There are those for which the term multi-hyphenate does not even begin to tell the whole story.
Nicole Gluckstern is firmly entrenched in this camp.
Name a job in theatre and she has done it, doing it, will do it. House manager, director, playwright, fundraiser, lighting designer – and that’s just for starters. Her commitment to artistry comes from her ravenous desire to tell stories of all shapes and sizes. Whether those stories come in the form of theatre reviews for various publications, or digging into her latest venture as a founding member of Substrate Arts Magazine, Gluckstern loves to spin a yarn.
She is now diving back into some of the norms of pandemic artistic life, presenting her radio play through her production company, Estrella Suerte. “The Forever Wave” will broadcast on multiple Bay Area radio stations throughout the month of March. While the pandemic forced artists into individualized content and away from communal gatherings, her desire to continue making personal stories within new, post-pandemic norms is something Gluckstern finds highly interesting.
In anticipation of this very unique world premiere, a cautionary tale that sets San Francisco in an underwater world in 2070, Gluckstern sat down to chat about why she would love to see this artistry continue to thrive, how her years-long engagement in the underground arts scene informs so much of what she does, and how her commitment to San Francisco led to her writing and directing of this radio play.
The following has been edited for length and clarity:
David John Chávez: You are someone that does a lot of chronicling of San Francisco and what makes it special, but it might be a San Francisco that isn’t recognizable to those who are not invested in the city past its earning potential. For all the challenges that the City faces today and in the future, what still makes it a special place?
Nicole Gluckstern: The mascot or “civic symbol” of San Francisco has been the phoenix since the mid 19thcentury. And to me the phoenix is very emblematic of the cycles of reinvention and renewal that have occurred here over the centuries, but also of the inherently destructive nature of those same cycles. In any rebuild there is also loss.
I think one thing that makes San Francisco special are the many generations of folks who all hold onto a part of “their” San Francisco no matter what else is happening around them. So in every cycle of rebuild there are still people keeping true to their vision of San Francisco and keeping these visions alive and part of the fabric of the City even if newcomers might not see them or recognize their importance.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to be a part of, or be a witness to, many diverse and divergent threads of underground subcultures and “scenes” and anti-scenes over the 20+ years I’ve lived here. So I know firsthand what some of the biggest losses have been (particularly in the arts) but beneath it all, there have been wonderful successes too. I look around at the emerging and young artists of the now and I do feel that they’re every bit as exciting and innovative and worthy of attention as their elders and predecessors. I think it’s possible to hold onto and respect the things that make San Francisco special to San Franciscans who have been holding on for generations, but to also not dismiss the younger folks or newcomers, many of whom are under tremendous pressure, and yet are able and willing to create with verve and panache and surprise. I do mourn the things I have loved that are no longer part of the fabric of SF. But I want to also stay open to falling in love with some of these new threads weaving themselves into it.
While lots of theatres have moved back into in-person programming, you are taking advantage of some real benefits of pandemic artistry, which is the convenience of taking in content personally. In this case, we are speaking about a radio play. What excites you about this?
I absolutely wanted to challenge myself with creating and distributing this piece fully remotely. I know many folks would just as soon “move on” from the pandemic but of course COVID is still with us. I’m not willing to completely ignore the innovations and lessons we have learned during the pandemic as regards to creating work safely and making it accessible safely as well. I’m pretty proud of wrangling a cast of twelve, three audio/sound folks, and two local bands, without ever being in the same room with any of them. That would simply not be possible with an in-person production unless I had a whole production team, and institutional funding—which I do not. And I don’t think I’m ready to feel responsible for someone’s COVID status, on the production side or on the audience side.
This also means I’m excited to be able to share this work with remote audiences all across the Bay Area (and really across the nation since this will also stream online). For me it’s a win to be able to have an audience in a neighborhood where maybe there is not even a theatre space. But I can still bring theatre to it over the radio. How awesome is that?
There was a time when we believed a lot of thoughts about the future demise of our planet was fantasy, but we have gotten closer to fact as the years have gone on. What can we learn about our roles and responsibilities going forward through this work?
Something I really wanted to do was create a possible future where yes, climate change has taken a huge toll, and much of what we think of when we think of San Francisco has been destroyed, but the survivors are not living in a horrible dystopian nightmare. They are making the best of their situations. They are adapting. They are collaborating. This is a world of anarchy—not a violent chaotic anarchy, but the anarchy of a people who are learning to survive and thrive through mutual aid, systems of cooperation, resilience, and joy. I think these are all traits that will serve us in whatever possible future we might emerge into.
Reading the script, the research seems exhaustive. There are so many names and situations that are dramatized. How much fun was it to do all this research and apply it to your dramatization?
The hardest part for me was that I had to really pick and choose at a certain point in the process. The original script I think had almost 90 characters, this play clocks in at a modest 68, so we’re doing good there. But dramaturgically, to find ways to connect characters through landscape and geography, the actor playing them, the original play and the historical record. I loved getting very granular with these choices and I think anyone with even a passing knowledge of San Francisco history past and present will find some fun Easter eggs in this speculative future.
Something that stands out about the play is the richness of the characters, and lots of touchstones from the various locales. You also assembled a terrific, diverse cast of some of the top Bay Area performers. What was it like for you to apply your words to this level of talent?
That’s so nice of you to say. I feel really fortunate to have been able to work with such and amazing group of humans. Every single one of these performers is someone I’ve either always wanted to work with or wanted to work with again, and it’s so amazing to me that I was able to get everyone into the same (virtual) recording room to do this with them. Having this stellar cast really did help shape the work. We had a development reading together in the summer of 2022, and everyone was very generous with their time and their notes. So the final draft of the work was really shaped around these specific voices in the room as well as echoing the many voices of the original play, Under Milk Wood. It was a true gift to the work to have them in it.
“The Forever Wave” opens March 4 and runs through March 28. For the full schedule, click here.