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The Best Little Stage in San Francisco Is Hidden Inside an Enormous, Empty Theater

Peeking behind the curtain at the Curran’s new stripped-down series.


Performers share the 2,900-square-foot stage with the audience.

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Street artist Aaron De La Cruz’s red arrows point to the stage door, which serves as the main entrance while the front of the house gets an overhaul.

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The star dressing room, which has seen the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Joel Grey, remains untouched, with past playbills showcased under glass.

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The exterior of the Curran is adorned with De La Cruz’s graphics. The neon sign, allegedly one of San Francisco’s earliest, will be enhanced in time for the theater’s grand opening in 2017.

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To enter the theater, audience members turn a corner into an alleyway leading to the stage door.

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Servers offer guests water and lemonade before the show. Wine and snacks are served after the performance, when the audience is encouraged to mingle with the production team.

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A performance of The Events, the first show of the “Curran: Under Construction” series.

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When nine-time Tony Award–winning producer Carole Shorenstein Hays severed ties last year with the Broadway-production company she cofounded, SHN, she had one request: The Curran would go with her. The 93-year-old theater, which SHN acquired in 1977, is closed until 2017 for massive renovations, but that doesn’t mean that it’s vacant: This fall, Shorenstein Hays and company kicked off “Curran: Under Construction,” a series of scaled-down productions in which the audience sits on the stage, separated from the actors by only a few paces. (This month’s production features Steve Cuiffo embodying the potty-mouthed godfather of stand-up in Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce.) The idea came to Shorenstein Hays after she saw Sobelle’s Object Lesson, which consists of the audience exploring ceiling-high stacks of cardboard boxes, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year. “I thought, ‘Wait, we can do this,’” she says.

Phantom of the Opera it’s not, from the minimalist sets and lighting to the plastic seats. Even the entrance is nontraditional: Audience members file past a squiggly Aaron De La Cruz mural decking the facade, turn down a side alley, and enter backstage through the indigo stage door made famous by its cameo in the 1950 classic All About Eve. From there, it’s a quick turn onto stage left, where a 2,900-square-foot platform accommodates 100 to 150 seats. In a rare about-face, the audience looks toward the theater’s rows of teal upholstered seats and its palatial, two-ton Austrian-crystal chandelier.

While the stage will be untouched, the front of the house is getting a total overhaul led by architecture firm Perkins + Will—the masterminds behind the Ferry Building’s redevelopment—and interior designer Brian Murphy. The lobby will be restored to its former glory, with the welcome addition of digital displays and a 15-foot-long bar of polished black Italian marble. The lower level will be graced with expanded bathrooms, including 13 more stalls in the women’s facility, and a gold-flecked black terrazzo floor. But the theater’s long-overdue facelift won’t render its lobby completely unrecognizable: The original arched, woodgrain-painted ceiling will remain.


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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