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One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Bard

Adam L. Brinklow | June 14, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

Sam Bertken had to put up with a lot in his very first acting gig in San Francisco: "This guy was getting drunker and drunker the whole night, and he must have been combining medications. Finally, he passed out and started snoring very loudly right in the middle of the climax."

Bertken didn't really mind, though, because that was Theater Pub's April production of The Taming of the Shrew at Cafe Royale, where occasional oddball patrons are just part of the experience. For over three years, Theater Pub has performed classic theater in the unpredictable environ of a working bar on the edge of the Tenderloin.

The space is tiny, the bar is always hopping, and occasionally someone has one too many, but that's the concept. What people love about Theater Pub is that no matter what, the show always goes on.

Cofounder Brian Markley says Theater Pub started because Bay Area theaters have a problem. "Young people think the theater isn't for them." So Markley and company decided to take theater to where the 20-something crowd was already. Perhaps surprisingly given the space, Theater Pub shows are regular hits. But where else are you going to see the death scene from Henry IV, Part II performed on a pool table?

Of course, doing Shakespeare and Euripides in a working bar carries a few special challenges, like the night two years ago when actor Sara Moser had a heartstopping close call. "I was at the bar and all of a sudden there were millions of shards of glass all over me. Somebody on the balcony had knocked their beer off. But my co-actors very calmly dusted me off, cleaned up the mess, and we carried on. I didn't have a scratch."

Those sorts of mishaps don't happen very often, but they form part of the Theater Pub mystique: When you’re there, you know that literally anything can happen. It probably won't. But it could.

Now things are changing. Theater Pub will do two more shows at their longtime Cafe Royale venue, but then finish out their season at the Exit Cafe. And from 2014 on they'll be on the hunt for a new venue. Asked why they're making the change, company members get a little vague. "Bars have souls," says Markley. "The clientele can change. There are four great guys running [Cafe Royale] and we don't want to comment too much on the moves they're making."

The bar does seem to be changing its image; it previously billed itself as "The best-kept secret in the Tenderloin," but the newly redesigned website now touts it as "The best-kept secret in Lower Nob Hill." Coowner Jimi Moran says the bar will be remodeling soon and that it'll be harder for Theater Pub to plan their shows during construction. "We're just not sure how long it'll take. But we'd like keep them on at a semi-regular basis."

"We'd hardly be the first theater to go nomadic," says one of Theater Pub's other cofounders, Stuart Bousel. “There's always that fear that you can lose your audience, but in the end, switching locales is not a huge deal." As long as the audience loves it, the show must go on.

Check out Theater Pub’s last Tenderloin shows June 17 and July 15th at 8:00 PM.

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