Living in San Francisco has many perks: world-class food, museums tucked into neighborhoods all over the city, incredible parks to get your nature on, and … a thriving theater scene. What’s that, you say? Never heard of the killer San Francisco theater community? Well, get on board! Whatever your live-entertainment fancies may be, San Francisco has you covered.
A brief search of “theatre in San Francisco” will likely point you to the big houses, like American Conservatory Theater (ACT), the Curran, and SHN’s touring productions. But while these are all great options that offer big production value and popular shows, they lack in local talent and affordability. So we’ve gathered together a list of lesser-known theater companies and venues that put on great shows throughout the city. They may not be Broadway, but they’ve got enough heart and chutzpah to power the Transamerica Pyramid.
Traditional theaters and venues
Though this venue is only a few years old, it’s established itself as a home for many theater companies and artists. It has three stages (two black-box theaters and one cabaret stage) and a full bar and kitchen. In addition to hosting bands, comedy nights, and magic showcases, it’s also the home of these burgeoning theater makers:
- Awesome Theater: “Theater for people who didn’t know they liked theater.” This up-and-coming company specializes in comedy and horror — sometimes at the same time.
- NeoFuturists: Breaking the mold of what theater can be, this troupe performs 30 two-minute plays every performance, with the audience choosing the order.
While there is no shortage of companies producing Shakespeare, this company ensures that these coveted roles go to actors of color. Not only do you get to enjoy theater classics, but the company also performs in beautiful venues around the city, like Herbst Theater and Taube Atrium Theater.
This venue has quite a few things going for it: its intimate stage, its location (spitting distance from Anchor Steam’s tap room!), and its three fantastic companies in residency:
- Playground: a playwriting incubator that also hosts full productions, solo shows, and an annual Best of Playground one-act festival.
- Crowded Fire: a company committed to producing exciting new plays that push the boundaries.
- Golden Thread: “Middle East Center Stage.” Founded in 1996, Golden Threads brings stories from or about the Middle East to the American stage.
“The longest-running queer theater in the world.” Theatre Rhino is a staple of the San Francisco theater scene, offering heartfelt plays and exciting musicals that examine and celebrate the LGBT experience.
“For women in the arts.” For 30 years, Brava has been producing shows written, directed, and featuring underrepresented communities. As a bonus, their gorgeous venue on 24th St. in the Mission is a stone’s throw from both high-end restaurants and cheap eats.
Producing renowned and local playwrights, as well as musicals, Custom Made focuses on intimate shows that have a social message and reflect the San Francisco community they welcome into their theater space.
“San Francisco’s home for original LGBT theatre.” Celebrating works from the queer community, Left Coast produces full-length shows and one-act festivals featuring many Bay Area writers.
Now for something a little different
While some people may run in the other direction when they read “experimental theater company,” we strongly urge you to run in the direction of Cutting Ball Theater. Their productions of experimental new works and reenvisioned classics are beautifully directed, designed, and performed — they manage to make the experimental accessible.
The home of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, you’d be surprised to learn when first walking through the door of this quirky venue that it boasts four stages. When not in Fringe-mode, the cafe and cabaret stage hosts magic and burlesque while the other stages are devoted to improv shows and reading festivals, like the annual San Francisco Olympians Festival (all plays inspired by mythology).
Looking for a taste of the drag scene? Look no further than Oasis. Check out their weekly drag show, Mother, which changes themes every week. And you do not want to miss their drag versions of your favorite TV shows (Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example). Finally, Baloney, an all-male burlesque revue, graces the Oasis stage a few times a year and leaves no one disappointed.
A San Francisco institution, the SF Mime Troupe is not, we repeat NOT, the kind of mime you’re thinking of. They mean mime in the ancient sense: to mimic. Every summer, they create a new show that tackles one of the pressing issues of society (with a large dose of humor) and perform it for free in parks all over the Bay Area.
This company performs modern takes on classic plays in unusual venues. For instance, they put Hamlet on Alcatraz and the Odyssey on a ship called the Alma. Every performance is unique and takes the audience on a journey through each venue.
Not many theater companies make room in their season for a solo show, so thank goodness for a theater like The Marsh, which created a space for performers to develop their shows with fellow artists and audiences.
How about a laugh?
SF’s premiere sketch comedy company since 1997. Every year they produce multiple shows built around a theme, like Lifetime: Theater for Women, North by North Lobster (Hitchcock-inspired), and their annual collaboration with 826 Valencia where they produce a sketch comedy show written by children. A show by KML is a guaranteed 60 minutes of laughter.
This venue is jam-packed with comedy. Almost every night of the week you can see multiple improv shows with resident improv company Endgames, as well as nights of stand-up and solo shows. Best of all, you’re right by Valencia and 16th St, so you can easily grab a bite or a drink before or after a show.
Every performance at Un-Scripted is made up on the spot. Sure, that’s how improv works, but their take is a little different. They get their suggestions from the audience and then improvise an entire play. While the audience is sure it can’t be done, they are proven wrong night after night.
Giving any of these theaters a try will open up the San Francisco theater world to you, and once you get a taste, you will certainly want to go back for seconds.