Raelle Myrick-Hodges sometimes wakes up in cold sweats. Will the lights be on? The water running? The mortgage paid?
The 39-year-old artistic director took over the 14,500-square-foot Brava Theater last year, only to face her own drama: the worst economic climate for the arts in decades that meant her budget of $700,000 was slashed by nearly $150,000 and more could come.
Okay, in a world where funds have been slashed by more than half, a 21 percent cut may make Myrick-Hodges’s cold sweats a little dramatic, but drama’s her business and she knows it well.
Up to this point, the lights are on and the former assistant director of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Top Dog/Under Dog on Broadway and Mother Courage featuring Meryl Streep, plans a full season including nine premieres and a Kitchen Series—staged readings with food and drink.
Moreover, the storefronts connected to Brava, now under construction thanks to funds raised by founder Ellen Gavin, will open in late spring as a street-side cabaret venue at night and a coffee shop, salon, and rehearsal space during the day, said Myrick-Hodges.
“The same thing happens for an arts organization that happens when you lose your job,” said Myrick-Hodges, reflecting on the budget news of the last year—you improvise.
That meant using apprentice labor, moving to a smaller stage and fundraising like mad. The latter begins Wednesday night with an invitation to supporters to spend $50 to experience the 1950s and 1960s current film titled The Time Period of Fredericka, and the February 2010 West Coast premiere of Beebo Brinkle Chronicles, a dramatic comedy that follows four friends living in pre-Stonewall Greenwich Village.
Budget problems forced Brava to postpone the premiere last year. “We just couldn’t financially afford to make it happen,” said general manager and marketing director Hetal Patel. “We were all working on overdrive.”
Despite the challenges, Brava has thrived under Myrick-Hodges’s direction, according to theater critics and board members. The idea of the Brava Theater was hatched by a group of women in the mid-1980s and made possible by founder Ellen Gavin finding $3 million to buy the 70-year-old York Theater.
“From the vantage of a theater critic, Brava looked livelier, more productive and more interesting last season than it has in several years…there are more productions, which creates more diversity of material,” said SF Chronicle theater critic Robert Hurwitt.
The critic wrote positive reviews of several of last season’s plays including Over the Mountain, Machinal, and Penny Arcade’s seminal Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
“She has greatly increased the number of fully staged productions Brava produced last season and has announced an equally ambitious season for this year,” said Hurwitt.
One by one, the grants that make up Brava’s budget have shrunk. Grants for the Arts, a city program funded by revenue from the hotel tax, had to cut its budget by a quarter, according to director Carrie Schulman. To Brava that meant $63,200 instead of $150,000.
The Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services, which funds Brava’s education programs, cut the venue’s $150,000 grant by 10 percent. Overall, the agency’s budget dropped by $5.7 million from $73 million for the year, and is still waiting for the state cuts to kick in.
And from Mayor’s Office of Community Investment funding was cut entirely, stripping Brava of $50,000, theater officials said.
Myrick-Hodges’ strategy for making so much out of so little, she said, stems from her past life as an artist.
“As an artist, you make work. You have construction paper and a pencil? You better make something cool,” she said.
Other actors and artistic contributors have also pitched in by agreeing to waive or decrease their salaries, Patel said. And, rather than a show running for several days or weeks, Brava’s new lineup includes more one- night performances.
Like opera or ballet companies have for years, Myrick-Hodges and Patel are looking for funding that targets productions—few of which could be funded from ticket sales.
In fact, a third of Brava’s income comes from renting its space out for such shows as the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival in September, the Pink Floyd Laser Extravaganza, and Ghosts of the River, the shadow puppetry play tackling the US Mexico border.
Myrick-Hodges has also shifted shows from the 371- seat main stage to a smaller, 100-seat stage.
“It’s hard for them to sell that many seats. It was very smart for Raelle to use the smaller space,” said Randy Rollison, managing director at Intersection for the Arts.
In a bigger space, he explained, more union contracts at a higher rate cut down running time. And if seats don’t sell, the theater feels empty.
“Intimacy is great in the smaller theater. They never had that before,” said Rollison.
For its part, Intersection has thrived in its 81-seat theater earning twice as much revenue as expected from the extended Fuku Americanus based on a novel by Junot Diaz and Angry Black White Boy, based on a novel by Adam Mansbach.
Thanks to a Hewlett Foundation grant Intersection is looking to buy a larger venue, Rollison said.
Getting advice from other theater groups such as Intersection and collaborating with other art groups has also been a hallmark of Myrick-Hodges’ tenure.
“Instead of reinventing the wheel,” Patel said, she calls friends at The Magic, A.C.T, or Intersection.
Barter is in too. Brava recently let Shakespeare in the Park actors rehearse in the theater as a trade for using their scene shop.
The collaboration with SFMOMA for the October opening production of Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism’s First 100 Years also offered exchange opportunities. The museum created the poster and is doing much of the marketing, Patel said. Brava also hopes to draw on SFMOMA’s audience.
Girltropolis, planned for November, involves UCSF and its New Generation Health Center for youth. For it, youth graduates of Brava’s crew program will write, produce and perform pieces on holistic wellness, esteem, sexual violence and clinic access.
Myrick-Hodges said this encourages younger actors to perform “high-caliber” shows at Brava. “There’s no pandering. That show is as important to me as everything else in our season,” she said.
Brava’s new audience is “definitely younger, it’s definitely hip. It’s reflecting a larger social change,” said board president Heidi Sieck, who served on the board for nine years and remembers when Brava’s plays brought an older, city-activist crowd.
The coming together of the new and old sounds like Myrick-Hodges’ perfect Brava audience: tattooed noise band rockers kicking it with Chicano political activists, sitting next to two old ladies visiting San Francisco who found Brava through a tourist’ guide.