Since friends ask me about this periodically, here’s a list in no particular order of smaller theaters (mostly nonprofits) that I frequent, with a few words about what they produce.
This list is incomplete and haphazard but will get better over time.
Aside: Why should you subscribe? Most theaters offer a season subscription that represents a modest discount over buying every show separately, and often comes with other perks like no-fee exchanges/cancellations or free wine/concessions at each show and so on. But there are 2 real reasons you should subscribe.
1. For yourself: Having a built-in incentive to see other shows than the ones you’ve heard of will make you a more sophisticated theatergoer and you’ll often be surprised by something you unexpectedly like that you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of.
2. For the theater: The cash infusion at the beginning of the
season from selling subscriptions is really important to small
nonprofits: they have a lot of expenses that have to be paid up front
for each production before a single dollar is earned from its ticket
sales, and your donations later in the season won’t come soon enough
to help. A good subscriber base means financial sustainability.
If you are choosing between subscribing or donating a comparable amount, subscribe; it’s good for you and the theater. Better yet, do both.
OK, here’s the current list.
In San Francisco
SF Playhouse, near Union Square. They punch a bit above their weight artistically, and they do a mix of plays and musicals, classics and newer stuff. Reliably good.
Custom Made Theatre Co. Edgy, darker material, almost all plays but once in a while they’ll do a musical. (Disclaimer: I’ve been involved in four musicals with them, three of which have been nominated for or have won local theater awards.) They lost their dedicated space during COVID so now they perform at the Phoenix and other small spaces downtown.
Landmark Musicals All musicals all the time; a mix of classics and new stuff. They now occupy Custom Made’s former intimate space (~90 seats) at 533 Sutter.
42nd Street Moon Performing a mix of new and classic musicals at the lovely Gateway Theater (formerly the Eureka) just behind Embarcadero Center at 215 Jackson. Generally strong artistic and production values. They used to do a lot of staged-concert versions of rarely-performed musicals, but they no longer follow this formula; whether for economic or other reasons, I don’t know.
ACT ACT performs in the beautiful Geary Theater, but honestly, I’ve found their programming and artistic choices to be a mixed bag. When they’re good they’re great, but it’s hit and miss, and the price is substantially higher than almost anything on this list. Their newer/edgier stuff performed at Strand (on mid-Market) tends to be somewhat more eclectic.
New Conservatory Theater Center does a mix of material that in some way usually addresses themes of LGBTQ or otherwise marginalized people. Their perennial production of Avenue Q is a ton of fun.
The Marsh on Valencia Street in the Mission is famous for one-man shows (former city supervisor Tom Ammiano has performed there, as has Brian Copeland) in an intimate venue.
Awesome Theatre Young, edgy, weird, funny, creepy. I more or less love everything they do. They do theater old school on a shoestring and are super imaginative. They usually (but not always) perform at Pianofight, one of my favorite intimate venues in the city. For a ridiculously low $10/month you can have unlimited access to everything they do; they’ve also produced films, short videos, a “Your New Favorite Musical” contest where audiences vote on which musicals they’d like to see developed based on hearing a song and a scene, and so on. This group has great energy and while the material can be hit and miss, you can’t go wrong with the huge amount of heart and enthusiasm… Ars gratia artis at its modern best.
In the East Bay
Altarena Playhouse, started in 1938 in Alameda. An intimate house of 100-140 seats (depending on whether they perform in thrust or in the round–one of the few remaining stages in the Bay Area that cna do so) means every seat is a good seat. Each season is a mix of classic and modern plays, and smaller/boutique plus larger/marquee musicals. Disclaimer: I’ve done a bunch of shows there and love working in that space.
Berkeley Rep – you should just subscribe, otherwise you’ll end up flying to New York and paying double to see a show that was birthed at Rep. American Idiot, Latin History for Morons, Paradise Square (up for various Tonys in 2022), all started here. It’ll be good, just go. Half a block from the Berkeley BART station.
Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito. A ~200 seat house doing a mix of plays and musicals; the same “come see a show with your friends and neighbors” ambience as Altarena Playhouse. Disclaimer: I’ve worked there on a couple of shows. And I will again.
On the Peninsula
It’s too far for me to go, except for TheatreWorks, which performs in both the Mountain View Performing Arts Center and the smaller Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. Their work is consistently strong, especially musicals. I’ve seen excellent productions there (as good or better than Broadway) of Ragtime, Into the Woods, Pacific Overtures, and many others.