How the Mission Armory Drill Court Became the Hottest Theater Venue in San Francisco

Last year, when I moved a block away from the Mission Armory, the can’t-be-missed former military facility off Mission and 14th infamous now for housing the city’s porn den, I never thought I would be steps away from world-class theater productions. But this May, that’s exactly what happened.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch just finished an extended run at the Armory Community Center, the official name of the newly remodeled drill court inside the Armory. Presented by A.C.T., Black Watch has been one of the most exciting theater events to come to San Francisco in recent memory.

“We’ve capture a whole new audience,” A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff told me. “We have our usual audience coming to the Mission and mingling with hipsters and people who are more interested in non-traditional theater.”

The internationally acclaimed Black Watch recounts the story of a group of rowdy Scottish soldiers deployed to aid in the Iraqi occupation. It’s everything a modern-day theater show should be, especially in the age of A.D.D. and Tweets. Visceral yet poetic, raw but inventive in its use of choreography, staging and multimedia to tell the war story in emotionally loaded flashbacks. For all this, Black Watch requires just the right venue – one that could replicate the look and feel of the original production’s authentic drill hall setting.

“I had been wanting to bring Black Watch to the Bay Area for quite some time,” Perloff said. “We looked for possible venues around the piers, near the airport and in the East Bay.”

Around the same time that A.C.T. was undergoing that search, had made the decision to renovate the Armory’s drill court and use the 40,000-square foot space for community events like film screenings, farmers markets and performances. The adult film company has been conducting tours of the Armory for years, but the plan to open up the doors of the drill court to the public was, at first, kept silent.

“There were a lot of permits we had to go through,” Armory Community Center facilities manager Andrew Harvill said. “Not to mention all the reconstruction. The drill court had been vacant for decades.”

Once A.C.T. approached the Armory Community Center (which is a completely separate business entity than with the idea to stage Black Watch in May, construction quickly accelerated, A.C.T contributing a part of the multimillion-dollar renovation. When I asked Perloff whether there was any initial hesitation in sharing a performance space with controversy-laden, she stated that there was never such concern.

“I mean, we take part in Folsom Street Fair,” Perloff said. “And to be honest, I don’t think a majority of the A.C.T. audience even knows what Kink is.”

There were, however, safety concerns particularly surrounding the gang activity revolving around the 16th Street Mission Bart stop. Harvill reaffirms that the opening of the Armory Community Center is actually increasing security presence in the area and that Mission and 14th is no more or less safe than A.C.T.’s Geary Theater location.

Besides thrilling local fans of non-traditional theater, Black Watch‘s successful run in San Francisco accomplished two important things. It proved that A.C.T. is not afraid to take risks and move their audience to new, exciting venue choices around the city. Perloff told me that A.C.T.’s next big project is the renovation of Mid-Market’s Strand Theater, expected to open in January 2015.

“Hopefully we can get the Strand’s tech neighbors to help us reinvigorate live theater in the area,” Perloff said. “We’ve had some conversations with Twitter about cool ways we can work together.”

As for the Armory Community Center, being home to a world-class production from the city’s most reputable theater company is a great opening act. From here, more reconstruction to come. The next phase is adding in wood flooring. Then Harvill hopes to make the space financially self-sustainable and able to provide something back to the community.

“One week we might have a corporate trade show and charge them at cost to use the space,” Harvill said. “Then invite smaller organizations and non-profits to come together for a public fair.”

Even though Harvill said the Armory has no plans to pursue a liquor license or become an after-hours party den, throwing a block party is not completely out of the question. But don’t expect Daft Punk anytime soon. The venue still needs more construction to improve the acoustics and fix some sound issues before it can host a live music show.

I suggest the Armory embraces San Francisco’s famed kinky side (especially considering the building’s co-tenant and put on a burlesque Beach Blanket Babylon, a sexy Cirque du Soleil meets Pussycat Dolls striptease show, a live Fifty Shades of Grey. Who wouldn’t love living a block away from that?

Oscar Raymundo
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