Epiphany Dance members Kim Ip and Lydia Clinton. (Amani Photography)
When the first wave of COVID-19 closures hit in March 2020, nobody could predict exactly when (or indeed, if) arts spaces would be able to open their doors again to in-person performance. Initially it seemed as if reopening might happen within three weeks. Then another month. Then another. And here we are, seventeen months later, when a large number of venues are still dark or operating at limited capacity.
With the rise of the delta variant, performing arts spaces have had to navigate this year's reopening with an abundance of caution and maximum flexibility. In practical terms, this has meant fluctuating performance dates, last-minute cancellations and postponements, and the understanding on both sides of the stage that things could change at any moment.
Despite this, the artistic imperative to create, communicate, and connect remains strong in the Bay Area. With the caveat that dates, locations, and COVID-19 protocols might change between now and showtime, here’s a roundup of essential fall performances to put on your calendar.
Reminder: COVID precautions remain in flux. Proof of vaccination is a requirement for many indoor events. Before making plans, and again before arrival, be sure to check event websites for the latest protocols.
Brava Theater Center, San Francisco
Oct. 16 and 17
Not content to welcome audiences back with a single play, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (SFBATCO) has instead curated an entire festival. The inaugural New Roots Theatre Festival includes an Afrofuturist play in verse by Aidaa Peerzada, a musical centering the East Bay’s Betty Reid Soskin (the oldest living park ranger in the United States), a performance from SF’s Cuicacalli Ballet Folklórico, and short pieces produced by Black-led organizations including Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Company, African-American Shakespeare Company, AfroSolo, and PUSH Dance. (The companies are organized into “pods” that perform in tandem, with repeating shows, so audiences can see the whole program over the course of the weekend.)
Additionally, SFBATCO will revive their award-winning I, Too, Sing America. First conceptualized in 2018 by music director Othello Jefferson, ITSA sets works by notable artists of color such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frances Chung and Beyoncé to music and movement. This timely revival includes new materials for 2021 while celebrating the long history of revolutionary poetry and prose as an American tradition.
The rescheduled CounterPulse Festival—featuring performances, panels, poetry, film, and workshops—comes to both physical and virtual space in San Francisco, Oakland, and even the Santa Cruz Mountains. As an artistic home to many of the Bay Area’s most imaginative multidisciplinary performers, CounterPulse’s focus on embodied liberation and communal arts practice lends itself to festival mode.
Some standouts include new work from FACT/SF, a facilitated conversation between Bay Area-based “Queeratorial collectives” entitled “Fuck the System,” an embodied divination workshop with Amara Tabor Smith, and a film series inspired by the writings of Jean Genet and Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, instigated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and partially narrated by his alter ego Faluda Islam. The weeklong festival culminates with Radius, an improvisational outdoor performance exploring power dynamics and collaborative energies, featuring dance artists, experimental electronic musicians, and CounterPulse's artistic and executive director Julie Phelps. Pre-registration is required, and proof of vaccination and masks are required for indoor events.
Another play postponed by the pandemic, The Displaced by Isaac Gómez is a two-hander horror story with a solid reputation for inspiring unease. When artistic couple Marísa and Lev move into their new apartment, their quotidian squabbling can’t distract from a series of unexplainable events unfolding around them. But are they being haunted by their own fragmented dysfunction, or by a tormented spirit with cause to linger?
Recently rewritten with a pair of alternate endings, Gómez’ nervy script gradually reveals itself to be about much more than a few flying tchotchkes; it also addresses gentrification, generational wealth, racial inequity, and displacement. Featuring Jordan Don and Troy Rockett as the troubled protagonists—with direction by Mina Morita and Karina Gutiérrez, and special effects design by Devon LaBelle—Crowded Fire’s production of The Displaced offers both a savvy indictment of our time, and a seasonally appropriate scary story. Masks and proof of vaccination are required, while select shows allow a proof of negative COVID test instead (check website for dates).
Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park
One of the many shows forced to postpone in March 2020 was Galatea, a science fiction play by North Bay playwright David Templeton. Set in the year 2167, the play follows the revival and reintegration process of an android traveler known as Seventy-One. The only survivor from the Galatea, a long-destroyed space shuttle, Seventy-One is encouraged by a pair of amiable doctors to remember the events that led them to escaping the fate that befell the rest of their crewmates. Nothing is quite what it seems, and several key plot twists stretch the narrative in unexpected directions.
At the heart of the play is a thoughtful examination of what it means to be human in an era where synthetic lifeforms predominate. What are the characteristics that can be shared with our AI comrades, and what will always be the sole provenance of “organics?” Templeton’s smartly constructed fantasy won an honorable mention from the Will Glickman Award panel (of which I am a member) in 2020, and is finally receiving its well-deserved stage premiere. Proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test, and masking, is required.
As fans of horror movies can attest, sometimes the best way to escape the stresses of real-life horror (such as, say, a raging pandemic and an overheated planet) is through a good old-fashioned haunting. When longtime horror aficionado Joshua Grannell a.k.a. Peaches Christ first debuted their collaborative brainchild The Terror Vault in 2018, it ushered in a new standard of haunted attraction for the Bay Area. It's a standard certain to be upheld in this year’s production: The Immortal Reckoning.
Using the imposing architectural features of the old San Francisco Mint—stone walls, vaulted ceilings, dusty chandeliers, and a subterranean warren of interconnected rooms—costumed characters will guide audiences through a rare collection of supernatural artifacts, rumored to be conduits to an “immortal” realm. Levels of interactivity can be opted into (and out of, should you change your mind) and limits are thankfully respected. Still, expect to be menaced, mocked, questioned, sniffed and startled by all manner of homicidal creatures while jostling your way through a disorienting maze designed by the diabolically talented David Flower. Masks and proof of vaccination are required, with no exceptions or refunds.
Nestled in the Orinda hills and open to the darkening sky and emerging stars, the Bruns Amphitheater provides a stellar setting for Shakespearean fare—and for audiences wary about returning to indoor theater. A romance wrapped in a tale of abandonment and loss, The Winter’s Tale was last performed at the Bruns in 2013. Emphasizing renewal, redemption and hope, this fresh adaptation from artistic director Eric Ting and dramaturg Phillipa Kelly should provide a welcome escape and a pertinent reflection. Proof of vaccination is not required; masks are required for unvaccinated audience members and all other patrons when not “actively eating or drinking.”
Dance it Out
Accustomed to creating site-responsive works to suit a variety of (often) non-traditional spaces and occasions, Bay Area choreographers have demonstrated their innate resiliency time and time again. This ability to adapt and innovate has allowed many artists in the dance community to find ways to create together, even during the darkest days of the pandemic.
In Flyaway Productions’ Meet Us Quickly With Your Mercy, artistic director Jo Kreiter grapples with the historical throughline of slavery leading to the present-day mass incarceration of Black Americans, as well as with a new rise in trans-Atlantic anti-Jewish sentiment and white nationalism. Using aerial apparatus fashioned to resemble cages suspended above the ground, and music composed by the late Jewlia Eisenberg, Flyaway Productions performs this second part of their ongoing Decarceration Trilogy with the walls of CounterPulse’s Tenderloin building as their backdrop.
'Bacchae Before' Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco; also online
Live performance Sept. 28–Oct. 2; online Oct. 2
In Bacchae Before, Hope Mohr Dance ties together the tragedy of Euripides’ The Baccae (via Anne Carson’s notable translation) with the modern-day violence of gender reveal parties. Performed by Belinda He, Wiley Naman Strasser, Karla Quintero, and Silk Worm—with puppetry by C. Michael Chin, and additional text and co-direction provided by Maxe Crandall—Bacchae Before distills and refracts a classical text of frenzy and filicide through a trans-centered, gender-affirming perspective.
With the welcome return of Trolley Dances, curated by Kim Epifano’s Epiphany Dance Theater, audiences will ride the K and L lines from the Castro to the East Cut, encountering short vignettes from Babatunji & Charmaine, Epiphany Dance Theater, Joe Landini & Dancers, La Mezcla, Parangal Dance Company, and Rising Rhythm. More than a celebration of public transportation, Trolley Dances is a transformative interrogation of public space and the porous boundaries between performer and spectator.
Need something to take the kids to? Maybe just in need of a little whimsy? Catch these circus performances—one outdoors, one indoors.
Having kicked off at Oakland’s DeFremery Park on Aug. 26, Circus Bella's Humorous will embark on a free, 12-performance tour of parks and public spaces through Oct. 3. A one-ring, people-powered circus, Circus Bella eschews circus animals in favor of mainstays such as aerialists, acrobats, and clowns. Directed by company founder Abigail Munn, Humorous features some of the Bay Area’s most prolific circus performers: creative clowning duo Jamie Coventry and Natasha Kaluza, queer circus icon Toni Cannon, and aerialist Dwoira Galilia.
For those ready to brave the great indoors, Club Fugazi in North Beach hosts the circus-y love-letter-to-the-city Dear San Francisco. At the longtime home of the now-shuttered Beach Blanket Babylon, the circus collective 7 Fingers boasts SF-raised founders, an immensely talented international cast, and some of the Bay Area’s best designers—including Jake Rodriguez, Alexander V. Nichols, and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. Masks and proof of vaccination with ID required for all patrons. Unvaccinated children 5-11 may attend with vaccinated adult(s).
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