(Some of the) Best Theatre Spaces in the Bay Area

Melody Nicolette

The theatres and other performance art venues are very much as a contribution to what becomes our cherished experiences as the show itself. Performance arts venues can hold their own intrinsic magic. As performing artists, we often hold our very own secret dream “bucket list” of performance venues very dear in our hearts and minds. 

Here are some (of my personal favourite) theatres and venues throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, great and small.

In no particular order:

Orpheum (San Francisco)
Capacity: 2,203
What is it?: A 1926, gothic revival-style palace of a theatre, patterned after a 12th-century French cathedral, originally part of the curious Orpheum Circuit.
What/ who I’ve seen there: WICKED, LES MISÉRABLES, HAMILTON, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (and Tori Amos, apparently? There are some very fuzzy--and probably false-- memories of seeing her there circa Under the Pink -era tour, for some reason. Ah, well!).
Best suited for: large productions
Notes: As previously mentioned, it was modeled after a 12th century French cathedral, and does it ever feel that way in terms of its grandness. There’s a lighting fixture that resembles a fireball sun of some kind in the house itself, and there is a very large portrait of St. George slaying the dragon in the lobby.

Golden Gate Theatre (San Francisco)
Capacity: 2,297 (which is CRAZZZZYYY because physically it’s a much smaller theatre than the Orpheum, and a host to the “smaller name” shows that come through).
What is it?: Like the Orpheum, is part of the SHN SF theatre family, a former vaudeville house, and later was a major movie theater, built in 1922. 
What/ who I’ve seen there: GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE, Together Again At Last,...For the Very First Time (Eric Idle & John Cleese comedy tour)
Best suited for: “smaller” tours
Notes: The architecture of this particular theatre retains the vestiges of segregation; to get to the balcony (“cheap seats”), you have to take a separate staircase with a different lobby. Eeep. Additionally, while lovely, it doesn’t have the same grandeur as the Orpheum; it feels just a teeny bit “worn.”

Great American Music Hall (San Francisco)
Capacity: 600
What is it?: Built in 1907 as part of the post-earthquake efforts to rebuild the city, this visually sumptuous venue holds decorative balconies, columns, and frescoes, home to everything from rock concerts to burlesque. San Francisco’s “oldest and grandest nightclub,” is a 5,000-square-foot concert hall. 
What/who I’ve seen there: The Bowie Ball,  Emilie Autumn, and a Vienna Teng and friends jamboree
Best suited for: just about everything; the space just naturally lends itself to whatever it sees fit, be it a massive event with different cabaret acts on the different levels and ballroom dancing, to sit-down concerts. Perhaps a burlesque-y production of GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE (even more so than usual?!), or a vaudeville-y Gilbert & Sullivan.
Notes: It’s an utterly gorgeous venue; this cannot be understated. Think the ceilings of the ballroom sequence of the animated version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The whole place is like that. Yeah.

San José Center For The Performing Arts (San José)
Capacity: 2,677
What is it?: Home to Broadway San José, the ballet, conferences,--you name it!
What/who I’ve seen there: PIPPIN, River Dance, Tori Amos
Best suited for: large productions
Notes: It is an elegant venue, with a lovely, helpful staff, and serves really great snacks (ha ha ha). My one quibble with the venue is that the seating is terrible. There are no divisions in the aisles, and are a continuous line all the way across. So once you are seated--that’s it! You’re stuck. (Makes one a little nervous, to say the least). This was particularly amusing for Tori Amos concerts during the customary encore stage rush and watching people clamber over the seats à la the slurthies from Rainbow Bright[, as ripped off by Uwe Boll’s 2005 Alone in the Dark]. 

Swedish American Hall (San Francisco)
Capacity: 334 (has a cute little balcony!)
What is it?: An adorable, homey space built in 1907, brimming with Old World charms of intricately carved dark wood (it looks like the dark-ride cars of the attractions of FantasyLand in Disneyland--I know that’s a terrible comparison), and glorious high ceiling. 
What/who I’ve seen there: a T.V. Party/ Springtime Carnivore/ La Sera jamboree, and Susanne Sundfør
Best suited for: A good Shakespeare or a stripped Sondheim show (saying this as someone who is fond of neither one of those, but knows a good idea when they see one).
Notes: SAM shows are of a singular intimacy, because the stage is a mere two steps in height up from someone standing in the front row; you are no more than a head shorter than the performers. If you’re standing front of stage, you literally feel like the artists are playing in your lap. And while I rarely make negative comments, and while I would say the majority of the staff is absolutely professional and lovely, you do occasionally run into really gross, condescending “bro” behaviour from some of the ticketing guys.

Paramount (Oakland)
Capacity: 3,040
What is it?: Opened as a movie theatre in 1931, it was the largest multi-purpose theater on the West Coast,  then seating 3,476. Today it’s home to the Oakland East Bay Symphony, Oakland Ballet, screenings of Golden Age Hollywood movies, lectures, and innumerable touring acts of all genres.
What/who I’ve seen there: Tori Amos, screening of The Wizard of Oz
Best suited for: just about everything and then some.
Notes: The Oakland Paramount is one of the most beautiful venues I’ve ever been to. Going to the Paramount, no matter how many times you’ve gone before, is like seeing it for the first time, every single time. It’s an absolutely magical place: the Grand Lobby with its carved dancing figures, grand staircase and Fountain of Light over seven double doors at  the entrance, patented ceiling grid in the auditorium, the various foyers on each of its levels, the bathrooms (yes, even the bathrooms) and their lounges with couches and benches, the mirrors,--the list just goes on and on. It’s hard not to be absolutely struck by its wonder. 

Brava! for Women in the Arts (San Francisco)
Capacity:  360 (Main Theatre)
What is it?: An affordable arts space that hosts new plays, operas, poetry slams,  sing-along screenings of such films as Selena and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and cabaret, while also providing youth with quality arts-training programming. It is one of the most eclectic and accessible venues in the Bay Area. 
What/who I’ve seen there: Screening of Selena and dance party thereafter. :)
Best suited for: Literally everything in the arts you could possibly conceive and then some. It’s what the arts should strive to be.
Notes:  Having never previously been to Brava!, I couldn’t quite place why I found it curiously familiar; it was because Brava! was originally the York Theater, a former vaudeville and movie house built in 1926. Family archives of “old San Francisco” have a photo or two of when it was still the York. Intergenerational nostalgia, I suppose. That being said, it is an incredible space and a gift to the community, as well as an unpretentious, globally minded, culturally rich and intersectional view of the arts centered around marginalized voices.

Freight & Salvage (Berkeley)
Capacity: 440
What is it?: Multi-genre performance space and coffee house.
What/ who I’ve seen there: Vienna Teng
Would be best suited for: concerts, staged readings
Notes: Opened in 1968, it sports a charmingly dated interior--of which I have no complaints, as it fits very well into my vintage aesthetics. It feels like it used to be something else, oddly enough. Like a church or something. Church of Music, I suppose.

Throckmorton Theatre (Mill Valley)
Capacity: 250
What is it?: a multidisciplinary arts facility nestled into the redwoods. The kids shows are world class. Comedy nights were once occasionally greeted by surprise stand-up routines by the late, great Robin Williams. 
What/ who I’ve seen there: numerous kid productions, comedy shows, and a staged reading of Vienna Teng’s musical The Fourth Messenger.
Best suited for: just about anything, though staged readings in particular
Notes: The ceiling. The ceiling. The ceiling.Oh, my god, that GLORIOUS ceiling. Seating is not that comfortable, though.

Theatre of Yugen at NOHspace (San Francisco)
Capacity: 60
What is it?: Part of the Theatre of Yugen, an experimental ensemble, based foundation in Japanese noh drama and kyogen satire, blends the traditions of Eastern storytelling and Western narratives (most notably A Noh Christmas Carol).
What/ who I’ve seen there: Right Brain Performance Lab
Best suited for: Experimental theatre and dance pieces, workshops, screenings, rehearsals and anything conceivable within in confines of a 21' wide X 25' deep space. (which is a lot! )
Notes: It’s an intimate space. Founded in 1978 by Yuriko Doi. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Livermore Center for the Performing Arts, Bankhead Theatre (Livermore)
Capacity: 500
What is it?: A brand new, state-of-the-art performance hall, with the capabilities to host operas, symphonies, theatrical productions, lectures--you name it!
What/ who I’ve seen there: Riders in the Sky
Best suited for: it all!
Notes: Where the heck is Livermore? Where ever it is, it’s got itself a stupendous venue.

Dream big, kids. Make your lists of dream venues. Someday, you’ll play all those great houses. 

Photo: Paramount Theatre