Curran Theater Stages Intimate, Experimental Performance Series During Remodel

Everything about the experience of attending a performance at the Curran Theatre is different, now that the ornate 1,600-seat venue in the heart of the downtown theatre district is under reconstruction. 

For starters, audience members now proceed down an alley on the west side of the main entrance and go in through the stage door—just like Bette Davis in the film All About Eve.

From there, it's onto the 90-year-old theater's stage (capacity: 130), where attendees get to see the “Curran Under Construction” series play out right in front of them, in the most intimate manner imaginable. The house beyond, with its enormous Phantom of the Opera-style chandelierorchestra and two balconies, looks oddly foreshortened from this perspective, almost like a digital backdrop. 

Photo: KSH Architects

Producer and San Francisco native Carole Shorenstein Hays dreamed up “Curran Under Construction” as a way to creatively utilize the theater as it's revamped, with short-running productions of wildly innovative, non-traditional new works being performed until the theatre reopens in January 2017. 

Last summer, Shorenstein Hays, an eight-time Tony Award winner, parted ranks (for undisclosed reasons) with the Shorenstein Hays Nederlander (SHN) group that she cofounded. SHN presents mostly big Broadway musicals and high-profile comedies at the Orpheum and the Golden Gate theaters. 

Shorenstein Hays now operates only the Curran Theatre, and hopes to present the kind of exciting contemporary work, including serious dramas, that she's known for. (She was the sole Broadway producer for August Wilson’s Tony-winning Fences in 1987, and is currently producing the Tony-winning Fun Home on Broadway.)

The renovation, led by architect Perkins + Will with interior design by Brian Murphy, will include new men’s and women’s restrooms; remodeled lobbies with three bars, digital displays and artwork by local artists; new carpeting and lighting; refurbished seats; and a state-of-the-art electrical system.

Shorenstein Hays is particularly sheepish about the restroom upgrade. “We are bringing magic back to the Curran—especially to the bathrooms,” she joked via email. She'd never thought bathrooms were an important element of a theatre, but audiences, she's realized, believe otherwise.

The Curran has a noble history. The land on which it sits, next door to A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, sat vacant for 12 years after the 1906 earthquake. A Midwesterner, Homer Curran, eventually formed a business partnership with famed New York producers the Schubert Organization to build the Curran, which was considered an elegant alternative to the vaudeville houses of the era.

Since then, more than 8,000 performances have been staged at the Curran, and such luminaries as Isadora Duncan, Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn have graced its stage. In recent years, Sir Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman have both performed there. 

During the most recent Under Construction show, Ghost Quartet, some audience members sat on cushions on the stage floor, and a few even ended up playing instruments themselves. It’s emblematic of the kind of work that Shorenstein Hays has booked for the “Under Construction” series, which she hopes will evolve even after the construction is complete—perhaps at the Curran, perhaps at a satellite site.

“There is a whole untapped audience in the tech industry that I’m curious to engage with in the Curran’s next iteration,” she said, adding that San Francisco's play program is “having a great renaissance. I want the Curran to contribute to it.”

The next show in the Under Construction series is Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce, running Nov. 19th-21st. This one-man show features the celebrated actor Steve Cuiffo recreating monologues delivered by Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comedian, satirist and screenwriter who rose to fame in the '60s and performed at the Curran 54 years ago this month.

On tap after Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce is Notes of a Native Song (Dec. 3rd-5th), a tribute to the writer James Baldwin by musician Stew, who won a Tony for his Broadway musical Passing Strange. It'll be followed by Story Pirates’ Greatest Hit Shows (Dec. 12th-20th) and A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Jan. 17th-31st) by New York playwright/performer Taylor Mac, whose Hir and The Lily’s Revenge have both been staged, to great acclaim, at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. In keeping with the quirky venue, tickets are priced at a reasonable $25-$50.

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