The American Theater Projects




Alex is at work on projects related to one of the first stages in San Francisco, the American Theater, founded in 1850 by Doc Robinson and James Evrard. One project is a stage play inspired by a song written by Robinson. Another project is a novella about a child actor who performed at the American Theater.




About Seeing the Elephant: A Stage Play:

On July 4, 1850, crowds filled the makeshift Phoenix Theater in San Francisco to see Doc Robinson’s new play, Seeing the Elephant. The play was a comedic send-up of the folly of the Gold Rush, and the audience loved it–so much so that the expression, “to see the elephant,” took hold. If you said, “I’ve seen the elephant,” it meant that you had gone off on an adventure in pursuit of a dream, full of optimism and excitement, only to face harsh realities and recognize the limits of your ambitions. Gold Miners lived that expression on a daily basis. Doc’s play allowed his miner audience to laugh cathartically at themselves and their tarnished hopes. With this wildly successful play, Doc developed a reputation as the most reliable satirist in town, a sort of Jon Stewart of the Comstock crowd. Alex’s play, Seeing the Elephant, is inspired by Doc’s song, the only remaining piece we have of his original play.

This new version of Seeing the Elephant, like Doc’s, makes fun of the pursuit of quick riches, but it also adds a contemporary spin by parodying the extremely popular melodramatic theatrical form of the 1850s. This version is at once a tribute to the first theatrical troupe formed in San Francisco, led by Doc, and a send-up of their era. All the while, the play asks us to consider how we too “see the elephant” in our own lives. In the end, just as the characters discover, the most urgent question is what do you do after you have seen the elephant.

Contemporary audiences watching Seeing the Elephant will experience what it was like to attend a play in 1850 San Francisco because the staging and acting replicate the era. Actors in the live audience behave as they did in the nineteenth-century theater, catcalling actors on stage, passing around food to audience members, and generally creating a lively social atmosphere. The play features banjo music and an audience sing-along at the end–all for the sake of having fun while laughing at our foibles, and for dreaming on even after you have seen the elephant.