Real Live Theater

Making theater without a theatre?

In Behind the Scenes on May 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

by Phil Gravitt

For Rent, photo by joe potato

For Rent, photo by joe potato

MARIN COUNTY, CA – “The challenges of creating a theater out of an empty storefront are what make it fun,” says Jeanette Harrison, Artistic Director and Actor with AlterTheater, a Marin County theater group. Art galleries and retail stores also have been locations for AlterTheater performances. “Our point is to be in places where people walking by on the street will see in, and see theater going on, like on 4th street in San Rafael.”

“Our space designers, technicians and directors must be flexible and interested in the challenge,” explains Harrison.  “For each space, we design the stage and sets, the audience areas.  Often even the dressing rooms must be created, occasionally with stacked boxes in a storeroom.    Sometimes the stage is defined by a piece of tape on the floor; occasionally we create location with a soundscape instead of building a fancy set.   If we are in a retail space, we move the furniture or use it as props.”   The seating may be arranged so the audience surrounds the actors, or form a horseshoe shape around the stage area, or a normal theater configuration.

“We have no fancy stage,” says Harrison. With no formal separation between the actors and the audience, an AlterTheater director once observed, “The advantage and disadvantage of working this way is there is no place to hide.”

Another challenge is finding and analyzing the right space and electrical power in the available area.  Harrison explains, “If there is power, will it have the capacity we need, or will we be limited to just a few lights?”

The idea for AlterTheater came from Marin actors who, in the face of rising bridge tolls, “began looking to work on our own side of the bridge.” Harrison says, “We started using empty storefronts because we would rather pay actors instead of landlords.”  Altertheater also prides itself on being a found-object theater: almost everything you see in their productions is borrowed, found for free, rescued or recycled.

Having a reputation for taking care of the space has helped AlterTheater find locations, which are needed for five weeks, one week longer than the four week run of a performance.   Commercial realtors and building owners have been happy getting publicity for their empty storefronts.  “And art galleries are interested in supporting all arts, not just visual arts,” says Harrison, “while retail store owners are excited to have people who don’t typically come into their stores.”
In an empty storefront, AlterTheater can stay set up for the entire run of the performance.  However, Harrison says, “We usually have a backup location.  Twice the space was rented during our run, and we had to move, even after the postcards and posters were printed.”

While AlterTheater relies on Facebook, mailing lists, calendar listings and publicity in local papers, the best publicity is the storefronts themselves.  “A good percentage of our audience is non-theatergoing people who live and work in neighborhood.” says Harrison. “Sometimes passengers waiting for a bus read our posters in the window. By being in the neighborhood, we bring theater to the people.”

New actors also must be up to the challenge.  “Although we primarily work with a core ensemble of actors, when we bring in new people, reaction varies,” observes Harrison. “I recommend actors see one of our shows first to know what they are getting into.”

Additional information about AlterTheater can be found at

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

  1. I’ve lived here my entire life. I grew up in the Gerstle Park neighborhood and I walked to Davidson Middle School and when I entered high school, I walked to San Rafael High School. I lived here when the courthouse burned down and there was the creamery across the street, with formica tables and red vinyl bench seats. A happy time, really. I can see why they called the TV show Happy Days. Anyway, I digress…

    I think revitalizing downtown San Rafael will not only be good for the town, but for the County.

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