When Shotgun Players artistic director Patrick Dooley describes his dream for what live theater might become in the post-pandemic era, a peculiar thought springs to mind. The thought is that he is either fantastically retro-minded, exceptionally visionary or a person suffering grandiose delusions. After all, Dooley is a guy who in 1992 had enough pluck and positivity to launch a theater company in the basement of a pizza parlor—and keep it viable for decades in the Bay Area’s competitive theater scene.
In the years since its founding, Shotgun bounced to 44 different spaces before establishing its permanent roots at the Ashby Stage that in 2007 proudly staked a historical claim as the first 100% solar-powered theater in America. Dooley made this and other forward-thinking miracles happen while directing over 40 plays and overseeing nearly 100 other productions.
Despite being a small operation, Shotgun carries a sizable reputation; it’s known for edgy, impeccably scripted repertoire, a diverse and dedicated roster of talented Bay Area actors, and theater artists whose keen lighting, sound, set and costume designs turn every production in the intimate theater into a master class in creativity.
In a conversation about Shotgun’s history and future, the subject of hope enters early on. While it’s apparent his company’s collective energy was dinged by extended closures in 2020 and 2021, Dooley’s can-do determination remains largely undiminished by the emotional traumas and financial devastation everyone in theater has experienced.
“What is my hope? I recently read an article about how ancient Greek physicians would prescribe seeing tragic theater to heal people physiologically,” says Dooley. “It was a health remedy, a place of physical healing and energy, not just feeding the soul. It wasn’t only spectacle and entertainment. We need to return to that ancient time and idea.”
For theater in the 21st century to be medicinal, essential and not simply a place for escape or diversion, it must shed the current models, Dooley insists. “So much of what we engage in now is an anesthetic meant to numb us and put us to sleep. I’m interested in theater that has a bold aesthetic, that wakes you up, has rigor, provides an avenue to move through troubles and is a light leading the way.”
But Dooley’s dream stands face-to-face with 2023’s realities, such as the troubled economy and specifically, audiences who learned to live without going to live theater for two-plus years. Nor will talk of Ancient Greeks or physicians writing prescriptions chase away the clouds of rising production costs and space rental, stiff competition for people’s discretionary dollars and other challenges Dooley is quick to acknowledge.
“We’re never going back to ‘the before,’” he notes. “But saying that doesn’t mean I’m not still upset by past things like what happened to the Exit Theater. It was a home for dozens of theater practitioners to learn their craft, build their careers. That Exit no longer exists as part of the ecosystem shows a breakdown of the smaller organizations. Long term, that’s going to be detrimental. If we shrink the programming, it’s going to hurt theater in the Bay Area for a long while. You can’t outsource live theater and it won’t die, but it’s going to struggle.”
Glimmers of light did appear during the COVID-19 meltdown, and Dooley says capitalizing on them is crucial. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an electro-pop opera based on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—written by composer and former Bay Area resident Dave Malloy, and which recently wrapped up an extended run—provides a compelling example.
“We had more people under 40 than at any show in our history,” says Dooley. “You could have a cocktail, dress up, sit onstage. There’s a whole younger generation looking for something new to do because something’s missing in their lives. But they’re not interested in having a passive experience. They want to engage.”
Dooley says the ultimate goal is programming that satisfies regular theater goers and also holds interest for people who “don’t want to sit in their grandparent’s dark theater.” A cross-generational, engagement-oriented approach, he suggests, will build a new 21st century audience. “The old, passive model? That’s not going to work for us.”
Turning his attention to administrative and artistic practices, Dooley suggests distributed decision-making, across-the-board accountability and deliberately including long-underrepresented communities are the primary paths to sustainable theater. At Shotgun, that means, among other initiatives, investing $75,000 to expand staffing, with an eye on equitable hires, and paying an outside firm to conduct comprehensive surveys of audience experiences.
“We’re not trying to build separate tents. We’re trying to build a bigger tent,” he says. “People who come to or work in theater are curious. They’re interested in reimagining their lives and the world around them. A space that allows more inclusion feels better for everybody. I say, we’re all in this big boat together, and now, we’re trying to turn it around. We’re more intentional about it now, but we were doing this DEI work for six years—long before COVID and the social justice movement of 2020.”
Having traveled through current travails and dissected future hopes and dreams, the conversation takes on an exciting vibe with Dooley’s closing comments about two upcoming shows: The Triumph of Love and Hedwig & The Angry Inch. For Hedwig, the theater will be converted into a rock-n-roll bar.
“The performers will interact with the audience, and during intermission the audience can go onstage and buy a beer from the musicians,” he says. “(Director) Richard Mosqueda is visionary and tapped into the drag community. He wants to have the entire cast and band be people of color.”
Dooley will direct Triumph of Love, which he says taps elemental manifestations of rage, ecstasy, arousal and passion.
“All of the characters imagine the ecstatic nature of love and having it ripped away,” says Dooley. “When they’re angry, it should make your hair stand up. When I live in the world of this play, it gives me the courage to make bolder choices in my life. A Shotgun play is about hitting all the chakras. Love it or hate it, but don’t be bored. Get to the gut; trust yourself to be raw in performance; go to the deep primal experiences.”