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Storied: San Francisco

Dec 19, 2023

Susi Damilano was born in Germany and raised in the South Bay. Many of her German aunts married US servicemen, but Susi's mom married a German man and the family soon moved to Silicon Valley.


Susi shares a history of that area, noting thatnot too long ago, it was primarily orchards. Growing up, Susi would cut through those orchards to get to school. Now that area is housing.


She grew up in the 1970s and graduated high school then. As a young adult in the '70s and '80s, Susi visited SF often and says she always dreamed of living in "the big city." She would listen to her parents’ stories of racing down hills and being escorted home by cops, and got excited. Susi and her friend who had a car would drive up to The City and up and down Polk Street, cruising and people-watching.


Despite the allure of San Francisco, she ended up going to college in San Diego at SD State. She liked it there enough—the weather, the people. An accounting major, she says that the job market wasn't great in that area, and so she returned home to the South Bay and got a job at CPA firm in San Jose, where she worked a handful of years with clients like the fledgling Apple Computer.


Still, she couldn't shake wanting to live in SF. She found a job at another CPA firm, this time in The City. She lived in the Marina on Chestnut and was there during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.


Susi loved being here and got her taste for theater from reading Herb Caen columns. She started going to live theater and loved it. Around this same time, she was getting burnt out on her accounting job. A friend dared her to dream what else she could do. She decided that she wanted an Oscar, even though she didn’t act (yet). To get started, Susi took an acting class in Sunnyvale.


Then we meet Bill English, Susi's husband and cofounder of SF Playhouse. Originally from Evanston, Illinois, Bill spent his high school and college years in Tempe, Arizona. Then it was back to Illinois for grad school at Northwestern in Evanston.


Bill says that he was an instrumentalist earlier in his life and never thought much about theater. He played in orchestra his freshman year at ASU for a theater production, and it was here that he was “hit by lightning.” From the orchestra pit, he looked up and decided that he wanted to be on stage.


He tried out for and got some roles, first backing and then eventually, lead parts. He had always been a singer. Bill says that both his parents are musicians—his dad was a band director, in fact. He decided right away that he preferred the stage to playing music.


As a kid, Bill came to San Francisco from time to time with his family and loved it. He says that he always associated SF with theater. He didn’t end up pursuing theater after college, but instead played piano in rock and country bands. He moved around a bit, from Chicago and Phoenix to LA and eventually The City.


This was the early 1980s and he had just had a daughter, which meant he couldn’t do music anymore. In his limited spare time, Bill tried out for some plays. And he's been in it ever since.


At this point in Part 1, Bill and Susi share the story of their meeting. It was the late '90s, and Susi was taking an acting class at the Jean Shelton school here. Bill had studied there, too, and they had some friends in common. Their first meeting was on a street outside a theater. She was starstruck but figured he had no idea who she was. Susi volunteered to work concessions to get a theater ticket, which is where she first crossed paths with the young performer. She thought: That guy’s cute!


Over the next couple of years, she started seeing him at parties. Bill came to a show, and Susi was there with one of his friends. The friend asked if Susi wanted to join them (after the show) for a drink at a spot across the street from the Clift Hotel. At the bar, Bill was bemoaning the lack of new scripts, but a friend of Susi’s had one that needed producing. And so Susi told him as much. She recalls his reaction being something along the lines of: “Sure. I've heard this before.”


But Susi followed through and sent him the script in the mail. She got an answering machine message from him soon after this saying that the script she'd sent him was good. He also complimented her for following through. He asked her to dinner, and it turned out to be their first date ... sorta.


This was 1997, the same night that Princess Diana died (August 31, to be exact). They and a couple of friends were soon involved in a play that doubled as their courtship. They were married in 1999. After the run of the play, they were all still friends and decided to start a little theater company. They called it DreamStackers. And that company evolved into San Francisco Playhouse in 2003.


Check back this Thursday for Part 2 on SF Playhouse and Bill and Susi.


We recorded this podcast at SF Playhouse in November 2023.


Photography by Jeff Hunt