Building a studio: The tale of 975 Howard Studio

By Derek Harris

            When my partner Meegan and I first began to contemplate starting our own dance space, a famous quote from an old baseball movie kept coming to mind.  “If you build it, they will come.”  Well, building a baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field and waiting for the ghosts of dead players to show up and “play ball” may have proven to be just a little bit easier than starting a dance studio in the heart of San Francisco with a limited amount of time, resources, and business experience. But, we did it anyways. It’s almost as if we didn’t really have a choice. In order to explain, I should go back.  Back to where this story began.  Back to 975 Howard Street and The Garage.           

            In case you are unfamiliar with The Garage, let me give you a brief history. The Garage is a fringe theater venue run by Joe Landini and an organization called SAFEhouse (saving artists from extinction).  They help new and emerging artist through a residency program called RAW (resident artist workshop). Each resident artist is given four hours of free rehearsal space per week for twelve weeks.  At the end of the residency, their work is presented for two shows, often times on a shared program in order to accommodate more resident artists.

            Like many artists in this city, our early performance/presenting roots lead back to The Garage.  After years of dancing for other people, Meegan and I founded Human Creature Dance Theatre in 2008. We entered the scene with a bang, performing our first duet as a company at the 10th annual San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest to soldout audiences at the Palace of Fine Arts.  Following that event, we found it difficult to find other performance opportunities and to be able to present our work ourselves. Eventually, we met Joe Landini, and began our first residency at The Garage in 2010.

            Skipping ahead in the story a couple of years, we pickup back at The Garage. Only this time we were living in the basement.  Living out of suitcases with everything we owned crammed into a 5′ x 8′ storage unit down by the airport. 

            Six months prior, we were forced to move from our apartment in the Inner Sunset due to a serious mold situation that had caused one of our roommates to become ill and had claimed the life of our beloved cat Guyia. We couldn’t afford a new place until we could get our deposit back, so we decided we would trade in the fog for some sunshine and go stay with friends in Los Angeles for a bit. We packed our lives away into the cheapest storage we could find and headed south for the Spring and a fresh start.

            Five months, a show in Hollywood, and a short film later, it was time to return to San Francisco for a new chapter.  Time to try again. With only the small possibility of a place to live upon our return, and a lot of wishful thinking, we headed back to the bay.

            Unfortunately, the place we were looking to stay was no longer an option, and all other housing prospects fell flat.  After weeks of couch surfing and house hunting, to no avail, we finally caught a break. Well, at least an opportunity to not be homeless.  Enter The Garage.

            Now if you have ever spent much time at The Garage, you might wonder how anyone could possibly live there. Let me tell you, it was not easy. We weren’t really supposed to be living there so we didn’t really have any room to call our own.  Every night we would pull a mattress out from behind a curtain and make our bed.  Every morning we would wake up with an alarm, since there are no windows or natural light in the basement, strip the bed, stow it back behind the curtain, get dressed, stash our suitcases, then use the restroom before people would show up for rehearsals. We did this every day.

            We were like little mice in hiding, tiptoeing around people rehearsing, forced to be out and about all day. Since our living room was also the green room, we would either help out during shows or have to find something to do from 6-10pm, at least four nights a week.  We got memberships to a gym so that we could take showers.  We survived on Subway sandwiches and Walgreens that we bought with food stamps since there was no place to store or prepare food.         

            It was a very humbling and informative experience.  You learn how little you really need, and can better understand how people survive and exist with even less than what we had.  When you are forced to be out walking the streets, and finding things to do away from home every day, you see a lot a crazy things, and meet a lot of crazy people in this city.  Especially in the Soma/ Central Market area.

            Needless to say, it was time to figure out what our next move would be.  We were running out of options. It didn’t seem like things could get much worse, but one thing after another kept proving me wrong. This went on for months.  All of the specifics of our life experiences while staying at The Garage could fill a book, so I will skip ahead to how we got to where we are today. To the birth of 975 Howard Studio.

            We were reaching the end of a downward spiral when we received news that The Garage was moving.  They had been having ongoing issues with the neighbors regarding noise levels and after five years of fighting, Joe was tired and ready to move on.

            In the search for a new location, efforts were made to find a place with a room for us to rent, but it was not looking good.  With no money and no place to go, our situation seemed dire.  Then Joe mentioned that we could take over the lease at 975 Howard if we wanted, and the wheels began to turn. 

            We had been considering moving to L.A. We could work the industry connections I have there and try to make some actual money so we could fund the things we wanted to do and start having a life again. The problem was how to move anywhere without money. Then this prospect of taking over 975 Howard came along, and with it came new hope. We could try to relocate with no money and start all over again in a new place, or we could figure out a way to capitalize on an opportunity to open a studio in the city where we spent the last four years building our careers. We were sitting on a space that was already known for being an art space, and cheap enough to turn a profit, and didn’t require a credit check.  This could actually be a way to make a living and allow us to take our company to the next level.

            Joe had found a new space at 715 Bryant and was about to sign the lease, so we needed to act fast if we didn’t want to end up homeless again. We put together a business plan, started to approach potential investors, and sought out some loans. Several calculations and sales pitches later, we had what we needed to green light the project. In April of 2012, we signed the lease for 975 Howard Street. The Garage moved at the end of the month and come May 1st, the space was ours.

            About a week later my stepdad, Ray, drove out from Oklahoma with a trailer full of tools and equipment. Did I mention that he was a structural engineering, master craftsman badass? Booya! A large part of our plan hinged on him being able to come out for a week to help us build a sprung dance floor and fix a few things around the space.

            So the folks came out and the renovation was underway. It had been a while since Meegz and I had taken stage craft in college and even longer since my days working construction. Luckily it came right back to us, plus we had Ray to show us what to do. He built the first few panels of the dance floor then taught us how. Meegz and I built the rest of the panels with a little help from dancer/tech extraordinaire, Cameron Growden.

            We worked our butts off for six days straight building the floor and making alterations to the space.  Working right up to the minute that my folks had to hook up their trailer and start back on the twenty-eight hour drive home. My folks basically rule by the way. At the end of the week, we had a brand new 24 x 40 ft. sprung dance floor with new flat black marley flooring. We also had acquired, along with a sizable debt, a door to the basement, doorbells, a new mail box, an exterior light over the door, and an electronic door lock with a handle and keyless access.

            The folks had also hooked us up with three 5 gallon buckets of white paint for the next phase of our studio makeover. In case you didn’t know, The Garage was a black box theatre. It ended up taking twice as much paint as we had originally thought would cover it. We painted, and painted, and then painted some more. We painted all day and night for the whole next week in order to get the space ready for our scheduled grand opening, which was barely two weeks from the time we began renovations. With the help of some awesome friends (Yeshuah, Cameron, Fractal, Brian, Harley, and Brendan), we finally got that biznatch painted and the space was fully transformed. It was now a big, bright, open space with a huge, brand new floor, a spacious lobby, and a functional dressing room.  975 Howard Studio was ready for business.

            So you may be asking yourself, what business was it ready for exactly? What is this studio all about? What’s the master plan? Well let me tell you with a little blurb from our website… (

“975 Howard Studio is the Home of Human Creature Dance Theatre and guest company CALI & CO. It is a 2500-sq ft dance studio/art space centrally located at 975 Howard Street between 5th and 6th Streets (3 blocks from Powell Station on BART/MUNI) in San Francisco’s SoMA district.

Our mission is to provide a safe and supportive environment for artists to rehearse and create new work, as well as a space to train, teach, share, and grow. 

Through our diverse blend of programming, workshops, and variety events, we hope to cultivate creative expression while bridging more of the micro-communities within the Bay Area arts scene.”

            With this new studio space we hope to further build our company and our organization. Human Creature will finally have a home to create, rehearse, and perform, as well as provide a service to the San Francisco performing arts community. We eventually plan to acquire some lighting and sound equipment for showings and low tech performances. We will also be starting a 6 month residency program in the fall of 2012 as well as expanding our class schedule.

            Our summer rental rates are $15 an hour for rehearsals.  Classes are $12 and class cards are available for $40 for four classes. Summer session is July 16th-Augest 25th.

            We will be holding classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and during the day on Saturdays. Tuesday/Thursday classes will consist of modern technique from 6:30-7:50pm and partnering from 8-9:20pm, with body work from 9-9:20.  Tuesday/Thursday classes will be taught by Meegan Hertensteiner and me (Derek Harris).  You can take both the technique and partnering class together for only $20!

             Saturday class for the summer session will be intermediate/advanced modern technique from 10-11:30am with Christine Cali (CALI & CO). Christine will also be teaching a workshop (practice into performance) July 27th, 28th, and 29th. For more information about Christine’s workshop, please visit

            More classes will be added to the schedule as they develop. In the fall we will be adding Action Theatre with Owen Walker (, and open company class with Christine Cali. We also hope to have classes and/or master classes including yoga/acro-yoga, Pilates, Somatics, contact improvisation, and more. 

            We are also currently curating a quarterly variety event called “The Variety Society”. The next event will be on August 19th, and will include artist of all genres. There will be visual artist, crafts, dance, and theatre upstairs, and then music, spoken word, and other entertainment downstairs. We have transformed the basement into a speakeasy style lounge for special events and social gatherings. There are tables and chairs, couches, a small stage area, and a tiki bar area that we built from a set for Gilligan’s Island. The lighting is mellow, and the lounge is filled with fun and strange objects and decorations.  It’s a really cool place to hang out and is a vast contrast to the bright, open studio upstairs.

            So that’s about it in a nutshell. Now we are just trying to figure things out as we go.  The biggest challenge we face at the moment is just getting people aware of the new space and getting them through the front door.  I think it may be difficult for people who knew what The Garage used to look like to imagine how different it could be. I believe that once people see what we’ve done, and actually use the studio, they will want to come back for more.  We are very excited about all of the possibilities and look forward to being involved with more artists in the community. 

If you would like to check out the new 975 Howard Studio online, you can take a virtual tour by visiting the following link: 

For more information about 975 Howard Studio, visit

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For more information about Human Creature Dance Theatre, visit

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