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Feeling Third Rate In The Second City

October 2, 2007

I just returned from Chicago. When I wasn't at a conference and reporting a story for the Financial Times, I was seeing plays and wandering around the Art Institute and gazing at some of the city's great outdoor public art works by Picasso, Calder and Chagall. More about my experiences at The Goodman Theatre's production of Passion Play and Steppenwolf's version of The Crucible tomorrow.

Today I'd like to talk about perceptions of Bay Area culture by people in other parts of the country. In short, they don't think we have any. I can't tell you how many times I got into conversations with well-educated people from elsewhere (I was at a symposium for doctors aimed at ingraining humanistic care within the medical profession) about San Francisco and its neighboring towns which would go something like this:

Dr. X: "So, you come from San Francisco?"
Chloe V: "Yes."
Dr. X: "I love San Francisco. It's a beautiful city."
Chloe V: "Yes, it really is. I love it too. I came here thinking I'd stay a year or so and now seven have passed."
Dr. X: "So what do you do there?"
Chloe V: "Well, I'm an arts journalist. A theater critic mostly, in fact. I work for a publication called SF Weekly."
Dr. X: "Theater? Huh." [long silence.] "Is there much theater in San Francisco?"
Chloe V: "Yes, quite a bit actually."
Dr. X: "Is it any good?"
Chloe V: "Some of it is very good, actually. We have a great scene over here. It's the third biggest theater scene in the country after New York and Chicago."
Dr. X: "I had no idea..."

At this point, the medic's eyes would glaze over and we'd move on to discussing more approachable things such as life on his hospital ward or his visit to San Francisco for a catheter conference in 1998.

It doesn't seem to matter how often I tell people about how great this city's arts scene is. Our arts just don't seem to have much of a reputation outside of the Bay Area. Why is this? I can understand people in other parts of the country being ignorant of some of our more esoteric events like the the Faux Drag Queen and King pageant and even, maybe, the Fringe Festival (though shame on them for not knowing about these events.) But to have no idea about the global reputation of, say, SF Ballet or the national significance of A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep is like never having heard of the Chicago Bears or Cubs.

I'm not blaming the doctoring community. These are people who know about the arts. Many of them attend the theater, opera and other cultural events in their own communities and read widely. They know quite a bit about what's going on culturally around the country. The fault is ours. We need to do more to get our work out beyond the narrow confines of the Bay Area. People need to see it in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. And we need to get visitors to this part of the country in to see our cultural offerings.

Of course, this is easier said than done. For any of the above to happen, our local authorities need to see the arts as one of the most important aspects of Bay Area life. City Hall needs to get behind the arts and promote them -- make insiders and outsiders see their significance. Here's hoping that one day I might not have to make stump speeches like the one above in front of a few befuddled medics.


  • amen, CV! Thanks for evangelizing the local arts scene. Theatre here is definitely on an upswing from those post dot com dark days and I hope it keeps on keepin.

    By Blogger Unknown, At October 2, 2007 at 10:13 PM  

  • I have a sort of stupid question.

    I remember reading not too long ago in a California Lonely Planet something like, "LA is the center of theater on the West Coast [ed: never mind Seattle and SF]. It has the greatest number of theaters in the country after NY and the highest concentration of actors anywhere". I have no idea if there are more "actors" in LA than there are in NY and sure, if you count, like, the crappy Burbank studio where someone performs in a scene study class held by an agent as a "theater" that must be true.

    But, really, does SF 'outdo' LA in terms of numbers? Small theater companies? Reputation?

    What makes SF the "third biggest"?

    -Davina, having sign-in problems (and lingering jetlag - why am I up so early?)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 3, 2007 at 3:36 AM  

  • Davina

    This is not a stupid question. I think every city likes to claim supremacy over others in all fields, whether it be boasting the most vibrant theatre scene or growing the biggest pumkin.

    One of the reasons that Chicago is so gung-ho about its performing arts culture is because as the Second City, it has a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis New York.

    But to answer your question, Theatre Bay Area calls this part of the country the third biggest center for theater after New York and Chicago because it boasts the third largest number of Equity actors in the country and the third largest number of theatre companies. I must admit that I was surprised to hear that the Bay Area has more Equity actors than Los Angeles. I'd be interested in seeing some evidence to back that up. Perhaps I'll see if TBA can provide some.

    Anway, thanks for writing.

    And thanks also, Peter, for weighing in on this post.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 3, 2007 at 11:15 AM  

  • I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 25, 2009 at 9:13 PM  

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