While most emerging theaters in the Bay Area suffer from unprepared leadership, the SF Playhouse, run by Susi Damilano, a certified public accountant by trade, and her husband Bill English, an artistic director, is in good hands to become “the next big thing”.
It is 7 p.m. in Paris, 1 p.m. in San Francisco. My phone rings, Susi Damilano is on the line. We do not see each other faces, and we laugh about it. The conversation begins well and I start to relax – the woman I am speaking to is very welcoming.
The Bay Area theater scene is one of the most important in the country. Indeed, theater is a great part of San Francisco’s cultural life and a lot of artists try their luck in the business, hoping to reach their dream. However, according to Nurturing California’s Next Generation by Ann Markusen, the young generation pursuing a nonprofit arts career suffers from a lack of training. Indeed, a decade ago, 16% of Bay Area artists needed professional development in financial expertise, fundamental to successfully develop their organization. These statistics do not apply to Susi Damilano and her husband Bill English.
A non-traditional career path
Susi Damilano is one of the leading ladies of theater in the Bay Area. She and her husband Bill English are the founder of the fastest growing company in the region: The San Francisco Playhouse. She stands out by her atypical career path. She is a certified public accountant by trade and worked for years as an auditor for Ernst & Young in San Jose, a multinational professional services firm.
“I would like to win an academy award”
She got involved in theater late. In her mid-thirties, she hit a point in her career where she felt she wanted to do something different. “I did not know what, but after a long thoughtful period with friends helping me, I asked myself ‘what would be the dream come true?’ and the answer was ‘I would like to win an academy award’”. Since then, her life has been full with theater experience. She learned how to act and when she met her husband, they realized that they had the same dream: running their own theater. Her business knowledge was a real advantage for her. Unlike most of new theaters run on chaos, Susi Damilano thinks like a CPA. She loves spreadsheets, she loves numbers. She also knew how to manage people and it was easy for her to apply it to her passion for theater. During a decade, she used to work all day and still showed up at the theater to rehearse at night. She is a hard-worker and struggles for what she wants. “The playhouse is not a job, it’s a life” she likes to tell people and she fought for it. Only recently did she quit her job and started being full time at the theater. “It was the right time” she says. Their show Bauer, in which she played, was taken off to Broadway. Eleven years after its creation, the theater is now nationally acclaimed, a great victory for the couple.
Sherman Howard and Susi Damilano in Bauer.
Photos: Carol Rosegg, SF Playhouse.
“We make a great partnership”
In Crossover, Ann Markusen says that arts nonprofits organizations often endure severe growth pains. They are often started by artists or visionaries who must acquire management skills or hire professionals to survive. It was not the case for Susi and Bill who brought many skills to their organization, which explains the fast success of the SF Playhouse. Bill English has been working in theater his whole life. He is a carpenter, a director, a musician and has many other strings to his bow. He received several awards for Best Set Design and Best Director. Likewise, Susi Damilano embraces the many tasks required to build the SF Playhouse. Actress, director and producer, she understands all the tricks of the trade. She learned to direct by watching her husband doing it. “When we first started out, I would sit in every rehearsal with my husband and watch him direct” she recalls. She is a “natural” says Bill English. There is no doubt that these two are making a great team. Her knowledge in business and his knowledge of theater were the perfect skills combination to insure a good development to their company. Moreover, like a lot of new theaters, they were able to produce plays with small budgets by being multitasked.
Bill English and Susi Damilano
Photo: Megan Farmer, The Chronicle
Funding their theater company and making it work.
They funded the SF Playhouse in 2003 with the “ultimate goal of becoming a theater company that would do great work”. Described by The New York Times as “a company that stages some of the most consistently high-quality work around” there is no doubt that Susi Damilano and Bill English reached their goal. Together, they have built this theater which offers a broad spectrum of plays from musicals to new works. However, like every managers, they took a risk in creating the SF Playhouse. As any other non-profits art organizations, they needed funds to start, subscribers, donors and an audience to prosper. “We knew what kind of theater we wanted to build and we hustled to do it” says Damilano to Karen de Souza. At the beginning, they struggled to fill the seats for their 100 – seats main stage, says the article. Nevertheless, little by little, and probably thanks to the force of persuasion of Susi Damilano, they found subscribers who are now really involved in the decision making process. Indeed, the selection of shows for the main stage depends on the theme of the season and input from subscribers and board members. The company is run by a board of direction composed with 20 members of whom Susi and Bill take part.
“We’ve been growing exponentially over the last few years and overselling,” said Bill English to Jean Schiffman. The company had two thousands subscribers plus an increasing number of single-ticket buyers at the time. Their quick success gave them the opportunity to move from their black box behind a nail salon to a gorgeous new place closer to Union Square, the theatrical district of San Francisco. Indeed, the theater opened its 10th season at 450 Post Street on the second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. It doubled their size so they had to find more audience. It does not seem to be a problem for the company which is now visible.
Bill English in his new space at 450 Post Street.
Courtesy photo, SF Examiner
According to The New York Times, the company was producing six main stages shows in 2010 plus two Sandbox productions on its $910,000 annual budget. A real bargain compared to other theaters.
The great couple can do a lot with a little: definitely the key of their success.