Prophesying the Future of Bay Area Theater is a Community Effort

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Woman strums guitar with mic in front of her.
Beth Wilmurt in ‘The Cassandra Sessions’ at Shotgun Players. (Ben Krantz)

In Greek mythology, Cassandra has the power to foretell the future, but is cursed by the fact that no one listens to her. In various renditions of the story she appears maddened, distraught, as only one who knows of an oncoming and unstoppable horror might.

In Beth Wilmurt’s The Cassandra Sessions at Shotgun Players, Wilmurt sits alone in a recording booth picking out Malvina Reynolds’ folk tunes on a keyboard and occasional ukulele. In Wilmurt’s unembellished vocals there’s no touch of madness, but there is an air of resignation. It is the voice of a seer who knows full well they will not be heard, but must continue to tell the truth, if only to rid themselves of its burden.

“There’s inflation and pollution / Everything’s been bought on credit / In this rotten institution ... They’ve got the world in their pocket / But their pocket’s got a hole.”

Reynolds wrote those lyrics in 1974, but they could have been written yesterday. Or tomorrow. And like so many truth-tellers, Reynolds was, if not ignored, forgotten over time, even as her observations continue to resonate. It’s a familiar scenario for the culture workers and theater artists on and off our stages. Forever both mirroring and predicting the world around them; speaking truth to power, or working to reclaim it.

Woman stands on stage in front of projected image of Black Lives Matter march.
Lisa Ramirez performing in ‘The Wasteland’ with Oakland Theater Project. (Carson French)

Unlike Cassandra, or even Reynolds, I cannot predict the future of theater. Because even though our physical stage doors have mostly been shut there’s been so much creativity and conscientiousness and movement happening in the performing arts it’s quite inadequate to call them closed. Rather, their energies have been directed into iteration. Trialing new ways to produce, present, and access work. Addressing long-standing barriers and inequitable structures. Prophesying the way forward to anyone within earshot.

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So rather than try to predict the next year, I’d prefer to hand over the mic. Prompted to ruminate on what the year to come could (or should) look like for Bay Area theater, a multiplicity of voices weighed in. Expressing desire, ambition, and community care, they generously offered their thoughts about all of our possible futures. Within each: a kernel of hope.

Man in collared shirt smiles.
Rotimi Agbabiaka is looking to the future. (Cody Williams)

A challenge to the theater field

After recently leading a “dismantling” ceremony for foolsFURY, Artistic Director Debórah Eliezer hopes that public ritual can serve as a provocation for the field. “Let’s make visible, discuss and fund leadership succession plans for leaders of small organizations,” Eliezer says. “And let’s make space for the messy, vulnerable, and brave conversations that will ensue.”

Rotimi Agbabiaka, starring in Aladdin-inspired panto The Magic Lamp at the Presidio Theatre, throws down a challenge of his own, saying, “I hope to be part of theater that embraces ambiguity, diversity of thought, pleasure for pleasure’s sake, and isn’t afraid to ask dangerous questions.”

Person with long hair, crown and white dress sings into purple dildo.
Edna Mira Raia performing as drag persona, Tater Tatas, at ‘Polly’s Follies.’ (Tiffany Galaxea)

‘Let us continue to heal’

For local clown comedian and drag performer Edna Mira Raia, the impacts of the pandemic continue to loom large, even as comedy has helped to diffuse them. “Humanity needs to collectively heal from the extensive loss it has suffered,” Raia points out. “In a time when therapists are tied up for months and comforting partnerships are as precious as pearls, the artists will reign supreme in healing our shared wounds. Time to send in the clowns!”

Healing was a theme echoed by Oakland Theater Project’s Associate Artistic Director Lisa Ramirez, who writes, “My hope is that we will continue to tell stories that reflect and resonate with the diverse population in the Bay Area. Seeing all of us reflected on stage is my mission as a playwright. Art heals. Stories heal. Let us continue to heal.”

Stages that reflect communities

AlterTheater’s Artistic Director Jeanette Harrison weighs in on the continuing conversation on representation in the field, especially emphasizing the need for broader engagement and opportunities for Native artists and stories. “My hope is that more theaters will join AlterTheater in producing Native work in culturally competent ways,” Harrison says. “That means hiring Native artists—directors and designers, actors, playwrights, dramaturgs, graphic designers—and paying them a living wage.”

Performer and director Michelle Talgarow similarly reflects on representation, saying, “As I think upon this coming year, I want to uplift the artists from our richly diverse Bay Area. I want our stages to reflect these communities and tell their stories. Local BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+ and Disabled artists should be front and center!”

Woman in red jacket and glasses looks at camera.
Dawn Monique Williams, associate artistic director of Aurora Theatre. (Courtesy of the artist)

Trying ‘something new’

Both Dawn Monique Williams, the Associate Artistic Director of Aurora Theatre, and playwright/director Stuart Bousel speak to the many innovations sparked by the pandemic that continue to be part of the discourse.

“As I look toward the future of theater, I am excited by two things: more hybrid, interactive, and immersive forms ... and the radical takedown of oppressive systems,” Williams says. “I think embracing the digital can open live cultural events up to whole new audience demographics.”

Bousel also touches on how the pandemic shifted the status quo. “I think that we’ve all tried something new, and that’s the silver lining of the last two years," he describes. "Whether that new thing was live-streaming performances, changing the way we organize and structure a rehearsal process, or actually taking time to step away from theater and focus somewhere else for a bit. ... My hope is that we all take what we learned to heart and just go for it.”

Man posed in suit against graffiti-covered background
Baruch Porras-Hernandez has big hopes for 2022. (Robbie Sweeny)

‘Survive and shine’

Looking ahead to 2022, writer, performer and comedian Baruch Porras-Hernandez speaks to the year’s creative potential, particularly for the queer community. “The year to come I feel is going to test our ability to transform ourselves, artistically and emotionally. This next year we will be witness to an exciting renaissance of art and spirit. We will see queer artists do what we’ve always done, survive and shine.”

And as for Wilmurt, being immersed in the work of Malvina Reynolds for the past year has given her some insight into the cyclical nature of prophecy, and the importance of remaining open to its timeless messaging.

“A lyric that’s become a mantra for me is, ‘I don’t mind failing in this world,’” she shares. “If ‘success’ means things like stepping on other people to get ahead, allowing ourselves to be defined by those who don’t have our best interests in mind, or going along with the many binary thinking patterns that hold our society back from its full potential.”

‘The Cassandra Sessions’ plays at Shotgun Players (1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley) through Jan. 2, 2022. Details here.

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‘The Magic Lamp’ plays at the Presidio Theatre (99 Moraga Ave., San Francisco) through Dec. 30, 2021. Details here.