For more than two decades, David Allen has been taking pictures of performing arts group, and he’s worked with just about every theater in the Bay Area, big and small, including American Conservatory Theater, SF Playhouse, the Aurora, the Magic Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Lamplighters Musical Theatre.
Now Allen’s love of theater is on display in the form of 20 photos of well-known Bay Area actors. Taken over the last eight years, they hang in the lobby of San Francisco’s Z Space, in a project called “Ghost Light,” named after the tradition of leaving a light burning on the stage when the theater is unoccupied.
Allen has worked with the actors in “Ghost Light” for the last 20 years or so. In the photos, he tried to capture their personalities both on and off stage. Inspired by the fashion and portrait photographer Irving Penn, he used a forced perspective with the actors in a corner, creating a little stage for themselves. The photos are in black-and-white, and a single light illuminates the actors.
“I had to come up with an idea that was really clean and simple, and I wanted it to be continuous,” Allen said. “You look at these, and they’re all the same, and they’re all different.”
In the Z Space lobby on a recent afternoon, Allen was busy directing the exhibit’s installation, which will move in the breeze, mimicking a stage curtain. He knew what he wanted overall, but by collaborating with the actors, he left room to be spontaneous.
So when actor and director L. Peter Callender, artistic director of the African American Shakespeare Company, asked if his son could be in the portrait with him, Allen went with it. He wanted to keep the photos light hearted, he says, and for the most part, they are. Josh Kornbluth, a solo artist, known for shows including Haiku Tunnel and Red Diaper Baby, has painted himself into the corner, which Allen says is a good metaphor for him. Joe Bellan, a leading comic actor, who worked with the Mime Troupe, sits in front of a mirror, half of his face in greasepaint. Carrie Paff, a Bay Area actress who has performed at A.C.T, SF Playhouse, and others, is in a slinky dress with a determined look on her face.
“I wanted it to have a noir feel to it,” Allen says. “She’s the femme fatale, not to stereotype. She got it right away. She totally understood. She came up with the gown and the gun. I had her come from the forced perspective background and run towards the camera.”
Next to the photos of the actors, who also include the late Barbara Oliver, Aldo Billingslea, Joy Carlin, Charlie Varon, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Velina Brown, there will be a quote with their responses to the question “What are you trying to capture on stage?”
Allen produced this show himself, but he hopes to find investors for future series he wants to do — one of directors and one of playwrights.
“I love theater,” he said. “It shows how civil we can be.”
Ghost Light, through March 21, at Z Space Theatre Lobby Gallery, 450 Florida St., San Francisco, Free; zspace.org/davidallen