I’ve been a fan of City Arts & Lectures almost since it began offering its programs—onstage conversations with and lectures by “leading figures in arts and ideas”—in 1980. I remember sitting in the last row of the balcony section of Herbst Theatre (and boy, was it hot up there), listening to one of my favorite authors, Paul Theroux, talk about taking long solo trips and writing about them in books such as The Great Railway Bazaar. Since then, I’ve seen everyone from Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag to Norman Mailer and the elusive Don DeLillo, in conversation with, usually, a very good interviewer (although I seem to remember DeLillo preferred to give a talk) (and I had a better seat by then). Founding executive director Sydney Goldstein has been just amazing at enticing vast numbers—more than 50 each year—of “outstanding writers, critics, scientists, performing artists, and cultural figures from around the world” to come chat with us at the Herbst.
The two red armchairs, the little table and vase of flowers, the area rug are now warming the stage in a new venue, thanks to Goldstein and donors. As part of the War Memorial Veterans Building, the Herbst is closing for a couple of years for some major refurbishing. Not to worry; Goldstein has found and refurbished the former Nourse Auditorium, in the long closed High School of Commerce—not far from the Herbst, on Hayes between Van Ness and Franklin—and it’s great.
For one thing, the new Nourse Theater is in a 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival-style building, with grand original touches such as the elaborate carved-wood ceiling and molding, wall sconces, and chandeliers. It feels as intimate as the Herbst, even though it has perhaps twice as many seats: 1,684 (819, all new, in the orchestra section; 210 in the loge; 655 in the balcony). I understand the theater now features state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment and excellent acoustics, too, which is important, since Goldstein, as master lease holder, plans to lease the space to other presenting organizations, such as the Merola Opera Program and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. (I feel I should tell you that the bathrooms are not so improved.)
But first, it’s time to hear from some of those writers, critics, scientists, and etc. I went to the new Nourse twice in the past week: on opening night, to see Berkeley-based writer Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side), and just a couple of days ago, to see David Remnick, esteemed editor of the New Yorker and fine writer (Lenin’s Tomb, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama). Both were engaging, funny, smart, well-spoken, and down-to-earth, and both had great rapport with their interviewers. Frankly, I have seen interviewers at the Herbst (not recently) who almost dominated the conversation or tried to show off their intelligence; but these two…no. Lewis spoke with his friend Dacher Keltner, and Remnick with an acquaintance of mine, Steven Winn. Both asked excellent questions, sitting back and letting their colleague go on as long as he wanted, then jumping in with an interesting followup comment and question.
A highlight of the Lewis conversation was hearing about the six months (!) he spent with President Obama for “Obama’s Way,” which ran in Vanity Fair last fall. A highlight of the Remnick conversation was learning how the New Yorker dumped its entire Talk of the Town section on Thursday, April 18—the night of the day the Tsarnaev brothers were apprehended in Boston—and replaced it with timely (ho), well-written pieces by George Packer, Seth Mnookin, and Remnick himself. Thursday is the day before the magazine goes to bed, as we say, so things were a little fraught. I was a magazine editor for years, so of course I’d find such tales enthralling, but so did the rest of the audience.
That night, I’d gone to the new Nourse with a friend of mine, who turned to me afterward and said, “Steven is the best City Arts & Lectures interviewer I’ve ever seen.” So you’re in luck, because he’ll be back on Friday evening to interview Fran Lebowitz. Other upcoming programs include The Social Network Effect, with Nicholas Carr, whose Pulitzer-nominated essay in the Atlantic asked, “Is Google making us stupid?” in conversation with Thomas Goetz, former executive editor of Wired magazine; medical anthropologist Paul Farmer, in conversation with author Adam Hochschild; and activists Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Clearly, City Arts & Lectures is only making us smarter.
May 10, Fran Lebowitz; May 14, Nicholas Carr; May 23, Paul Farmer; June 3, Gloria Steinem & Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., S.F., 415.563.2463 (City Arts & Lectures), cityarts.net; 415.392.4400 (City Box Office); cityboxoffice.com