From burlesque to Broadway, San Francisco’s queer theater scene has it all

Photo via Oasis SF Facebook

San Francisco loves its drama. So it’s no surprise that this city is brimming with queer theater.

If you’re looking for LGBTQ-focused live entertainment, from burlesque to Broadway, this is the city to scratch your itch. Hundreds of theater companies call the Bay Area home, each with its own quirky character. There’s always at least one queer-themed show in each season’s offerings from resident companies like The American Conservatory Theater, Magic Theatre, The San Francisco Playhouse, Custom Made Theatre, and Broadway SF.

But for exclusively — and often eccentrically — queer theater, here are a few of our favorite troupes for your next San Francisco trip.

New Conservatory Theatre Company

Ezra Reeves (left) and Akaina Ghosh (right) in NCTC’s 2021 production of Plot Points in Our Sexual Development. Photo via NCTC Facebook

Producing one of the city’s most robust calendars of productions, NCTC inhabits an entire city block in Hayes Valley with its own state-of-the-art three-stage complex. The company presents six to seven shows, most of which run for a month or longer, between September and June every year. Offerings range from the southern fried camp of Del Shores (Sordid Lives) and musicals (Fun Home) to regional premieres by prominent playwrights including Terrence McNally and Harvey Fierstein. 

Since 2002, the NCTC’s New Voices/New Work program has commissioned and developed more than 40 world premieres, including work by Jewelle Gomez and the stage adaptation of Scott Heim’s cult novel Mysterious Skin.

Theatre Rhinoceros

Devin Cunningham as Courtney/Anthony in At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen by Terry Guest. Photo by Vince Thomas

As the world’s longest-running queer theater, The Rhino has been a hard-charging advocate of representation on stage for almost a half-century. From its 1977 debut production, mounted in a leather bar, the company has performed in a variety of venues around the city. 

In 1984, Theatre Rhinoceros commissioned The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival, the first professional theater piece to address the epidemic, later the subject of a PBS documentary. Intersectionality has long been part of The Rhino’s DNA: Kenneth R. Dixon, who led the company in the late 1980s, was the first black man to ever run a non-African-American theater company in the US; and artistic director Adele Prandini (1990-1999) championed groundbreaking feminist productions by The Five Lesbian Brothers and Split Britches. 

Today, under the leadership of award-winning playwright and director John Fisher, The Rhino produces a mix of queer-appeal musicals (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; a drag version of Sister Act) in mid-sized theaters and progressive work by new playwrights in the intimate Spark Arts gallery in the Castro.

Ray of Light Theatre

Photo via Ray of Light Theatre

Company namesake and co-artistic director Shane Ray has a day job in real estate, a husband, and two sons; yet somehow, along with co-artistic director Alex Rodriguez, he produces up to three aesthetically striking musicals each year. Ray of Light’s cutting-edge productions have included West Coast premieres of Jerry Springer: The Opera, Carrie, and American Psycho. With smart, slick lighting, sets, and choreography, Ray of Light takes the stage in the Mission District’s charming Victoria Theater. When the crowd pours onto the sidewalk post-curtain, the whole block feels like hipster central.

Left Coast Theatre Company

Adam and Steve (Max Seijas and Mikey Conner) from The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at Exit Theatre. Photo via Left Coast Theatre Company

This scrappy company is best known for lively, laugh-filled themed evenings of one-acts and flash dramas culled from script submissions by local writers. Among Left Coast’s anthology evenings have been I’m Not Okay Cupid, about the dating scene; San Francisco, Here I Come, with seven shorts featuring the ever-changing tenants of a single apartment over 60 years; #WTFamily about clans of both the genetic and chosen variety; and Twisted Hitchcock, a trio of parodies.

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EyeZen Presents

Fusing interdisciplinary theater with queer history, founder Seth Eisen produces work that puts a spotlight on overlooked people and places. Site-specific performances, puppetry, and aerial arts have all found their way into the company’s pieces. In recent years, the Out of Site series has taken small audiences on walking tours of San Francisco neighborhoods during which they encounter actors portraying the likes of bell bottom-jean inventor and Janis Joplin paramour, Peggy Caserta. Its interactive FabLab “playshops” have celebrated fringe icons including Puerto Rican television psychic Walter Mercado and the 15th-century Hawaiian third-gender healer Kapaemahu. Intensive research goes into the development of each EyeZen piece, much of which is archived on the company’s website.

Indie queer theater and cabaret

The San Francisco Neo-Futurists cast and crew. Photo via The San Francisco Neo-Futurists

Several multi-use venues in town frequently play host to queer theater artists. And even when they don’t, they offer a range of offbeat entertainments virtually every night:

Oasis

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OASIS

Huge nightclub in SoMa

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The South of Market club best known for its late-night dance parties often dedicates its early evenings to deliriously funny local parody productions. Club owner D’Arcy Drollinger has mounted full-cast drag versions of Star Trek, Friends, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her take on The Golden Girls has even toured the West Coast. A troupe called Fraudway Productions has presented two Rowling-routing “Harry Poofter” musicals: The Sorcerer’s Rhinestone and The Chamber of Secretions. Also, check Oasis’s calendar for its all-male burlesque/variety show Baloney and one-night engagements from nationally renowned comedic queens including Jackie Beat, Adore Delano, and Alaska.

PianoFight

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PianoFight

Drinks in the front, showtime in the back

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PianoFight is a community-centric cabaret and restaurant in the heart of the Tenderloin. By day, the space serves as an office and classroom for local non-profits. By night, its multi-room black box plays host to some of the city’s most exciting new work. Among several noteworthy artists in residence, PianoFight is the unofficial home to San Francisco’s queer-led chapter of The Neo-Futurists. The brilliant ensemble cast will have you jumping out of your seat in their one-of-a-kind, “non-illusionary” show, Infinite Wrench, as they attempt to perform 30 original one-acts in a single hour. 

For another unmissable night at PianoFight, keep an eye out for tickets to Tinder Disrupt, a live dating game show with contestants of all stripes. The venue also houses a world-class cocktail bar and lounge, where contestants and audience members have an opportunity to mingle with one another after the show. Who knows? What might have started as an evening at the theater could turn into a memorable meet-cute moment. 

Feinstein’s at the Nikko

Just off of Union Square, you’ll discover a swanky jewel box nightclub right out of the 1940s. If you can splurge on the tickets, it’s a treat! Catch Broadway stars and queer heroes—Betty Buckley, Sandra Bernhard, Leslie Jordan, Charles Busch—in a cushy 150-seat boite.

As you plan your next trip to SF, we hope you’ll pay a visit to these queer theater companies. If you’re local, we recommend becoming a season subscriber – giving you plenty of reason to visit the city year-round.

Jim Gladstone is the theater critic for GayCities and the Bay Area Reporter.

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