It may not be New York or Los Angeles but San Francisco can hold its own when it comes to the best performing arts centers and theaters in the United States. Whether you’re looking for a Broadway smash, an innovative play or the refinement of the ballet, this city’s got you covered when it comes to cultural institutions and artsy things to do. After the show, check out the best art galleries and museums in San Francisco to round out your cultural experience.
Theaters in San Francisco
This complex includes Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House and Herbst Theater, three famed San Francisco venues that form the cornerstone of the city’s performing arts scene. The War Memorial Opera House, completed in 1932, is one of the last examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the United States, its exterior accented with paired columns and arch-headed windows. Inside, beyond the grand entrance hall, the theater’s interior is decorated with an aluminum and glass panel chandelier and gilded figurative sculpture. Both the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet perform in this space in alternating seasons. Next door, Davies Symphony Hall is home to the world renowned San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Completed in 1980, this modern concert hall features a “cloud” of movable convex acrylic panels that can be adjusted to optimize the acoustics for any performance. The complex’s third space is the jewel-toned jewelbox Herbst Theater, something of a “catch-all” stage for cultural performances like opera and symphony that doesn’t fit, due to space or content, at Davies Hall, the Opera House or nearby SF Jazz.
The Orpheum Theater is San Francisco’s preeminent home for Broadway productions, and what a home it is. Outside, architect B. Marcus Priteca designed the building’s facade to resemble a 12th-century French cathedral. Inside, the exterior’s ornate details are juxtaposed with accents, like an elaborate art-deco ceiling, betraying the building’s 1920s origin. The whole shebang was designated a city landmark in 1977. Look no further for the country’s most talked about shows, including this season’s performances of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Concert and Book of Mormon.
Since 1967 the nationally renowned American Conservatory Theater has been a leader in the San Francisco performing arts scene. At their historic home, the Geary Theater, whose stage has been graced by the likes of Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich, the A.C.T. presents both classic and boundary-pushing plays under a dramatic elliptical big-top. Their new theater, The Strand, a renovated theater-turned-cinema-turned-porn-house opened in 2015, hosts smaller cabaret and theater productions in an intimate, crimson-walled 283-seat space. Young stage-actors from the A.C.T.’s Conservatory program can also regularly be seen in performances at The Strand.
San Francisco has been embroiled in a love affair with jazz for decades and finally, in 2013, the musical form scored its own state-of-the-art performance center. The 35,000 square-foot, three-story transparent structure contains an adjustable auditorium, an intimate multi-purpose ensemble room and digital learning lab, in addition to multiple rehearsal spaces. SF Jazz interprets the term broadly; you’re as likely to see Malian musicians playing traditional tomes as you are to see a standard jazz quartet. With over 100 performances a year, SF Jazz is sure to delight your senses with something out of the ordinary.
The Yerba Buena Center’s 700+ seat theater is one half of this contemporary SoMa cultural space which see itself as a catalyst for change via the incubation of creativity and the bridging of diverse communities. The YBCA Theater reflects this mission with dance, music and dramatic programs like this fall’s celebration of modern dance, Transform Fest. SMUIN, San Francisco’s contemporary ballet company, also frequently performs at the YBCA and the theater annually hosts SMUIN’s Christmas Ballet in December.
This small playhouse cultivates intimacy in both its productions and performances. Plays at the San Francisco Playhouse are selected for their emotional components in an effort to deepen self awareness and the human experience. Their 199-seat theater arranged into only 9 rows on the second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel in a former Elks Lodge venue, emphasizes shared existence. This season’s calendar includes the Bay Area premiere of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue and several new works from the theater’s Sandbox Series, their program promoting the new works of up-and-coming artists.
ODC was the first modern dance company in the United States to own its own facility. Built in 1979 and expanded in 2010, the ODC Theater is an airy-but-intimate 170-seat brick-walled space that features dozens of annual performances and workshops that interpret contemporary aesthetic and social values through extraordinary physical performance. ODC also works to actively engage the community in dance through its classes, youth programs and public outreach.
The Brava Theater is dedicated to cultivating the artistic expression of women, people of color LGBTQIA, youth and other underrepresented individuals. Brava’s 360-seat main stage and 60-seat studio space emerged in 1996 from a shuttered 1926 vaudeville/movie house in the Mission. The theater today produces an eclectic mix of theater that celebrates and explores the experiences of those voices that are often sidelined in mainstream theater including the upcoming latino stories Ghost Limb and the Mathematics of Love. The Brava is also the home of a number of youth performing arts programs and performances like those of the SF Youth Theater.
The Magic Theatre is known for producing bold, innovative plays. Over the last five years, 22 of the 25 plays that have graced its stage, including 2012’s Bruja by playwright Luis Alfaro, have gone on to success in Los Angeles, New York and abroad. Housed in a simple Fort Mason space, the Magic Theater’s focus is on writing and performance and, with this, they’ve been wholly successful, attracting Pulitzer-prize winning dramaturges like Sam Shepard and respected actors like Danny Glover and Sean Penn.
Z Space is all about empowering artistic risk, collaboration and camaraderie between artists and audiences. Since moving into the former Theatre Artaud in 2009, Z Space has functioned as a performance laboratory incubating new work from up-and-coming playwrights. Z’s Off the Page series gives the public a first look at pieces being considered for theatrical productions through dramatic staged readings. Downstairs experimental pieces and cabaret events are the star of the show in their 86-seat black box theater, Z Below,