Late this spring, the Boxcar Theater announced the August 4th closing of its immersive theater experience, The Speakeasy. It's not the first time that artistic director Nick Olivero has fostered panic—and upped ticket sales—by announcing the end of the elaborate, Prohibition-inspired production.
"I've got phone calls from the mayor's office asking if this is a joke or a marketing ploy," says Olivero, who has closed the show two other times in the past three years. This time, he says, it's for good.
The long and short of it, according to Olivero, is that San Francisco "doesn't have the ecosystem for commercial theater."
Olivero's imaginative, one-of-a-kind show recreated the glamorous style and raucous storylines of a Prohibition-era speakeasy and cabaret. And though the venture employed has more than 300 hundred artists and performers in some 430 performances for an audience of more than 72,000 people over the years, The Speakeasy has never reached a sustainable run rate.
"The show was profitable, but it wasn't profitable enough to pay back all of its investors or to hire enough full-time staff to be able to maintain it," says Olivero. "People [were] working multiple jobs to keep the things going. It became a question of quality of life."
Chorus girl Katy Lavelle backstage at The Speakeasy.(Peter Liu)
He places part of the blame on the lack of municipal support for artistic endeavors like The Speakeasy or the legendary Beach Blanket Babylon, which, despite its iconic status, is also apparently unprofitable and is set to lower its curtain for the last time later this year. "The city of San Francisco and its politicians and members have never decided that San Francisco is going to be an artistic town," he says. "There's nothing in place to be able to support the arts."
What does the city support? We'll give you one guess.
"Every city has something they're known for," says Olivero. "San Francisco backed their play years ago when they tried to get Twitter to come to Market Street. It wants to be a tech city, and that's what it is."
While Olivero doesn't blame the tech companies for the closing of the show, he can't deny the impact that they have on the economy and workforce. He points to Amazon's motto, "Staying in is the new going out," as a red flag for attendance-based industries like restaurants and theaters, which see less and less traffic from noncommittal millennials.
"We [in SF] have a very laissez-faire society," says Olivero, who originally hails from Texas. "It's either an epidemic or the natural evolution of society. Things just keep closing and they'll continue to close while the shut-in economy continues to be the mantra of the city."
While this may be true, closing isn't always a bad thing. Since the late-May announcement of its upcoming final act, The Speakeasy has been turning people away from a wall of sold-out performances. The cast is doing five to six shows a week during a season that's typically dry. But banking on the FOMO of the city isn't a sustainable tactic.
"People tell me they've been meaning to go see the show, and I say, 'That's why we're closing—because you haven't.'"
Audience gambling was a part of the show at The Speakeasy.
So what's the solution for a city that wants a thriving theater scene? "[People] need to get off their asses and go outside and connect to people like we used to before cell phones," says Olivero. It may sound like a bit of a tirade, but it's couched in concern for the artistic community.
"I'm an artist and I love the arts," he says. "I'd like to see them succeed. I hope that members of the community and San Francisco and the public office will take notice and will actually do something."
As for The Speakeasy, the show hasn't quite seen its last curtain. "I'm going to take the show to another city where the people can support it," says Olivero. There's nothing official just yet, though Olivero name-checked London, New York, and Chicago as potential new venues.