The Bay Area’s theatre scene has been heating up a bit after five months of darkness and zoomy zooms. While the star of 2020 has been the video conferencing platform and all its boxes that shrink based on attendance, theatre artists have turned Zoom into a theatre that seats hundreds without signing a venue contract or requiring audiences to battle traffic in order to slide into a seat just before curtain.
While getting into an actual theatre is still months away, it has been encouraging to see how so many artists aren’t sitting around waiting for that moment. March of 2020 wasn’t that long ago, but in some ways it feels like it was forever ago. In those initial anxious days, with toilet paper flying off the shelves like 2016 “Hamilton” tickets, there seems to be a rhythm with the way we are living. Masks in a store are the norm and there is some serious hope that a new presidential administration (Oakland’s Kamala!) will bring about and end to this putrid reality horror show.
That’s not to take away from the necessity of staying vigilant in order to beat back this horrific virus, but there have been some really inspiring uses of modern technology to carve out careers and make things happen. And while we mourn so much loss, and many of us have been personally gutted by this, hopefully the air that is smelling less like a forest fire every day is a metaphor that we might be ready to turn a corner.
Let’s thread through the Bay Area a bit, shall we? We’ll start it up in Oakland…
Ubuntu Theatre Project has had some fantastic press in its history, a company that gives access to everyone who wants to engage with their shows, no matter a potential patron’s budget constrictions. Their work is extremely visceral and gritty, a company who has thrilled with site specific works and spins on many of the great compositions of the world theatre canon.
Twitter follower, Bay Area performer and all around cool person Krystle Piamonte shared an interesting tweet about the company one day that made me take note:
When did Ubuntu Theater Project become Oakland Theater Project? 👀
— Krystle Piamonte (@kryspia) August 6, 2020
It seemed odd to end this deeply spiritual company name, which has two meanings – “I am because we are” and “My humanity is tied to yours,” so I reached out to Colin Mandlin, the company’s public relations director to ask about the newly branded Oakland Theater Project. Here was his answer in the form of a press release that went out to their patrons:
“We are excited to make explicit what has been an implicit goal, which is to serve the city of Oakland with a year-round professional theater company. And, it is our hope that with this change in our name we will be able to position our organization for significant growth so that we can better serve our community and pay our artists and staff what they deserve in the years to come.”
We also want to be responsible. Despite many iterations of leadership over the years, since I serve as Executive Director and have been the constant since our founding, we are not a BIPOC led organization. And, it is necessary to be explicit about whom our leadership is.
However, we have and will continue to center BIPOC artists, staff, and advisors and seek to realize ubuntu – “I am because we are” and “my humanity is tied to yours” – as a core value at every level of our organization.”
As much as seeing the name of Ubuntu disappear is a bit of a bummer, a name which really fit the company well, the pull of grasping a theatre company for Oakland, reflected in its name, seemed hard to walk away from. A city like Oakland, with its rich history of arts and culture and a restaurant goers paradise, should certainly have more theatre spaces than it does. What won’t change is the quality of shows produced there, I’m certain.
Speaking of the East Bay…
Back in March, I made my way to Berkeley to do an in-person interview with Bay Area and Chicano icons Culture Clash for the Mercury News/East Bay Times. One of the quotes that I didn’t use in the story was about the time that Clash was able to spend with the neighboring production “School Girls; The African Mean Girls Play.” There was a lot of love about two plays featuring many BIPOC performers, and “School Girls” was just around the corner from their opening night. Culture Clash got through about half of their run of “(Still) in America,” whereas “School Girls” made it to an unscheduled taped rehearsal after being called in on a dark day. The show was recorded by a camera crew and then made available online for a fee. Berkeley’s shelter in place happened the day after that performance.
That’s where things got sticky.
Longtime Bay Area kickass theatre critic Nicole Gluckstern covered the story for KQED, which centered around four weeks of contracted compensation for performers, a dispute that included Berkeley Rep and Actors Equity Association. Most recently, San Francisco Chronicle’s theatre critic Lily Janiak took a deep dive into the story, expanding the examination into arrangements with American Conservatory Theater, a great piece which took her weeks to compile. Needless to say, all of the good feelings dissipated quickly as theatres all over the country shut down in a flash. Both pieces feature interesting insight about the business of theatre.
Speaking of Culture Clash…
Marga Gomez, an original member of Clash and a longtime Bay Area performer and comedian, has had one helluva year. Her 13th solo show “Spanking Machine” was one of the last shows I featured before things went away.
Gomez always offers up a great interview, someone I’ve been chatting with for years. We finally met in person last November in New York when she spoke at a Sardi’s celebrity luncheon. A few hours after hanging out among the iconic headshots, I got a chance to catch her show “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” at Ars Nova in Greenwich Village. The show was quite quirky and fun, and it was fantastic to see Gomez performing in New York, where she grew up.
While “Spanking Machine,” was shut down along with everything else, Gomez took all the anxiety and fear that came with losing plenty of gigs and channeled it into some serious Zoom moxie. Comedy breakfasts were happening on Sundays and started to get hopping. The popular series “Who’s Your Mami Comedy” has continued, recently featuring headliner Laurie Kilmartin, who shared compelling content on her Twitter feed while losing her mom to COVID-19.
And now Gomez is getting a big chunk of her machine back, just announcing that she will be performing a five-week run of “Spanking Machine” on Zoom, beginning Sept. 13th.
Speaking of Marga Gomez…
One of my favorite interviews I did shortly before the industry shut down was with playwright Diana Burbano. She is deeply insightful and a great Twitter follow who shares wonderful, passionate views on many things including social justice and theatre. A production of her critically acclaimed play “Ghosts of Bogota” ran at Alter Theatre in San Rafael this past February.
The best interviews are with those folks who can fill an hour and make it feel like ten minutes. Burbano is definitely one of those.
I first became aware of Burbano’s presence after a particularly tone deaf review of the 2019 production of “American Mariachi,” a play she performed in, written by the great José Cruz González, at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa (I have no desire to share that review here). Burbano, who grew up in San José, is debuting her new play “Sapience” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Latinx Play Festival on Sept. 4 – 6, heading up the Saturday at noon slot on Sept. 5. Joining her at the same festival on the same day will be Gomez, who will perform “Spanking Machine” at 6 pm. While digital theatre can’t replace a live play with a live audience, the nice things is that anyone can get to San Diego for the weekend. Just take a left at the bathroom and a right at the kitchen and you’re there.
Lots of great new Latinx work is happening all weekend.
Speaking of digital theatre…
Bay Area theatre maker Jeffrey Lo never has a problem getting a bunch of people together to make theatre and invent new ways to produce content. Along with fellow South Bay artist Tasi Alabastro, they put together a collection of Zoom plays on gaming and entertainment site Twitch for Lo’s birthday that doubled as a fundraiser to help out the bottom lines of some Bay Area theatre companies.
That wasn’t big enough for Lo and Alabastro, so now they have a company that will produce Zoom plays monthly. The company is entitled “Our Digital Stories,” and the second volume of the show takes place this Friday, 8/28 at 7 pm. As is the case with pretty much everything that Lo and friends produce, the show is raising funds, this time for the Lebanese Food Bank, a non-profit that supports the hunger fight in Lebanon.
Random stuff as we begin to wrap up the thread…
- Looking for some cool local content? So much online, but I get consistent notifications for “The Marsh Stream,” the San Francisco/Berkeley company that specializes in solo works. They are doing the most, unleashing a torrent of content at all times.
- Broadway SF pushed back the restart of its season to July of 2021, which feels about right. If all goes according to plan, they will kick off the season with the Tony Award winning revival of “Oklahoma!” I cannot recommend this show enough, no matter how polarizing it was. Truly one of the greatest theatrical experiences I’ve had in New York, with an amazing rearrangement of its iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein score. And if we all show up to that show, it will have been 16 months since we last something there. Dang.
- Artistic director Tim Bond will have a debut show at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, but wow this stuff is taking an awful long time!
- A couple of things to share – despite COVID-19 killing my debut piece for American Theatre Magazine, another story will go live around mid-September. The piece is an interview with one of my all time favorites, Lily Tung Crystal, who is the artistic director at Theater Mu in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Tung Crystal went into a tough situation at the onset, continues to steward the company through COVID-19 and led the transition of Mu from performance space to Black Lives Matter ally. A truly fascinating conversation with a terrific theatre maker.
- As Vice-Chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and Co-chair of the organizations Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, I will be hosting a panel on Zoom on Sept. 16 at 4:30 PST, entitled “Filipino Theatre in the United States – the Movement and its Makers.” Panelists include the aforementioned Lo and Piamonte, as well as actor Jomar Tagatac and New York/Bay Area stage director Victor Malana Maog. You can register to attend the session here.
Stay safe and wear your damn mask!!! 🙂
Have something cool going on that needs some amplification? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on Twitter. I’m trying to do a monthly “empty out the press releases” column, so reach out with your item for consideration.