When Susi Damilano and her husband, Bill English, launched the SF Playhouse 10 years ago, they had a budget of about $35. They had no subscribers, so they sold tickets to theatergoers near Union Square. Now their little startup troupe is all grown up, with more than 2,000 subscribers, a $1.2 million budget and a glowing reputation for provocative fare. Now dubbed the San Francisco Playhouse, the troupe has carved out a niche as an adventurous theater that embraces daring new plays such as Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw," Martin McDonagh's "The Behanding in Spokane" and Annie Baker's "The Aliens."
On the eve of the theater's 10th anniversary season, the troupe also is relocating from its current space to a bigger, swankier venue at 450 Post St., previously the home of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Damilano recently took a few minutes away from her day job as a human resources honcho for an email interview about this turning point in the life of the company.
Q There is so much going on right now with the Playhouse. Which is the bigger milestone: turning 10 or moving into new digs?
A It's impossible to separate the two events; it feels as if one is happening because of the other. We've been looking for a permanent home since we founded the theater, and to have this dream come to fruition on this particular anniversary just feels right.
Q Do you feel like the company has arrived with this move?
A It absolutely feels like we've arrived! I'm guessing this is how many stars feel when they have a hit movie and are called an overnight success after 10 years of working hard. We've been called "San Francisco's best kept secret," well, now, the secret is out!
Q Why did you want to christen the theater with the musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?"
A We selected "BBAJ" the second Bill saw it at the Public. He loved that it is hilarious and really smart and a perfect complement to fall's election season. And now that we have the new space, wow, it is going to be an extravaganza. Nina Ball designed an incredible set that resembles the dome on the capital building as it's being built. We'll have a rock band, and Ashkon Davaran will dazzle us with his version of Andrew Jackson.
Q What is your fave part of the new venue, and what will you call it?
A Where do I begin? I love that we have three stories of dressing rooms. After nine years of squishing people, it feels like a mansion. The stage: magnificent; the lobby: I can't wait to update it and bring it back to its original splendor. This is a historic building and full of beautiful handcrafted woodwork done in 1925 by the Elks, who built the building after the earthquake in 1906. We are going to spruce it all up and give it new life. And since this will be our new home, it will now be called the San Francisco Playhouse, though we are dedicating the auditorium to Walter Casper Teufel; it was his bequeath that made this move possible.
Q Why change the name of the company from SF Playhouse to the more formal San Francisco Playhouse?
A We are starting to gain a national reputation and are representing San Francisco, which makes us proud. Plus, it feels "grown up" to use our full name.
Q Do you think you can attract new audiences with the move?
A Absolutely -- one of the reasons we're moving is to accommodate our growing audience. This past season we nearly sold out every show. We now have double the capacity of our former space.
Q How have you managed to grow as quickly as you have?
A Bill has a degree in theater from Northwestern University and has been part of the Bay Area theater scene his whole life. He's also a contractor and I'm a CPA by trade -- turns out our backgrounds blend perfectly as a production team.
Q Do you think running the company makes your marriage stronger?
A This theater is our 10-year-old child and has pushed both of us to grow in ways we never anticipated when we got married. We really respect each other's opinions and each think the other is a genius, so for the most part, it makes for a great marriage. When we disagree, it's tough, but we have made a pact that whoever wants it more, aka fights harder, gets to win. The other has to cook dinner, ha ha!