Category Archives: Theatre

Outsider moves

FreshMeat_Outsider Moves_Cinderbutte
Sean Dorsey and Mair Culbreth in “The OutsiderChronicles.” Photo: Max Ferman.

When a dance production comes along that involves beauty and imagination to the nth degree, and I’m lucky enough to be there to witness it, I feel incalculably grateful. In the midst of fractured times, for a choreographer/dancer to pull together a full-length evening of flawless dance and story telling is immeasurably wonderful and healing. The boundlessly gifted Sean Dorsey and his Fresh Meat crew performed perfectly this past Friday, November 18, at that jewel of a dance space, ODC Theater, and when it was over, a packed house gave the dancers, musicians and tech crew a much deserved, prolonged standing ovation. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was smitten.

“The Outsider Chronicles”, billed as “a dance theater journey into the world of the gender outsider,” stripped off layers of confusion surrounding the transgender experience, baring a simple, spare, sublime representation of otherness, while retaining that certain mysteriousness that makes transgendered people so alluring. Five dances encompassed a lifetime of experience, mostly told in duets with super handsome Sean and exquisitely beautiful Mair Culbreth, or by Sean solo. In the opening piece “Second Kiss,” Sean and Mair represented two school girls, nine year olds, exploring romance and reeling from confusion. Mair was the cute, pushy girly girl who wanted her first taste of boy lips. She looked over her options, and mistaking Sean for a boy, chose him. Sean, realizing he’d be taking part in a deception, dragged Mair away from his playmates, who knew his true gender, to indulge in the desire he and Mair both shared, albeit with different levels of awareness. They kissed, just once, and rolled around, and found their limbs entwined, then they were lying side by side, breathless. Her passion aroused, Mair then wanted to have a look “down there,” and Sean knew the gig was up. “Oh gross!” reeled Mair, confronted with the evidence. She fled, but soon edged back, taking Sean’s hand. There would be no second kiss. The first kiss, however, was unforgettable.

By the second dance, Sean was all man, androgynous to be sure, but male without a doubt. There was no question he had transitioned. “Red Tie, Red Lipstick” opened with him dressing at a sink, fixing his pressed, starched white shirt and dark suit jacket, arranging his red tie, as Mair, the seductive woman in a red dress, circled slowly around him, dancing to sophisticated electronic lounge music, closing in on her man, the two of them preparing to embark on a night on the town. In a voice-over by hip hop poet/writer Marcus Van, we heard of the couple’s brutal queer-bashing by thugs posing as cops. It was a gritty, gut-wrenching urban tale. The faux-cops spat out the word lesbian as a slur, and dragged the one with the red dress and red lipstick into the shadows. Sean and Mair, danced exquisitely, reflecting all the punches and insults, even as the red dress became irreparably soiled. The dance continued after the physical violence was over, but clearly the saga of the red dress would always be with them.

The other dances were equally affecting, “Six Hours” involved a road trip by car to meet Sean’s dad, who didn’t know Sean now identifies as a man. Mair and Sean in the car bickered endlessly, employing passive aggression and other tricks to work out some of their relationship kinks. In “Creative,” Sean solo danced a hilarious piece about a teenager in school sent to a Guidance Counselor to discuss gender inappropriateness. That piece was about courage, how a teenager wants it and needs it, and how it can fail at crucial times.

Anything Goes: The State of Performance Art

The two-dozen or so artists and members of the audience that gathered one night last weekend at 455 10th Street, a performance gallery south of Market, were young and very hip. They were all pretty much insiders in the avant-garde art scene in San Francisco, and though they were expecting to be entertained and entertaining, they were not expecting the evening’s events to be either polished or particularly innovative. The fact that there were glimmers of outstanding artistic achievement was probably more than anyone had hoped for.

Michael_Brown_Performance_Art

When I entered the gallery, a shabby, converted warehouse, I immediately saw that the far end of the space was bathed in projections of typewritten words — big, bold, black-and-white lettering cast onto three walls, the floor, the ceiling, and all the stage props.

Interesting, I thought; it had the same dramatic impact as enlarged headlines in scandal sheets. The words leaped out, unintelligible but insistent. The projection spoke plainly: it was “art” large enough to fill an entire space with a minimum of investment in materials, time or imagination. It was functional and put me in the appropriate frame of mind: weirdness.

I seated myself in one of the plastic chairs angled toward the back corner of the gallery and waited to see what would take place. A quartet of musicians in another corner, arranged in a circle so that the backs of some of them were toward the audience, separating us from them, was playing a crudely enchanting music, seemingly spontaneous.  They played recorder, violin, mandolin and drum. It was an oddly primitive music, contributing to the atmosphere of ritual that filled the gallery, as if some ancient rite were taking place.

At center stage a sheet was draped over a square metal frame, perhaps a clothes rack. The projections cast over the walls also partially obscured the sheet, making it blend in with its background, camouflaged. At an apparently predetermined point in the playing of the music, a hand from under the sheet reached out and pulled the sheet down.

Ropes inside the frame suspended a man’s slender, naked body. The ropes looped around his side so that he faced the audience frontally, his feet pointing to the bottom angle of the frame, his head pointed diagonally to the top. His nakedness was obscured by projections onto his white-powdered body.

The projections were of clothes and abstract images. So perfectly placed was his body in relation to the projector that the images of clothes, ever changing, perfectly matched his form, neatly dressing him. Then there were bizarre projections, full of wild colors and unidentifiable images that sometimes made his body look ghastly, as though it were a corpse brought out of a terrible battle in the midst of war.

_______________

The gallery presented a potpourri of individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

_______________

The people responsible for this captivating scene — m.c. schmidt, Wayne Niethold, and Michael Brown — originally devised the concept in New York for the Palladium. It was created, they said, to honor an acquaintance’s death.

“Performance art is just about anything you want it to be,” says Michael Brown, organizer of the events at 455 10th St.  Better known in the city as one of the infectiously good-humored workers at Café Flore, Mike is an installation artist whose vision and energy regularly brings together the works of various artists at the gallery, many of them, like him, recent graduates of Humboldt State College in Arcata, California.

The artists assembled a potpourri of installation, video, film, live music and performance art, individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

One piece followed another in the course of the evening. The live music ended, and recorded, synthesized music took over, vibrating in deep, eerie, quadraphonic sound, a collection of found sounds and instrumental music with an overall ominous feel.

This was particularly true when the suspended nude climbed down out of his ropes, to be replaced on stage by four video screens pulsing eerily in the darkness with a taped segment entitled “Mechanical Spectacle.”

Created by Bill Smartt, Mykill Misrok, and Mark Misrok, it consisted of a mechanical farm, with mechanical chickens, ducks, farmers, cows, tractors and other such things, all in their proper settings of farmhouses, barns, and corrals, As the camera panned around and through the set, the pieces moved mechanically, as though they were magnetic and a magnet were being run underneath them. This movement was accompanied by strange electronic sounds, including echoes, claps, sticks clacking, and a farmer’s voice singing, in Hillbilly accent, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bail of hay.” It was a freakish and unsettling combination of sight and sound, nightmarish in effect.

This was followed, in startling contrast, by an outrageously funny act performed by Bill Smartt sitting at a desk, his face the center of a giant sunflower. In a Southern woman’s accent, he portrayed Kimberly, the receptionist for Temp Force, the temporary personnel agency.

“Thank you for calling,” she’d answer the telephone, her voice singsong, and then proceed to humiliate, degrade, and condescend to caller after caller seeking employment. The skit was done with great wit and devastating accuracy, even if the sunflower bonnet was something of a funny flop.

The most powerful piece of the evening, however, was Michael Brown’s own video presentation documenting the destruction of the old Falstaff brewery. It began with Mike engaging in a physical demonstration, a sort of rite in which he slowly and painstakingly moved a giant I-beam from the back of the warehouse onto center stage by rolling it on sticks.

At the same time, images of a crumbled building were projected onto one wall, first in black-and-white, then in color. My first thought was that it was the bombed-out embassy in Beirut, but then other images started appearing on video screens on other walls and I recognized the brewery.

The quadraphonic sound system was emitting magnified noises of traffic and jackhammers and the deep, echoing voice of a woman speaking in German. What was being said was never made clear, but the voice gave a documentary-like quality to the images, as though a member of the underground in World War II Germany was narrating an account of the atrocities she had witnessed.

Michael Brown and his colleagues at 455 10th St. did a remarkable job of providing fresh and interesting entertainment to a sophisticated, if not too critical, audience. Their ideas are as representative of the trends in performance art as anything else. Which is to say, in performance art, anything goes.

 

This article appeared in print in the San Francisco Sentinel, April 3, 1987.

Burroughs for opera lovers: Erling Wold’s ‘Queer’

Reviewed by Mark Mardon.

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A scene from Erling Wold’s “Queer” chamber opera.

Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.

Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.

Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.

Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.

Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.

Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.

Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.

Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.

Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.

Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.

 

Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.

What makes Heklina tick? Trannyshack!

The founding diva of Trannyshack expounds on art and life.

Heklina&Crackers
Trannyshack founder and hostess Heklina
(nee Stefan Grygelko).

One sunny afternoon in the Tenderloin, Heklina gives me a walk-through tour of her teeny-tiny apartment, starting with a survey of the art on the walls:

“This is a piece by Sam Russell,” clucks the mother hen of Trannyshack, pointing to the first painting. “He helped me paint my apartment, and he gave this to me, and it hangs over my couch and I like it a lot. I don’t really know what it means. It’s kind of religious. To me it seems like an angel in the clouds.”

Moving on we come to some Walter Keene prints from the ’60s, little doll-like kids with big eyes on faded paper, which look due for an “Antiques Roadshow” assessment, and then a very early original Scooter painting from 1995. Scooter, the hip, hunky, queer Tenderloin painter/rapper/model-escort, has scooted on to New York, where he’s blazing his bold paths with his art and sex appeal.

Most jarring, in a psychic sense, is a self portrait as clown by John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, called “Patches the Clown.”

“I think it’s super creepy,” Heklina shivers. “I got it from Chocolate, who bought it at an auction of John Wayne Gacy’s artwork in Indianapolis right before he was executed.”

There’s a pillowy sculptural piece on the wall by Portia 666, one of Heklina’s favorite drag artists, who in fact did her all-time-favorite drag number at Trannyshack. It was back in the club’s “early days” – Trannyshack at seven is still going strong, belying virtually everyone’s expectations, including Heklina’s – and Portia 666 did a number to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” She dressed up as a unicorn and danced inside a huge Snow Globe made of plastic, bathed in snow-white light, tossing confetti around like snow.

After a peek inside Heklina’s surprisingly small drag closet, packed with dresses, wigs and other apparel, all neatly organized, we repair to the cozy kitchen table to talk, and the first thing she does is light up a cigarette, which she declares is the only vice she has left, along with caffeine, having dumped several others along the way.

I use the name Heklina, but of course that’s a nom de drag. Take away the drag façade, and the name no longer quite fits. Before me sits a gently unassuming guy, Stefan Grygelko, soft-spoken and oddly plain in appearance and style, who you can tell has lived awhile in the fast lane, finally to recover his bearings. The name is Polish, but Grygelko says he moved here from Reykjavik in 1991: “My mother is Islandic, so I have spent a lot of my life moving back and forth between the States and Iceland, and that’s where I was before, just living in Reykjavik and working at the art institute as a nude model and just partying.”

Grygelko was raised in the States, in Minnesota, New York state and Boston, and he’d already done a partying stint in California, in San Diego, where he spent a few years hanging out with punk rockers, transvestites and street people, surviving precariously: “I was 18, 19, 20, living on the streets, doing lots of drugs. I was pretty outlandish, pretty out there.”

Back in Iceland, Grygelko kicked the drug habit but continued to drink a lot: “It’s a very intellectual town; everybody’s really smart, so there’s a lot of art going on. But as far a the gay scene, there isn’t much of one, which is why I’d go to Europe a lot. I was kind of bored with Iceland, and never felt like I fit in with the culture there, because I was mostly American.”

He had no desire to go to California again, but changed his mind after a girlfriend came back from visiting San Francisco, raving about how great it was and insisting they move there: “So I married her – she was a lesbian – so she could get a green card, and we moved here together in ’91.”

Grygelko was immediately taken with the city’s queer arts subculture and fell in with the whole performing crowd, including the now legendary Diet Popstitute, Klubstitute and all those fun freaks. He hooked up with director/writer Tony Vaguely’s Sick and Twisted Players and felt right at home.

Grygelko “met everybody right away,” he says, “because I was dating Jason Mecier, who was half of Enrique, the performance band, and I was living in a house full of radical faeries, with Steve and Maxine and Portia Manson and Lucille and Racine. They had a big house out on 9th Ave. in the Sunset. I was just very taken with it all.”

Alas, Grygelko was not yet a performer, and at first managed to overcome stage fright by getting thoroughly drunk: “One time I did a Sick and Twisted show in a blackout. I don’t remember doing it. But that’s how it was back then, and it wasn’t too important to be sober. Now I can’t imagine doing a show fucked up.”

It was in this era that Grygelko began to dabble in drag, when he met comedian/drag artist Pippi Lovestocking (Scott Free), and when he got a job at the Stud in 1995, first working security and coat check, then bartending. Heklina and Trannyshack were born when Grygelko and Pippi persuaded the Stud’s co-owners, Michael McElheny and Fiesta, to let them do a series of benefits for Project Open Hand, called “Singing for Supper.” They would rent a karaoke machine, drag it into the Stud, and invite their friends to come and sing. Eventually it became a weekly Tuesday-night club, and they dispensed with the karaoke and made it a lip-synch/performance club for the punk/queer generation.

“I called it Trannyshack,” says Grygelko, “based on where Pippi was living at the time, with Chocolate, Ruby Tuesday and Bambi Lake under one roof, and whenever I would go over there I would say, oh, I’m going over to the tranny shack.”

Heklina&men
Heklina in her element at Trannyshack.

At the very first Trannyshacks, the performance line-up consisted of just Heklina, Pippi and DJ Robbie D, and maybe a couple other people. They charged only a dollar to get in. The club didn’t take off right away, and Grygelko says “Pippi kind of got bored with doing it with me, and when she left as my hostess and my sidekick, I just decided it would be fun to book different hosts each week, and to have different themes every week. And that really kind of clicked.”

For whatever reason, performers started clamoring to appear. Some carried the cachet of rock stars, including Darlin’, the Steve Lady, Peaches Christ, Portia 666, Juanita MORE!, Vinsantos, Blue Period glam rocker Adrian Roberts, real woman drag diva Trixxie Carr, and many more. As the talent blossomed, the cover charges started going up. Young, smart, sexy audiences went crazy over the punk/anarchic scene, a refreshing break from the dried-up, old-school drag of yore. At Trannyshack, irreverence reigned, and party people came in droves. Had the club been on a Friday or Saturday night, says Grygelko, “it would have died a long time ago, because it would have been so overrun with bridge-and-tunnel horrible people, you know what I mean?”

Running Trannyshack as a tight ship has forced Heklina to clean up her own act. People think Trannyshack is loud, rude and obnoxious, and they’re right, says Grygelko, but “the way it’s evolved, it’s very organized now. I don’t drink or get fucked up so I’m very controlling of how it runs, and everybody around me is kind of getting fucked up and drinking, and sometimes it feels like I’m in charge of the asylum.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, November 21, 2002

 

Whither Goeth the Rhino?

Doug Holsclaw talks of Theatre Rhinoceros

Doug_Holsclaw
Doug Holsclaw

On the map of gay San Francisco, Theatre Rhinoceros is a sacred community space. Five times a year in the old Redstone Building it calls home, the company mounts main-stage productions – with more shows in the downstairs Studio – and the faithful come to witness. At these times, the grizzled old gal radiates gay splendor.

For nearly 25 years, cutting-edge queer theater has found a home at Theatre Rhinoceros, beginning in times of heady optimism and fervent activism of the gay lib era, brazening through the dark years of the plague, lit by a spirit of defiance, and finally emerging again into the light of new hope. Or would that be the twilight of old hope?

This is the question of the moment as I meet with Theatre Rhinoceros Artistic Director Doug Holsclaw one recent afternoon at his Rhino turf in the Mission. We sit facing one another downstairs in the emptiness and shadows of the Studio, his chair perched on low stage platform, higher than mine, the difference in our heights emphasizing his regal nellyness. It’s just he and I, a microphone and digital device recording his every lisp, and a file-folder’s worth of images I’ve brought along, culled from a newspaper archive, documenting the many years of Theatre Rhinoceros productions. To get to the future, we’ll need to review the past.

“I don’t want to be an isolationist or separatist,” Holsclaw declares at the outset,” but I do think there is something to having our own home,” a place where queer stage artists can be themselves. He adds: “I feel like we’re not about straight approval.”

In his breathless, breathtaking way, Holsclaw justifies his theater’s existence: “If Theatre Rhinoceros didn’t exist, Barebacking wouldn’t have existed.” He adds an extra oomph: “I feel real strongly about that.”

John Fisher’s Barebacking, Holsclaw declares, “was a big production with great productions values and really controversial subject matter. Nobody else touched this show.” He beams with the pride of a proud parent, mother and father mixed in one.

He lives and breathes theater, you can tell, and the more in-your-face queer the play, the more he seems to like it: “I must say I don’t think we get a lot of credit for being as adventurous as we are.”

There’s a devilishness in him. He loves controversy. He also loves to tout the sheer variety of Rhino presentations: “We are not a theater that does just one thing,” he harrumphs, responding to invisible or imagined critics. “We just did Noel Coward, now we’re doing a women’s prison comedy, then we’re doing a gay version of Of Mice and Men. This is following Marga Gomez’s Twelve Days of Cochina, and Serina Queen of the Tango, about a drag queen tango dancer.” The last, he shakes his head, met with an unlucky fate, despite Matthew Martin delivering “the best performance he ever gave.” Alas, the play opened on September 9, 2001. It’s life was cut short by the bombing. The audience stayed home – a pity, he sighs, “because it was just wonderful!”

Doug_Holsclaw_1Continuing through the photos, Holsclaw comes upon yet another image of sexy guys baring all that counts to the Rhino audience: “This was a hot little comedy we did in the Studio,” he remarks of Out Calls Only. “When the first nudie boys shows started coming around, I said: ‘Let’s beat them at their own game. Let’s write something that’s really sexy, where sex isn’t the punch line. . . . It wasn’t like, oh, Naked Boys Singing: ‘Isn’t it funny when we wiggle our dicks?'”

Speaking of dicks brings him to Ronnie Larson, infamous director of 10 Naked Men and other controversies: “Ronnie Larson, you know, is a nut!” laughs Holsclaw, “but he’s talented, I’ve got to give it to him. I always say I’ll never work with him again, and I always do. He’s coming back next year.”

Holsclaw remains gently miffed at Larson for a nasty trick he pulled in the production of Girl Meets Girl: “He lied to me and told me it was [by] a woman playwright! It was really Ronnie using an assumed name. I took all sorts of heat. People wrote vicious things about me in the press, and I honestly got tricked!”

He recalls another play that caused a ruckus, and seems to revel in the memory, looking at the photographs: “This was Shopping & Fucking, which was one of my favorite productions ever. It caused all sorts of problems. We got hate mail. A major funder withdrew funding because the show was offensive to straight people. They said [the play presented] a very dark view of humanity.” Holsclaw sighs deeply, then replies: “Now, you step over people to come to this theater. Then you come inside and we’re supposed to be at a beach house at fire island? You know what I mean? Shouldn’t theater reflect the experience of the world?”

 

A dream come true

This place, this project, this dream called Theatre Rhinoceros, has been Holsclaw’s life and career and home for almost 20 years, almost since the time he moved to San Francisco from New York, in 1983. He never intended to become Artistic Director of a gay theater company, nor aimed for precisely the heights he’s achieved in the role, or the gravitas he carries with grace but can’t escape: “I never aspired to this, but now I’m the organizational history and memory of Theater Rhinoceros, because so many of my colleagues and dear friends before me are no longer here.”

It’s an awesome responsibility. If you want to do queer theater in San Francisco, you have a few choices: go the low-budget, anarchist/independent route, either in rental spaces or through workshopping at the Jon Sims Center and elsewhere; or plead with mainstream theaters to produce your gay-themed piece (thus currying the queer community’s gratitude); or turn to New Conservatory Theater Center or Theatre Rhinoceros, the two main homes plays and spectacles by, for and about queers.

“We recently started using Equity actors,” proclaims Holsclaw with pride. Rhino, he says, is “the first gay theater in the country to have a seasonal agreement with Equity. We pay our actors $125 a week.”

The amount is absurdly low, a mere token, and Holsclaw knows it: “Economics in the Bay Area have made it hard for young artists to live here because rents are so high. Young people are going to Portland and Seattle, not San Francisco, except the more professional ones. I don’t sense a rising class of younger artists in the volume there was when I started, because it’s a tough city to live in.”

Holsclaw describes finances at Theatre Rhinoceros as touch-and-go, but declares that thanks to his small, hard-working staff, and careful allocation of new grants, “At Rhino, you see the money on the stage.”

Just after he says this, Holsclaw drops the big news: “We’ve been in the planning process for our relocation; we’re in the process of negotiating an option to buy on a new building.”

The specific building Holsclaw has in mind for Theatre Rhinoceros is the old City Athletic Club smack dab in the center of the Castro. “If the homeless shelter moves out, it might become available,” Holsclaw says. “The location is beautiful. The idea of having a performing arts facility in the Castro would be a great thing for the community.”

Holsclaw feels the Castro location, for which they’ve already don an architectural feasibility study, would make GLBT theater accessible to a larger segment of the population: “What I hear from our audience is that while some people love the Mission District, some people don’t feel safe coming here. And people should feel safe coming to the theater. Once inside the theater, there should be an element of danger, because you don’t know what you’re going to see on stage.”

As for himself, says Holsclaw at interview’s end, “I’m not sure what the future holds, but in the next couple of years I would like to transition out of being to dog, and that will mean groom and coaching somebody.

Is anybody waiting in the wings?

“Well, that’s a top secret,” he winks, “just like my Boo Boo Bear.”

. . . . .

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

Tripping over Tricia: The Cockettes on film

San Francisco filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber restore the long-lost Cockettes film  Tricia’s Wedding.   

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Preserving cultural trivia is no easy task. Much of the fluff of life disappears without a whimper, gone before anyone notices. By the time anyone realizes a thing’s importance, it may be too late to salvage. Fortunately, the world has documentary film makers such as David Weissman and Bill Weber, two San Franciscans feverishly dedicated to preserving the legacy The Cockettes, one of the more outrageous queer hippie performance collectives of the 1970s.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

In the course of assembling their documentary, Weissman and Weber salvaged a precious piece of trivia, a campy film produced by The Cockettes, called Tricia’s Wedding, long lost and mostly forgotten, but now restored, thanks to their efforts. Scenes from that film will show up in their documentary when they complete it (in roughly a year). Meanwhile, the story of Tricia’s Wedding and its restoration deserves telling, because it says a lot about how queer culture has evolved, and what it takes to ensure that a colorful part of the past remains accessible to us at present.

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Wedding day 1971: Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon, Tricia Nixon and Edward Finch Cox.

It was 1971, and Tricia Nixon, the President’s daughter, was about to wed beneath the klieg lights of the national press corps. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, a gaggle of wild drag performers calling themselves The Cockettes decided they wanted to celebrate the joyous occasion in their inimitable way. The manager of the flock, a fellow named Sebastian, proposed they film their own version of the wedding. They would screen it on wedding night at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where they had been holding regular Friday night “Nocturnal Dream Shows,” at which gender-bent hippies gathered to take acid, watch offbeat movies, display their feathered finery, and camp it up until dawn.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It took two days to make the movie,” says Weissman, who works out of an office in the South of Market space occupied by Frameline, the organization dedicated to promoting queer cinema. “It was made at a place called Secret Cinema on 16th Street. This was Steven Arnold’s warehouse. They put together the sets overnight, and filmed the sort-of-sober parts on Saturday, with the understanding from Sebastian that Sunday was the day they would all go completely berserk and have the post-LSD reception. There was a certain amount of consumption of substances during filming.”

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Reggie spikes the punch in a scene
from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

As Weissman describes it, the film Tricia’s Wedding is “basically is a psychedelic drag parody.” Among its huge cast of characters – all portrayed by wacky transvestites – were many of the notable political and cultural figures of the time: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; Lady Bird Johnson; Vice President Spiro Agnew; India’s Indira Gandhi; Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general; and Mamie Eisenhower, the former president’s wife. The recently widowed Coretta Scott King was portrayed by Sylvester, whose rise to fame as a disco diva was just beginning. A Cockette named Reggie played the key role of Eartha Kitt, who spikes the wedding punch with LSD in revenge for having been blackballed from the White House, the result of criticizing the Vietnam War during an intimate performance for Lady Bird Johnson, which had caused Lady Bird to cry.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It wound up being a huge, wild orgy at the end of the show,” says Weissman, describing the film’s wedding-reception scene. “Wigs and clothes come off and people flip out and have a lot of fun. Mamie Eisenhower, who was the mother of our country, has a wonderful drunken performance.” And Tricia Nixon herself was played by “the eternally hideous Goldie Glitters.” That she was marrying a man named Cox was ripe for Cockettes parody.

Weissman recalls first viewing the half-hour-long Tricia’s Wedding when he was about 20 years old, a few years after it was made: “I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but it changed my life. It really brought home to me the subversive power of comedy and particularly of drag. It was a really entertaining assault on all the norms of bourgeois American culture. It was just one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.”

For years, Weissman has wanted Tricia’s Wedding to be shown publicly by Frameline or some other group, “because I knew it was a piece of gay history.” Yet one big stumbling block prevented this: the only print anyone in existence was in the hands of Sebastian, and it was in very bad condition.

“Every time it would play,” says Weissman, “it would catch at a particular point and burn in the projector, and everyone in the audience would scream and yell.”

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Weissman knew that Sebastian, who now lives in Los Angeles, had made a video copy of it, but it was made from the one bad print, so he worried Tricia’s Wedding would be lost once this print finally shredded. But making a fresh print proved highly problematical since neither Sebastian nor Mark Lester, the film’s producer, had any idea what happened to the original materials. They assumed everything had been lost.

Undeterred, Weissman looked up the film’s cinematographer, Paul Aratow, figuring he might know which laboratory the film was done in. Through an Internet search, he found Aratow in Los Angeles, and asked him “Did you shoot Tricia’s Wedding? He laughed and said: ‘Oh my god, I haven’t thought of that in 25 years!'”

Aratow said he thought the film had been processed at a lab on Columbus Street, Monaco, which still exists. Weissman called there and asked: “What are the chances of finding a piece of film from 29 years ago in your vaults?”

The person he spoke with knew the film, but said it had been processed at Palmer’s, which had long since closed down. The inventory from Palmer’s, he later learned, had been picked up by Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and by an archive in New York City.

It was at the latter that Tricia’s Wedding turned up.

“They had no idea what it was,” says Weissman. “They had the original sound track, and the original negatives.”

Once Sebastian authorized the release of the materials to Weissman and Weber, the two were quick to turn it around: “We just now completed making a brand new, absolutely perfect print and preservation negative of Tricia’s Wedding to save for posterity,” says Weissman.

And in this way, yet another chapter of queer history gets beefed up.

For information about Tricia’s Wedding and the making of The Cockettes documentary, contact David Weissman at GranDelusion Production, 346 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone (415) 703-8661.

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

 

Circo Zero’s astonishing ‘Sol Niger’

CircoZeroIt was a total eclipse of the heart, just as choreographer/circus master Keith Hennessy sang during a raucous number on opening night in San Francisco of Circo Zero’s “Sol Niger”.

A seemingly moonlit stage at the venerable alternative art space Theatre Artaud served well to showcase a troupe of five performers and the lighting designs of Max, a true master of projections, illuminating a combination of dazzling aerial acrobatics and sophisticated modern dance played out to a wild, original, funky piano/percussion/electronic loop symphony created by a lone, lean, muscular, long-haired musician with a dynamic flair.

Circus master Keith Hennessy has created a masterpiece with “Sol Negro,” his latest in a long line of increasingly sophisticated circus productions. This time he pulled off a total winner, a blend of physical daring on the ropes, modern dance, balancing on a ball, mime, visual projections, and manic piano playing.

Sean Feit, the dazzing pianist, took the keyboard to a whole new level of brilliant if seemingly demented playing, the instruments hammers exposed for extra effect. His playing was muscular, and with his shirt off, it was his rippling back that as much as anything grabbed our attention as he pounded the keys, seemingly intent on destroying the instrument. I half expcted it to fall apart under the onslaught, but all that intense energy, and Feit’s more subtle sound effects tricks, transferred to the other artists, who responded with astonishing artistry.

Aerialists Emily Leap and Brett Womack, dangling from ropes, captured our hearts and made us catch our breaths with their high-level risk taking. Leap, in her most breathtaking segment, dropped precipitously and flailed around on the ropes like a demented rag doll. We watched her fling herself about above the floor as Hennessy belayed her, and it seemed impossible she didn’t fall but in fact she was precise in every move, a masterful aerialist.

Brett Womack captured our hearts with his breathtaking beauty and imposibly perfect, seemingly effortless athleticism and grace. Of all the aerial artists I’ve seen, from Ringling Brothers to Cirque du Soleil, he is absolutely the finest, most flawless. He perched on the ropes like a cheetah stretching out on a branch, pouncing abruptly to startle us. He climbed up the ropes with the effortlessness of a monkey, then would fly down them and swing around with the surety and strength of a mountaineer.

Meanwhile Seth Eisen played the clown, a mime in bizarre drag, always lurking about in the background, ironing dolls, making faces, his white-face a Marcel Marceau mask, his arms akimbo, his expressions a commentary on the politics of the piece. And politics is precisely what pulled the whole production together and made it cohere. As always Hennessy had a point to make, and he made it well with monologues and singing, referring to the insanity of our war-for-profit, oil-drenched world, the insanity of it all. The beauty of the aerialists, the complexity and intrigue of the music soundscape, the dour antics of the disturbed clown, and the circus master control and command of Hennessy all combined to make a statement of what it means to be living in a world gone awry. Amidst the insanity, there is humanity, a realm of wonder worth inhabiting.

Circo Zero’s “Sol Nigher” plays through September 29 at Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida St. @ 17th St. in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 (and well worth it!). Shows are at 8pm. Tix: www.brownpapertickets.com, or 800-838-3006. Info: 415-255-2500.

 

This article appeared on Tribe.com, September 23, 2007.

Opera goes activist: Carla Lucero’s ‘Wuornos’

WuornosSuddenly opera is enjoying a Renaissance among young composers and audiences. Once the art form seemed nearly moribund, an anachronistic form of musical theater in which bloated singers sang bloated roles in overworked, worn-out old warhorses. Now, in a daring departure from the stodgy past, composer and librettist Carla Lucero – one of the very few women composers in the history of opera – has created the politically and socially charged opera Wuornos – a full-scale opera to be premiered Friday at Yerba Buena Center as part of the National Queer Arts Festival. The ambitious production tackles head-on the issue of men committing violence against women in America. It zeros in on one particular woman – convicted serial murderer Eileen Wuornos, a prostitute who worked along Florida highways and who now awaits her fate on death row – who her defenders say was provoked to the point of striking back hard, not just once, but seven times.

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Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.
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This is not the usual stuff of opera. Think of Verdi’s Aïda, with its splendid setting in ancient Egypt and plot involving an Ethiopian slave and the commander of the Egyptian army; or Bizet’s Carmen, which occurs in Spain of yore, entangling a gypsy cigarette girl with a corporal and a handsome matador; or Puccini’s Tosca, in which a devout Italian girl crosses paths with an escaped political prisoner and a savage police chief, and ends up dispatching the cop with a knife. Again and again around the world, these magnificent museum pieces have played to audiences that, far from welcoming innovation, insist upon upholding tradition.

This is the modern age, however, and the operatic nerve seems to have been struck in a number of young composers who insist on taking liberties that shock the blue bloods but warm the cockles of New Music enthusiasts. The results, so far, are encouraging: witness the recent smash success of Erling Wold’s Queer, a chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel.

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Carla Lucero

Now comes Carla Lucero, a lesbian forging new ground in an artistic territory heretofore dominated by men. Before she relocated to the Bay Area, where she had the good fortune to become AIRspace artist-in-residence at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts (then under the direction of Lauren Hewitt, now the producer of Wuornos), Lucero lived and composed in L.A., working with Collage Dance Theater, scoring for films and videos, and studying Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts. She’s young, and hugely ambitious, and hugely talented, and a host of equally talented, ambitious people have lined up to support her in her endeavor, including acclaimed soprano Kristin Norderval in the lead role as Wuornos, musical director Mary Chun, who conducts the Opera Ensemble of SF, and director Joseph Graves, a veteran of more than 36 shows in this country and in Great Britain.

Hooking up with the Jon Sims Center changed Lucero’s life, and will likely have ripple effects in the opera world for some time to come. Her opera could even make waves, but whether that happens depends on how many people are willing to give her a chance to present her case, and what kind of mood they’re in. One thing is certain: the opera must fly on its artistic merits. If it relies too heavily on its social message to make an impact, it may be doomed to early retirement. The balance to be struck is one of high-minded social activism versus art for its own sake. In today’s capitalist world, art with a conscience doesn’t sell particularly well. The right balance can be achieved, but it will take uncommon effort – the kind that comes from the will of a woman determined to use opera to tell a tragic story.

In the Wuornos prologue, Aileen Wuornos (Norderval) retrieves a gun from its hiding place and says: “If I am damned, who is forgiven?”

The question is one Lucero has pondered and seems to want to answer, and the result, judging from the opera’s synopsis (www.wuornos.org/synopsis1.html), is something of a morality play, with Wuornos as the tragic innocent.

As the curtain opens on Act I, Wuornos stands upon a balcony, watching a media circus take place as reporters talk excitedly among themselves about murdered men found in the woods off a Florida highway. She taunts them, though they can’t hear her, then recalls her horrible childhood:

“A flashback reveals Aileen’s teenage mother and abusive father in their home. Her mother is desperate. She makes the decision to escape, fleeing to the home of her parents (Aileen’s grandparents). Aileen’s grandmother is an alcoholic and her grandfather is disturbingly distant. Aileen’s mother convinces her reluctant parents to take the baby Aileen.”

Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.

aileen_wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

Who, in fact, is Aileen Wuornos? Some of the answer can be found in the many newspaper accounts of Wuornos’ crime spree and subsequent trial and imprisonment. The most visual/visceral way to get into the heart of the story is to view Nick Broomfield’s fascinating, well-made but hopelessly biased 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Looking at the wild array of loony characters in Wuornos’ life – including the lesbian lover who betrayed her, the hippie lawyer who prodded her to plead guilty, and the “nice” Christian lady who adopted the imprisoned Wuornos – you can’t help but feel sympathy for the Aileen, and see your way to forgiving her for doing in seven tricks who done her wrong. Clearly she was hanging with a wacky and dangerous crowd, in the context of which her own murderous instincts seem forgivable. After all, she didn’t choose her rotten life, it was chosen for her.

In the build-up for Wuornos, including well-received sneak-peaks during the past year, many lesbians in San Francisco have begun discussing Wuornos, both the woman and the political and social issues underlying the opera.

In one meeting at the Women’s Building, two or three dozen women viewed the Broomfield documentary, then formed a circle with their chairs to speak their minds.

Soon they were discussing the merits of using “psychodrama” as a way for women inmates to tell their stories as a way of saving their own lives. Medea Project director and talented performer Rhodessa Jones was there. So was Norma Hotaling, founder and director of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a nonprofit organization in San Francisco which helps ex-prostitutes heal traumas and live healthy lives. The moderator put out questions about Wuornos, and the women responded with enormous passion and compassion for the woman’s suffering, and anger at those who forced her hand.

At the same time, they raised questions about the opera – not about its quality, which received wildly enthusiastic raves from those who had seen it in previews, but about its authenticity.

Whose story is it? Is it the true story of Aileen Wuornos, or Lucero’s conception of Wuornos.

Of course it’s the latter, and Lucero has put together a compelling libretto that promises a great operatic opening night. But does the real Aileen Wuornos, in her cell on death row, even know the opera is taking place?

Lucero replies she wrote twice asking Wuornos’ blessing, but received no response. Instead, she relied for her impressions in large part on personal letters from Wuornos that came into her possession from an intermediary.

“What struck me was the child-like innocence,” Lucero told the women in the circle, adding that the eventual hardness in Wuornos took over as a protective measure.

“I’ve been more than responsible with the story,” said Lucero, then reiterated, just for good measure: “Having the letters confirmed my perception of her character, her child-like innocence.”

And that, dear opera lovers, is how larger-than-life characters are born.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter’s special Pride issue, June 21, 2001.