S.F.’s Exit Theatre to close, ending 40 years of small,

Mikka Bonel (left) as Queen Marie and Christina Augello as Queen Marguerite rehearse for “Exit the King” at the Exit Theatre. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle 2018

The Exit Theatre — the stalwart Tenderloin venue with three small theaters and a cafe, home of the San Francisco Fringe Festival — is closing its Eddy Street doors by the end of 2022, Artistic Director Christina Augello announced in a Facebook post Friday, Aug. 19.

The move ends 40 years of making weird indie theater on Eddy Street, 30 of them at this address.

In a phone interview with The Chronicle, Augello said she felt a mix of pride and sadness in her accomplishments. “Not everybody gets the chance to spend their lives working in the theater. But I also feel really clear that this is a good decision.

“Literally, financially, it just isn’t working at all.”

A volunteer explains to the audience that donations are an important part of the Fringe Festival before Alicia Dattner performs “Too Soon” at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle 2019

By July of this year, the company spent $35,000 in rent and utilities but made only $5,000 in return. Artists still aren’t booking the space as much as they did before the pandemic, and audiences still aren’t attending as much. The Exit’s financial model — minimum-wage workers and volunteer labor — works only when all four spaces are full, but one recent performance of “The Anarchy Quartet” had just seven people in the audience while other spaces were vacant. “My gut tells me — and I usually trust my gut — that things are not going to pick up for a while,” Augello said.

Compounding the issue is AB5, California’s gig work law, which made it harder for hiring entities to classify workers as independent contractors. Augello said that that under that law, she can afford to produce only one show per year instead of three.

Augello noted that Exit Theatre will still exist in some format, perhaps a nomadic one, and that she plans to stay in the business. In recent months she’s felt more like a bookkeeper than an artistic director, she said, and she looks forward to being more of an artist again. “It’s not an end,” she said. “It’s a progression and a change.”

The Exit’s departure follows other recent small theater closures in the Bay Area. In November, FoolsFury held a wake — a closing ceremony with one last hurrah of improvised art among friends and family. Bay Area Musicals was an early pandemic casualty. In 2019, Ragged Wing Ensemble gave up its lease.

Magician Ryan Kane performs a card trick for Anil Nair and Ashley Springer in the Exit Theatre’s cafe at the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle 2019

The company has had a heavy impact on the Bay Area theater scene. Its Fringe Festival alone helped kick-start the careers of countless artists — San Francisco writer-director Mark Jackson, Colma magician-storyteller Christian Cagigal, Oakland rock opera composers the Kilbanes. It also helped birth whole companies, including Cutting Ball Theater and Mugwumpin.

But the Exit shouldn’t be measured just by how high its artists later go on to fly. Its devotion to the new and the now, the weird and the wild, is its unparalleled contribution to the Bay Area theater scene. Here you could walk inside most weekends of the year and feel the buzz in the hallways and the cafe, taking your pick of shows. Here you didn’t need to have a resume or a fancy degree to produce a play. Here theater didn’t need a big budget or razzle-dazzle to mark and move its spectators.

The fate of its sister venue known as the Exit on Taylor, where separate company Cutting Ball Theater has a long-term lease from the company, is stable. Cutting Ball plans to announce its next season in early September, according to Managing Director Jess Klein. The Exit also has a new venue in Arcata (Humboldt County), where Augello lives part time. She’s performing in its October show, a riff on “Waiting for Godot.”

Christina Augello (left) as Queen Marguerite and Mikka Bonel as Queen Marie rehearse “Exit the King” at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle 2018

“The Anarchy Quartet” runs in the Eddy Street space through Saturday, Aug. 20, followed by the 2022 San Francisco Fringe Festival, featuring 21 shows running Sept. 8-17. In October, Awesome Theatre and Killing My Lobster have rentals. In November, the Exit is set to host a festival of pandemic-related stories — probably its last show.

Augello has a piece in it, inspired by the 1961 musical titled “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off.”

“Who thought it would happen?” Augello told The Chronicle. “But it did stop, and I feel like I got off.”




  • Lily Janiak

    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LilyJaniak