At a time when Bay Area theaters have closed, Stephanie Weisman has built The Marsh into a powerhouse with juice on both sides of the bay.
When Stephanie Weisman was a lot younger, she spent an autumn on Delaware Bay in a house on stilts. From her porch she watched the tide roll in, the northern harriers gliding low over the marshland, the late-afternoon sun spraying diamonds over the bay.
Weisman’s boyfriend at the time, artist Bruce Kurland, collected dead birds and posed them for still-life paintings. “He was brilliant and he taught me about life cycle and being on the marsh,” she recalls. “Seeing the fecundity, how much life there was.”
The relationship fizzled, but when Weisman returned to San Francisco, she adapted what she learned on Delaware Bay—the notion of a regenerating, abundant life force—to a fledgling creative project.
In 1989 she founded The Marsh, a San Francisco performance space that showcases original material by Bay Area storytellers. In 2006, Weisman opened a branch of The Marsh in downtown Berkeley, on the ground floor of the seven-story Gaia Building. Nearly every production is a solo performance. Not A Genuine Black Man, Brian Copeland’s tale of growing up in San Leandro when it was an all-white suburb, was a Marsh production. Ditto the current long-running hit Black Virgins Are Not For Hipsters, Echo Brown’s seriocomic memory of losing her virginity at 23 in New York City. Unlike most live theaters, The Marsh doesn’t do a subscription series, doesn’t draw performers from outside the area, and doesn’t stage revivals.
“It’s really a partnership with the artist,” Weisman says. “I don’t want to just read a script. I want to see the person, see the show, and know what it’s like to partner with them.”
Most shows mirror changing social dynamics. The popular Cops and Robbers was written and performed by Piper Ferreira, an East Bay rapper who became an Alameda County sheriff. Ferreira wrote the piece in 2012, before Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., policeman. But when Cops and Robbers opened last year, it took on new dimensions with the national debate on police violence and race.
“There was a post-show talk each night,” Weisman says. “It might be with the sheriff or a policeman. One time we brought all these kids in from Richmond, and the Richmond police chief was there. It was a totally incredible night.”
At different times, programs at The Marsh addressed transgender issues, Korean-American identity, depression and suicide, and the numbing distractions of Internet addiction. “It’s very organic,” Weisman says. “Whatever is coming up from the muck, from the marsh, is what we do on our stages. Somebody called us ‘the voice of the times.’ “
Other shows are lighthearted. Charlie Varon’s Rush Limbaugh in Night School was a satiric gem that imagined the radio bloviator drop-kicked into hipster counterculture. Mark Kenward performed his Nantucket with a dinner break of New England clam chowder and sandwiches catered by Gregoire of Piedmont Avenue. And in Love Birds, comic Marga Gomez transformed the lesbian dating scene of the 1970s into an absurdist farce.
“How’s your pizza?” Weisman asks. We’re in the lounge at The Marsh in Berkeley, which is atmospherically underlit on a weekday afternoon, and Weisman has offered her guest a microwaved snack. Dressed in black, she’s quick-witted, with a bubbly spontaneity that might appear daffy if you didn’t know what grueling work is required to run a theater.
Weisman lives in North Oakland with her husband of 15 years, contractor and inventor Richard DiLeo. A former poet, she grew up in Newburgh, N.Y., and got her B.A. in psychology and M.A. in creative writing from the University of Buffalo. In 1984 during a visit to San Francisco, she saw the late monologist Spalding Gray perform his one-man show, Swimming to Cambodia. “I thought, ‘This is the most intimate, authentic, wonderful thing,’ ” she recalls. The following year, she moved to San Francisco with the idea of becoming a solo performance artist.
In 1989 Weisman launched The Marsh with a Monday-night series at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco’s South of Market district. The Marsh spent a year at Morty’s nightclub in North Beach and in 1992 migrated to its current home at 1062 Valencia St., the former site of Bajone’s jazz club.
Given that most small Bay Area theaters closed in the last 25 years – Life on the Water, Intersection, Climate, Asian American Theatre, and Thick Description among them—the endurance and longevity of The Marsh are remarkable. Add to that San Francisco’s obscenely inflated real estate market and cost of living—factors rapidly spilling into Oakland and Berkeley—and the survival of a tiny, community-identified theater with low-ticket prices ($20 to $45) seems miraculous.
“I think Stephanie’s made some very smart choices,” says San Francisco Chronicle theater critic Robert Hurwitt, “not the least of which was acquiring her own building for The Marsh. But more than that, she’s managed to build strong relationships.”
“Stephanie is tenacious,” says Tom Ross, artistic director of the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley and author/director of A Karen Carpenter Christmas, which played The Marsh in 1992. “She cultivated artists, some already great and some needing encouragement and a place to hone their skills. Charlie Varon, Brian Copeland, David Ford, Marga Gomez, Dan Hoyle, and Ann Randolph have all done multiple shows there.”
With the addition of Marsh Youth Theatre classes and solo-performance workshops in San Francisco, plus the lounge/cabaret and Wednesday night jazz performances in Berkeley, Ross says, “Stephanie has created a wonderfully unique and accessible universe.”
Oddly, Weisman had no theater background prior to The Marsh. Instead of setting her up for disaster, she believes, her inexperience became an advantage because she had no expectations and no rulebook full of “Don’t’s.”
“Also, I have a skill set I developed at college: editing the arts journal, learning about promotion and desktop publishing. I know how to do things with little resources,” she says.
In 1996, against the warnings of several colleagues, Weisman purchased the building that houses the San Francisco Marsh. “That was hard,” she says. “Our annual budget at the time was $160,000. That’s what we were making at our door. It took us eight months to raise the money. I had to get four separate loans.” The market was at low ebb, and she paid $650,000 for a property today likely worth millions.
“I thought that was insane,” says David Ford, who directed many of The Marsh’s most memorable works (Not a Genuine Black Man and Rush Limbaugh in Night School). “How could a tiny nonprofit manage it? But Stephanie’s fearlessness of real estate proved right.” Had she not bought the building, says Brian Copeland (Not a Genuine Black Man), “Some developer would’ve bought it, and there’d be another high-rise only billionaire techies could afford.”
“Stephanie has great flexibility in her programming, trust in her stable of artists, and the courage to take risks,” says Dan Hoyle, whose “theater journalism” melds play-making and reporting. In 2004, Weisman promised Hoyle she’d schedule a summer booking for Circumnavigator, his first-person account of circling the planet to examine the sociopolitical impacts of globalism. When Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man kept getting extended at The Marsh, Hoyle says, Weisman “just built another theater upstairs, and Circumnavigator opened that summer. Just as she’d promised.”
Keeping The Marsh afloat when other theaters failed wasn’t easy. “We’ve had some low points financially,” Weisman says, “but we’ve managed to get beyond them. We have an entrepreneurial streak that’s kept us going.”
Day-to-day administration, she admits, isn’t her strongest suit. “Fundraising is what we really need right now, but it’s not necessarily my métier, and we don’t have the funds to hire a development director. My focus is always, ‘How do we keep this going artistically? How do we sell enough tickets? How do we market and promote?’ That comes easier to me than asking for money.”
Financially, “The Marsh is OK, but struggling,” Weisman says. With the prevalence of Goldstar and other ticket discounters, “Our earned income is decreasing even with all our hit shows. In 2016, we’re initiating a renewal campaign to focus more on contributed income.” Grants, benefits, and rentals on the facility also provide revenue.
Weisman hadn’t thought about expanding to Berkeley, but in 2006 she was looking for a place to stage Aphrodisia, an opera/tone-poem about her Delaware Bay experience, co-written with composer Ellen Hoffman. When she heard about the Gaia Building space at 2120 Allston St., Weisman jumped at it.
“That’s how it all started. I found out that I loved being in the East Bay and I loved being in this space.”
In addition to the lounge, there’s a 130-seat theater and a large mezzanine with meeting rooms that The Marsh occasionally rents out. The abundance of space is the result of a city of Berkeley ordinance: When developer Patrick Kennedy proposed the seven-story Gaia Building, the city required him to set aside 10,000 square feet on the ground floor for cultural use.
Initially, Weisman sub-leased through Glass Onion Catering in 2006. “Patrick gave us a really affordable rental deal through the catering company,” Weisman says. “He also built the stage for us, purchased the technical equipment, seating, and a digital marquee.”
Eventually, sharing the space became a problem: When the catering company started booking events, The Marsh was limited to one week per month. In 2007, 18 months after moving in, Weisman decided to vacate the Gaia Building.
But three years later she returned. “Patrick had already sold it to Equity Residential but was still leasing the first floor,” Weisman says. “So, when we were bursting at the seams at the San Francisco Marsh—trying to both extend shows and put new ones on—I inquired about getting back into the Gaia.”
The programming, business ethic, and partnership with artists are identical to the San Francisco Marsh, but the physical space in Berkeley couldn’t be more different. Instead of the funky, atmospheric charm of the San Francisco venue—imagine an underground speakeasy—the Berkeley space is spacious and modern.
“It’s just so comfortable for me here,” Weisman says. “This is a newer building and we can do different things here, have bigger events we don’t have in San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong. I love San Francisco, too. It’s so great to have two different kinds of environments to go between. Keeps me imagining.”
What kind of people come to The Marsh? Weisman thinks for a second. “This is an odd way of explaining. But one night I saw this couple, and we just started chatting. It turned out they live in Washington state and they drive 13 hours to come see a show at The Marsh.”
“We’ve done it seven times,” Crystal Bedford, an occupational therapist, said by phone. She and husband Tim Bedford, a contractor, hit the road Friday after work. They spend the night in Medford or Grants Pass, Ore., and on Saturday arrive in Berkeley or San Francisco. They see one or two shows at The Marsh, spend the night at a motel in Red Bluff, and on Sunday morning drive home.
“When people ask me why we go to The Marsh, I tell them it’s real,” Tim Bedford says. “The passion, the reality of these men and women—the stories they tell matter to them.” Adds Crystal Bedford: “You can go from laughing to crying and back to laughing in one show. We usually talk about it on our drive home and then the next day.”
“Now, how do I explain that,” Weisman says, “to people who live up the street and don’t know we exist?”
Edward Guthmann was a staff writer and film critic at the San Francisco Chronicle from 1984 to 2009. He wrote and directed the documentary feature Return to Cameroun and continues to work as a freelance writer.