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Storied: San Francisco

Dec 21, 2023

We begin Part 2 with talk of how Bill and Susi’s love of the work needed to get SF Playhouse started really helped them overcome any fear that might’ve hindered them. Their first brick-and-mortar spot on Sutter Street was meant to be retrofitted. The landlords wouldn’t lease it to the new acting company, but they’d rent it cheaply one month at a time. To get themselves up and running, they staged a play they’d done before, one that was good for the holidays that were coming up.


The play was It Had to Be You by Joe Bologna and Renée Taylor. To drum up ticket sales, Bill and Susi would walk down to Union Square, where there used to be a spot folks could line up for discount theater tickets. They handed out SF Playhouse flyers and it taught them that they had sales acumen and hustle.


That original space had a hole in the ceiling, which made it cold. But Bill’s day job in these days was carpentry, which he learned doing set building. Susi came in with her business background, which we learned a little about in Part 1. She set up the books, but also acted in plays. Both of them directed and acted, in fact.


Susi still worked her day job as a CPA, but became an indie contractor, and then an HR professional. She did all this to support her theater work at night. Fast-forward four years and Bill had phased out of carpentry. Susi had so many ideas of what they could do with their space—she wanted real seats, not fold-ups. They painted, hung Christmas lights for ambience, and handed out blankets to theater-goers.


Their first “season,” which they now admit wasn’t a true season at all, ended with a staging of The Glory of Living by Rebecca Gilman, a popular play at the time. Bill describes it as a dark, difficult play, which he liked. He felt it challenged the audience. He says that the nature of the play required critics to come because no one in the Bay Area was staging it. Artistic directors came, probably wondering why SF Playhouse dared to do it.


As luck would have it, this all helped to put them on the map. The Chronicle called it an intriguing play and young theater company.


Susi had wanted to do Thrill of the Kill, a play about a group of suburban housewives whose husbands had locked themselves into a meat locker in the basement. The dilemma: To let the men out or not? This time, the Chronicle said: It’s good, better in fact than the New York production of the same play. Bill had wanted to play El Gallo in The Fantasticks, so they got another director and did it. They got some bigger Bay Area names to act in it, and it ran all summer.


They remained in that first location for three years, until the retrofit work finally happened. They were bummed to leave and were told they could come back once the work was completed. But when that day came, the landlords informed them that to move back in, they’d need to pay five times their previous rent and fork over $1 million up-front. They balked at such a ridiculous sum.


But as luck would have it, a spot became available across Sutter, and they moved in in 2006. They stayed on Sutter from then until 2012, when the space inside the Elks Lodge building on Post opened. They pounced and have been there ever since.


SF Playhouse was established as a non-profit theater from Day 1. Susi thought it was the way to go. Doing so meant that could get donors and subscribers and at least aim to break even.


The spot on Post opened as they were doing Fair Lady at their old location on Sutter. It was so popular that they were turning folks away. Time for a bigger theater, they decided. The space on Post had been empty for years. It was originally an Elk’s Lodge meeting hall, but had been converted to a 700-seat theater toward the end of the 20th century. Bill had always imagined 200-250 seats as the ideal capacity. He’d learned about non-profit theaters from various trips to New York.


Susi shares the story of what they encountered when they took over. The Elks had created it, but it had a bad energy when SF Playhouse came in. An Elks bartender told Susi that the place had ghosts … and they gave off bad juju. Susi connected with a friend of a friend who could look at the space. This person wanted to left alone there for two hours. She came back from that and told them some of the spirits were angry and others excited. And so this person invited those who weren’t happy to leave, while those creative ghosts who were happy could stay and help. Susi says that when she came back after this, the place felt great and has ever since.


Then we talk about the current run of Guys and Dolls at SF Playhouse (which my wife, Erin, and I saw and absolutely loved). Bill, who’s directing the show, describes it as a satire on black-and-white thinking and the polarization so prevalent in our world today. This leads us to discuss Bill’s idea of the theater as an “Empathy Gym.” Visitors come to see another point of view. Everything that SF Playhouse does comes out of that idea.


In addition to visiting their website for tickets and info, you can call 415-677-9596 or email They’re on Instagram and TikTok @sfplayhouse.