When you approach the building on the Arcata Plaza in which EXIT Theatre is located, the first thing you'll notice is first-floor occupant Moore's Sleep World ("Sale, Sale, Sale" "Welcome back Students ..."). And then to the right side on the front part of the building there's an "Aikido" sign promoting the Northcoast Aikido studio. Above these signs is the EXIT Theatre banner.
How can there possibly be a performance space in there? But there is, at the top of the stairs.
EXIT bills itself as "indie," focused on independence, authenticity, courage and often the willingness to commit to projects that won't make much money. The nonprofit has been operating in San Francisco for nearly 40 years, providing low-cost space and multi-layered production support for artists to re-imagine classics and create new work. EXIT produces festivals, too, including the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival, which this year runs Sept. 8 through 17. In San Francisco, EXIT has four small venues at 156 Eddy St., and a fifth space housing resident company Cutting Ball Theater nearby on Taylor Street.
"I think art, in general, especially live performance, is really key to humanity," said Christina Augello, EXIT Theatre founder and artistic director. But in March of 2020, live performances stopped — along with virtually all "normal" life — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, in late 2020, in the midst of its attempting to continue theatrical productions via streaming services, Augello and EXIT's Managing Director Richard Livingston decided, with their board's approval, to lease the former Community Yoga Center on the second floor of 890 G St. in Arcata. After re-purposing the space for a year, EXIT Theatre began presenting a variety of live, in-person work this spring.
The Arcata EXIT is a 35-seat venue. The seats and tables are on the same level as the stage, with the lighting bar hanging behind them. It's an intimate space that's all about performer-audience engagement.
One reason for locating the satellite theater here is Social Security, Augello said. She recently retired after 37 years from her "day job" as a bartender at The Saloon in North Beach, San Francisco. She added living in San Francisco on Social Security checks isn't practical. Currently Augello spends half her time in San Francisco and half in Arcata.
But it's not just about what things cost, Augello said. She recalled visiting Arcata about 35 years ago, sitting in a restaurant and looking out at the plaza and thinking, "What a cool place."
Augello said when she considered where she wanted to relocate, she thought about Arcata and her "three Cs:" cost, culture and climate. She's added "community" now, as well.
"Arcata kind of feels like a neighborhood I've moved into," Augello said. "I lived in San Francisco for 50 years, I'm a city girl. ... In the past two years of being here ... I'm getting Arcata-fied."
The theater is not just about plays, Augello said. She acknowledged that our area offers a variety of local theaters for that purpose, though Arcata Playhouse, North Coast Repertory Theatre and Redwood Curtain Theatre also present music, dance and other performances. What she wants to grow here is comparable to how she feels EXIT has served the San Francisco arts community for several decades. She said EXIT is a "performing arts studio" rather than being specific to theater.
"It is focused on individual artists," she said. "We don't limit ourselves just to theater and we don't push a particular type of art."
For example, Augello said, EXIT participates monthly in Arts! Arcata and presents DIVA Burlesque Arcata, featuring local dancers who have performed with many of the local burlesque groups and Jaiden Clark, who works with a variety of local theater companies designing lights. She sees EXIT fitting in the local "cultural ecosystem" by offering workspace, too. TK Film Studios approached Augello with an interest in using the EXIT for rehearsals and filming, and Lara Henerson is presenting Improv Taster monthly workshops there. Deadline Junkies, a collective of screenwriters led by Rale Sidebottom, has offered workshops at the theater, too.
And there are plays, too. Upcoming theatrical productions at the Arcata EXIT include Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, a one-person, one-act play with Arnold Waddell and directed by John Heckel that runs Aug. 26 through 28. In October, Augello will perform in a new work titled Waking Sam Beckett, written by Arcata/Chico resident Marc Gabriel, who will perform alongside Augello in this production.
Augello grew up in Buffalo, New York, where she said her home life was "dysfunctional," and "theater really was a refuge, you know." The name "EXIT" reflects her love of existentialism and absurdist theater (the theater is legally incorporated as EXITheatre, which is a play on the word "existential") for which she thanks Joe Krysiak, who ran a Buffalo storefront performance space called Green Sleeves and introduced her to the works of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, among others.
Even though the county offers a variety of arts incubators and theaters, Augello asks, why not more opportunities? This goes back to her time developing EXIT Theatre in the storefront of the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin 40 years ago, focusing on collaboration, audience engagement, whatever art form you choose and a place to make that happen.
"Creativity and imagination are powerful tools," Augello said. "I mean, we have to have it. ... I don't know, maybe it'll soften the world, maybe it'll help the world, maybe it'll do nothing, but that's what I've been doing, and it really goes deep."
There's room for more at the EXIT and Augello said she wants the Arcata space used. (Information is available at www.theexit.org.) "EXIT Theatre in San Francisco is built on a village," she says, a local community of visual, performing and literary artists. "That's how it works. So, I need to build that village here, so this will work."
Augello said she believes "art can change the world. ... And as my late and good friend Diane di Prima said, 'The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.'"
Wendy Butler (she/her) is an educator, writer and radio producer. She resides in Eureka.
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