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[whitespace] Tanya Shaffer Photograph by Shane McKay

Climbing the Ladder: Tanya Shaffer's one-woman show started in workshops at the Z Space Studio and soon plays on prestigious regional stages.

Dramatic Vision

The Z Festival shows off hit theater in the making and a unique laboratory for performance

By Rob Pratt

THE OUTER DOORS of San Francisco's Z Space Studio clunk, and from the hallway Tanya Shaffer yells, "He'll do it!" Which means that her one-woman show, Let My Enemy Live Long, will travel to A Contemporary Theater in Seattle next year as part of a busy spring for Shaffer, who's also set to do a five-week run of the show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre beginning in April. She had just returned from dropping the Seattle theater's artistic director off at the airport after running the show for him to preview.

"He had seen the show on video," she explains. "But he wanted to see it live before he booked it, and he was going to be in town for a couple of days. It's unfortunate it didn't coincide with the Santa Cruz shows"--opening Thursday at the Actors' Theatre as part of the Z Festival of New Performance--"or that he couldn't see it here at Z Space. So I did a command performance just for him."

The Z Space Studio, after all, is sort of home base for Shaffer's show. A warren of rehearsal rooms, offices and a spartan performance space on the third floor of a Mission Street building near 10th Street in the City, it's a place where she found an experienced community of artists all working on their own projects, and it's the place where she first tested her idea, scripted it and refined the show before premiering it.

It's also a unique entity in the world of Bay Area theater. Debuting in Santa Cruz with last year's surprise hit Z Festival of New Performance, it's also a brilliant new light on a local theater scene that often gets dim as the summer festival season closes.

'THE CHALLENGES OF living in the Bay Area as a performer are many," explains David Dower, 41, a founder, current artistic director and something of a big-brother figure for the Z Space Studio. "It's expensive. It's not considered the cultural center of the universe the way New York is, so you're already challenged in having people take you seriously as an artist."

Dower talks about his idea for the Z Festival of New Performance as if it's a logical extension of his grand design for Z Space. San Francisco has only so many spots where a performer can put on a show, he says, and they can count on at best an eight-week run for a something that may have taken years to develop. With the festival, however, he's creating new places for Z Space artists to play while they work their way up from the workshop to regional theaters like Berkeley Rep--and to national attention. Santa Cruz is the test market, and in the next couple of years Dower plans to expand the franchise to half a dozen more communities.

"You can't get from 49-seat houses or the Marsh Theater or this workshop space to the Berkeley Rep without a lot of miles and a lot of audience at the 200-seat level, and there just aren't that many producers or places for that to happen," he explains. "My goal is to create enough opportunity for the works that are here and the vision that is here to move up the performance ladder.

"There are foundations like the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County that support the festival that I would not have access to up here in San Francisco," Dower adds. "So it's all kind of a pragmatic as well as an artistic decision."

THAT COULD BE a motto of the Z Space Studio and a rallying cry for up-and-coming arts organizations in an era when Congress seems ready to abdicate any responsibility to support the producers of American culture: "Pragmatic as well as artistic." From its predecessor theater group, the Z Collective, a performance company started in 1988 among waiters, buspeople and other staffers of the Zuni Cafe, the Z Space inherited a work-together spirit and a yen for making opportunities out of unusual circumstances.

"We'd gotten such incredible support from the local artists, the press and from our audience that we didn't want to disappear and we didn't just want to hand over the Z Collective to the next 10 people standing in line and say, 'Now this is the Z Collective,' " Dower says of the group's retirement. "We spent a long time trying to figure out what to do and ... I wanted it to be a place where individual artists could come and do what we had done without having to do what basically drove the Z Collective out of business finally."

Sharing offices with computer consulting firm Avelino Associates, the Z Space Studio revolves around Tuesday night workshops where artists in residence present new works for review and critique. The 40 residents lend a hand to their peers, and Z Space for a membership fee of $50 per month offers 24-hour access to the work and rehearsal rooms--and perhaps most importantly, takes care of the business side of things.

"Tanya has been rehearsing the show and developing this show over two years now, and she had to do a lot of the producing herself, but at least this space exists and there was nothing she had to do about the community in which it developed," Dower says. "And so that part of the administrative stuff she didn't have to deal with. I think you'll hear that over and over from the artists that the space as an infrastructure is central to them being able to stay on track.

"Another kind of liberating thing was that separating the administration from the art itself allowed the administration to focus as well," he continues.

Next up after the Z Festival, he says, is opening the first show of a new commercial theater company called Foghouse Productions. Like a mogul in the making, Dower aims for nothing short of total vertical integration: a nonprofit performance development workshop partnered with a for-profit production company that funds Z Space like a research-and-development lab.

"Sounds like Bell Labs inventing Ma Bell," I tell him.

"Actually, it's a lot like Xerox PARC," he says, referring to the famed Palo Alto Research Center that applied computer technologies which some say Steve Jobs stole for the first Macintosh computer. "But we don't want to be Xerox. We don't want to let it all walk out the door. We want to establish this so the future generations of artists will be able to walk in here based on the success of the people who came before them."

Z Lineup

THE Z FESTIVAL of New Performance opens Thursday and runs at the Actors' Theater, 1001 Center St, Santa Cruz, through Nov. 21. Shows start at 8pm Thursday through Saturday and at 3 and 7pm Sundays. Ticket prices are "pay what you can" on Thursdays and $12-$15 for all other performances. (877.770.7469)

Oct. 14-24: Let My Enemy Live Long!, a one-woman show by Tanya Shaffer.

Oct. 28-31: Claustrophilia, a Halloween weekend sendup of Edgar Allen Poe by Amy Freed.

Nov. 4-14: Xingu, a stage presentation of Edith Wharton's classic short storyy.

Nov. 18-21: Fanny at Chez Panisse, a new musical comedy by Joe Landon adapted from Alice Waters' book.

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From the October 13-20, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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