Real Live Theater

Footloose Productions and Shotwell Studios: a model for incubating theater, dance, music and more

In Behind the Scenes on July 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Footloose's Lenora Lee & Sebastian Grubb, photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Footloose's Lenora Lee & Sebastian Grubb, photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – After 35 years in theater and dance, Mary Alice Fry of Footloose Productions in San Francisco says, “Success has nothing to do with luck.  It’s perseverance, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Fry is the Artistic and Executive Director of Footloose, providing rehearsal, class and performance space to performing arts teachers and artists at Shotwell Studios since 1989.  Shotwell hosts theater, dance, music, spoken word, comedy and multi-media, including Footloose’s own productions and collaborations.

By keeping ticket and studio rental prices reasonable, Footloose gets good box office support for its shows.  Footloose also has several long term studio rental tenants, and support and funding from foundations, SF Hotel Tax Fund Grants for the Arts, individual contributors and corporate sponsors.

Each year, Fry sponsors, aids, supports and encourages four to five performing artists or small groups in a three-tier process to help the artists move their work to the next level professionally.   The process begins with the artist in residence program, called AIM: Artists in Motion. “I’m looking for original work and original voices,” says Fry.  The residencies last from two to four months and culminate in a work in progress showing at Shotwell.

AIM grew out of an earlier program at Venue 9 called Women’s Work from 1996 through 2004 where artists would share the stage one night a week with other women each doing 10 to 15 minutes.  Fry saw that some of them were really good, and with help and more work, could grow into full performances and realized “I think we’ve got something.”   That is when Fry got the idea to do the Women on the Way (WOW) Festival, so the artists could show full-length work and share audiences.  The annual festival at Venue 9 was immediately successful securing its longevity and is gearing up for its tenth anniversary.

The festival is held on three weekends each January.  “Since there are no other festivals in January,” explains Fry, “the performers often get reviews from several media sources. This helps the performers get grants and build their audiences.”

While AIM and the work in progress shows are open to all genders, WOW, as the name implies is for women only, although men are often involved on the production and performing ends and make up a large portion of the audience.

“Since many performance mediums have a narrow audience, at WOW I mix dance, theater, music, clowns, spoken word, and multi-media.   People show up and see something they had no idea was out there,” says Fry.

If a WOW show is well received, Fry will schedule a full theatrical run at Shotwell.    Recently, a musical by the Tietjen sisters, titled ‘A Murmured Tale,” sold out four shows online even before the box office opened.  It was honed and incubated through the AIM program and is being readied for a professional production in the Tenth Annual WOW Festival at ODC Dance Commons in January 2010 and a subsequent full run at a venue to be announced.

AIM and WOW artists are offered free rehearsal space, along with technical and administrative support, mentoring on how to self-produce, and direction on how to gear up for bigger productions. Help and guidance on publicity, marketing, designing and producing post cards, and creating online visibility are also provided.

There are challenges for artists as well as producers like Fry. “Performers sometimes tire of a piece, and quickly move to the next thing,” says Fry.  “To help them, I need them to focus on one project. Or the writer/performer isn’t up to their material, but they won’t let it go. Then I encourage them to find an actor who can handle the part if it’s a good show.  In some cases, like with Amanda Moody and composer Jay Cloidt, they made an album of the music from ‘D’Arc: woman on fire’ which was one of our hit shows and it lives on that way.  Tina D’Elia made a film from her popular show, ‘Groucho’ and many dance artists build their repertory with pieces created here.”

Participants are encouraged to self produce, perform at fringe festivals, or apply for residencies and festivals at bigger venues like the 125-seat Dance Mission Theater, the 110-seat ODC Dance Commons or the ODC Theater currently being renovated, or even  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“My dream is to have a traveling circuit for performers, with five to ten cities, and trading artists with international studios,” adds Fry. “Then the performers would get a feel for being on the road.”

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. […] Footloose Productions and Shotwell Studios: a model for incubating theater, dance, music and more […]

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