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Towards A Performing Arts Stammtisch

March 4, 2009

An American writer friend of mine based in Berlin runs what he calls a "Stammtisch". This German term isn't easily translated into English, but what it literally means is "regular's table" or "regular get-together" or "standing agreement to get together at the same table on regular occasions."

In the most traditional sense, a Stammtisch is a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week. There is usually a sign on the table saying "Stammtisch". In the most traditional German beer halls there is a large brass plaque above the table with the word Stammtisch printed on it in bold lettering. There can be all kinds of Stammtisch. There are those simply for friends to drink together. Or those for specific interest groups - say a "philosophy discussion Stammtisch" or a "stamp collectors Stammtisch". My friend in Berlin hosts a group of mostly expat journalists, writers and other creative types.

I think what the Bay Area performing arts community needs is its own Stammtisch. I've been banging on about this for quite a while to the cohorts with whom I organize theatre salons in San Francisco. A salon is a kind of stammtisch. But so far, our model hasn't fit the bill because we only run salons sporadically and so far have a pretty random approach to inviting people. We also carefully plan out what topic we're going to speak about each time and usually go to quite a bit of effort to organize food, drinks and even entertainment for each salon.

Judging by the emails I've received over the past few months in response to our salons (or news about our salons) Bay Area theatre artists are hungry for a stronger sense of community. I feel that this hunger is growing by the month. People want to get together to connect intellectually and spiritually. I'm not sure that the salon model, as it currently stands, is really maximizing its community-building, arts discussion-propagating potential. Plus the salons are often labor- and cost-intensive to organize.

Moving the theatre salon to a Stammtisch model would come with several advantages:

1. The regularity of the meeting would mean that ideas get discussed in more depth, over many weeks and months, rather than just as a one-off where we invariably only skim the surface of ideas.

2. The guest list could be as big or small as it wants to be. In other words, it wouldn't need to be carefully curated. As long as at least one core Stammtisch/Salon organizer were present each time, anyone could come. Or not. As they please.

3. Building community takes time. Having a standing agreement to meet will help fuel a sense of community and engagement over the long haul.

4. The get togethers would feel more casual and less elitist if they were run in a friendly bar or restaurant and anyone within the performing arts community (including audience members) could come.

5. We'd bring steady business to the aformentioned friendly bar or restaurant and the organizing committee would save itself the considerable time and money involved in cooking/buying food and drink to feed upwards of 40 people etc.

The plan isn't without its challenges though, as some of my salon colleagues have pointed out. But I think these challenges can be overcome:

1. A theatre director friend of mine and salon organizer doesn't think that the Bay Area theatre community is big enough to keep a Stammtisch going. I don't agree with this, however. There are thousands of people involved in the performing arts in this part of the world and a sturdy proportion of them, I imagine, would enjoy coming to at least one Stammtisch meeting to try it out. Some of these guinea pigs would come back. Time and time again, I bet. As such, I should think that getting a core group of attendees would be pretty easy.

2. Someone from the core organizing group would need to be present at every single get together. But with six people on the salon committee, I shouldn't think it would be too hard for one or two of us to make it to meetings.

3. People might suffer from burn-out leading the event to fizzle after a few months. I think we've been getting some good momentum going on our salons. We should leverage this and keep the interest going by picking a lively spot to meet, putting together a mailing list to remind people that the weekly/bi-weekly/monthly Stammtisch is coming up, and helping to keep conversations going.

4. Choosing the right place to meet could be tricky. The location is extremely important. We would need a place that's cozy yet big enough to accommodate large groups; lively, yet quiet enough for a discussion; friendly to theatre people; close to public transportation; in the vicinity of at least a few performance venues; open late enough so people can join the fray after seeing or being in a show; and offers good yet not-too-pricey food and drink -- a late-night kitchen would be ideal.

5. Deciding how often to meet presents a challenge. Meeting every week could be too much, but meeting once a month could be too little. Trial and error will help us to figure out how often to get together. But too much trial and error might confuse people and potentially put them off coming altogether.

I don't know if the Stammtisch idea will take off. But I think we could make it work if we go for it.


  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 5, 2009 at 2:35 PM  

  • Hi Chloe:

    I think your idea of a Stammtisch is a great one. It's something I'd wanted to do several years ago, before I had three kids and went to grad school and basically stopped doing theater in SF. Ha!

    While the Stammtisch may not be possible to sustain with only the theater community (I'm not convinced it wouldn't be), that wouldn't be the end of the world. Why not open it up to the arts community and try to engender conversations with artists from all fields and disciplines. I'd truly be interested in participating in a forum like that.

    The theater community can feel very insular - not just in SF, but generally wherever one is, that tends to be the center of one's universe. Now is the time to start reaching out and building an arts community and an identity, not only as theater artists, but as artists engaged in a larger whole.

    Anyway my 2-Cents,

    By Blogger E. Hunter Spreen, At March 5, 2009 at 3:24 PM  

  • thanks elizabeth for weighing in. i think opening the stammtisch up to the general arts community would be a good idea.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At March 5, 2009 at 3:29 PM  

  • Hi Chloe,

    I whole-heartedly second the motion. This community would benefit tremendously from a consistent and vigorous discussion. While I've enjoyed the salons you are absolutely right in your assertion that they only scratch the surface.

    Besides, I'd love even more opportunities to open my big mouth and make a fool of my self.

    Call me a bull in a china shop but I'm ready to take action. Step one: Pick A Location...

    You talked about various aspects of locale but stopped short of suggesting any.

    I thought the exit made a decent spot but for a few shortcomings in the food department.

    I'd suggest The Rite Spot on 17th and Folsom. Often quiet and a good size and near 16th mission BART.

    However, I think a bar or restaurant may not be the right direction. Often large conversations inevitably break down into smaller conversations very quickly, usually do to noise issues.

    Which kind of leads us back to the Exit or another theatre. (though the food/ drink issue would persist) Raelle might let us use the Brava lobby. I'd be more than happy to open up USF to the community but it's location is less than ideal.

    I'm interested in hearing other folks suggestions.

    Thanks for trying to break inertia on this one,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 10, 2009 at 2:24 PM  

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