Bartender (Jack Willis) dances with the memory of his long-lost love (Sabina Alleman) in ACT’s world premiere of The Tosca Project. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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