Kaleidoscope of Culture

Kaleidoscope of Culture

Our quintet of arts critics looks back over the years—and ahead to the promise (or peril) of the future.

An Education
By Sam Hurwitt

As a second-generation theater critic born in Berkeley the same year The Monthly was founded, I’ve been going to plays since long before I could be relied upon to stay quiet and awake through the whole thing. (I eventually learned that it was impolite to read a comic book in the front row.) No matter what arts scene they’re talking about, people will always say the scene isn’t like it used to be, and that’s always true as far as it goes. Many of the old troupes are gone today, but many more have sprung up to take their place. For any theater lover, the golden age of theater is whenever it was you first fell in love with it. Amid the rich theatrical landscape of Berkeley in the ’70s and ’80s, with many homegrown groups and many more distinguished visitors, it would have been churlish not to become smitten.

Every summer in the late 1970s, we’d go to see San Francisco’s touring Pickle Family Circus perform in its open-roofed tent in Cedar-Rose Park. Founded in 1974, the Pickles were among the pioneers of that decade’s “new circus” movement of pared-down shows focused on clowns, jugglers, and acrobats rather than three-ring spectacles with elephants and lions. Those first few years were an apex of clowning for the company, boasting later Tony Award–winner Bill Irwin and future Berkeley Rep mainstay Geoff Hoyle alongside Pickles co-founder Larry Pisoni. Equally important for my little sister and me was the opportunity to suck juice from a lemon using a peppermint stick as a straw, one of the circus’s signature concessions.

Another summer outdoor treat, just as it is today, was catching the latest San Francisco Mime Troupe agitprop musical comedy, usually at Berkeley’s Willard Park (which, in those days, I never heard referred to as anything other than Ho Chi Minh Park). A particular favorite was the Mime Troupe’s superhero-themed Factwino Trilogy: 1980’s Fact Person, in which a humble librarian gains the superpower to fight government disinformation with facts, and the one-two punch of 1981’s Factwino Meets the Moral Majority and 1982’s Factwino vs. Armageddon Man, in which an even humbler derelict gains the same power to make people see the truth, with his beloved booze as his only kryptonite. Nearly 30 years later I still get one of the Factwino songs, “Because You’re Stupid,” stuck in my head.

In the early ’80s, at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, we watched the brilliant sketch comedy troupe, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre, develop characters that took on lives of their own. Merle Kessler’s acerbic cultural commentator, Ian Shoales, and Dan Coffey’s clueless answer man, Dr. Science, became regulars on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and Jim Turner’s hippie burnout, Randee of the Redwoods, was briefly an MTV mascot and the station’s stunt presidential candidate for 1988. The Julia Morgan also saw regular visits in the ’80s from Blue Lake’s Dell’Arte Players, performing raucous physical comedy shows such as the R. Crumb comic adaptation, Whiteman Meets Bigfoot, and the environmentalist hard-boiled detective story, Intrigue at Ah-Pah. Particularly mind-boggling was troupe member Donald Forrest’s yoga-trained ability to stick out one quarter of his belly at a time. In the early ’80s, before Whoopi Goldberg’s sudden rise to show-biz ubiquity, we’d go to see her in hilarious solo shows, playing characters she’d developed with the Berkeley performance collective the Blake Street Hawkeyes.

The Berkeley Shakespeare Festival—now called California Shakespeare Theater, and located in the Orinda hills—was still nestled in North Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park in the 1970s and ’80s. When we went to see Romeo and Juliet at Berkeley Shakes in 1983, I came armed with a homemade “Go Montagues!” banner in a 12-year-old’s attempt at irony, but it was quickly forgotten as I was swept away by Richard E.T. White’s marvelous staging, with future screen star Annette Bening as a radiant Juliet. And no matter how many productions of Richard III I’ve seen since then, certain lines always remind me of how deliciously then–artistic director Dakin Matthews savored them in the 1985 production.

That same year saw one of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s most jaw-dropping triumphs of a particularly fertile creative period. The 1985 production of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime was a dazzling multimedia spectacle with music videos and action extending all the way to the catwalks far above the stage, featuring Charles Dean as old-school rocker Hoss, a man at war with Howard Swain as the flashy, Prince-like rising star, Crow. Berkeley Rep has seen many similarly stunning shows recently, such as Sarah Ruhl’s sublime Eurydice in 2004 and Martin McDonagh’s creepy The Pillowman in 2007, but I’ll always remember Tooth of Crime for completely opening up my perception of what theater could do. No matter how many humdrum plays I sit through, ultimately the reason I’m a critic today is because every now and then I’ll see something that recaptures that same sense of wonder.


The Big Picture
By Michael Fox

The most dramatic—albeit gradual—development in the movie landscape in the last 40 years has been the shift from theaters to living rooms. In the last decade, the convenience and selection of Netflix combined with lingering post-9/11 unease about the safety of public spaces (other than Raiders games, where no terrorist would dare venture) has turned us all into couch potatoes. The surprising good news is that the East Bay has cultivated a pretty fair roster of lovely, restored theaters, including the Orinda, the Alameda, the California, and the Paramount (with its monthly classic film). Call it a glass-half-full perspective, but the moviegoing experience is alive and reasonably well hereabouts despite the worst efforts of Hollywood executives, texting teenagers, and not-so-sotto voce seniors.

Now, you might still be mourning the U.C. Theatre on University—where three decades ago Werner Herzog famously ate his shoe (cooked to leathery perfection by no less a luminary than Alice Waters) to honor a promise he made to Errol Morris—and the end of repertory houses, or the demise of the Parkway with its weekly Baby Brigade shows. I empathize completely. As long as the world-class Pacific Film Archive thrives, however, with its array of retrospectives, rarities, classics, and curiosities, augmented by guest filmmakers and critics, East Bay film culture is in excellent shape.

The other phenomenon worth noting, and celebrating, is the booming population of documentary filmmakers who have established their offices and made their homes in the East Bay since the mid-1970s. Les Blank, Connie Field, Rick Goldsmith, Vivian Kleiman, Ray Telles, Nancy Kates, Jed Riffe, Deann Borshay Liem, Rick Tejada-Flores, Deborah Kaufman, and Alan Snitow are just a few of the locals whose work has consistently aired nationally on PBS and occasionally been recognized with Oscar nominations. (This would be a good time, I suggest, to add their films to your Netflix queue.) The East Bay doc community is distinguished by a remarkable spirit of camaraderie and cooperation, thanks in no small part to producer Saul Zaentz (Amadeus), who made available affordable office space at the Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley (purchased by Wareham Development in 2007). Filmmakers routinely share sources for funding and archival footage, provide feedback on each other’s rough cuts, and even recommend trustworthy taxi drivers in Johannesburg and restaurants in New Delhi. There are times when I think the nation’s conscience resides in the East Bay, and I’m not referring to Raider Nation.


Blue Note
By Andrew Gilbert

Clubs come and go. Shoestring operations even in the best of times, the venues, restaurants, and performance spaces dedicated to presenting jazz are especially subject to the vicissitudes of economic cycles and real estate speculation. Knowing that even the best-run operations are only a bad month or two away from being shuttered, it makes little sense to get emotionally attached to a venue. Yet potent magic takes place when a room absorbs a steady flow of artfully organized sound.

Home to any number of treasured jazz clubs over the last four decades, the East Bay has reached a sad trough in recent years. The funky spaces are all but gone, with hardly a storefront left where one can find intrepid improvisers seeking new sonic territory. Restaurants with enlightened music policies have largely changed management, shut their doors, or hired DJs. A few bright spots have recently reemerged, like Kingman’s Ivy Room in Albany, where the great saxophonist Phillip Greenlief holds on to a regular Monday night perch. But for music lovers looking for bracing, potentially life-altering experiences, memory lane is often the destination of choice.

Edsel Matthews’s Koncepts Cultural Gallery consistently presented jazz’s most adventurous artists, but couldn’t survive losing its downtown Oakland space in the mid-1990s. Beanbenders, just steps from Downtown Berkeley BART, served as an essential way station for local and out-of-town sound explorers during a brief but glorious run at the turn of the century. Singer Anna de León presided over a series of homey jazz outposts, culminating in Anna’s Jazz Island, just steps from the Cal campus in the Gaia Arts Center. But after enduring a series of disputes with her landlord worthy of an episode of Lost, she escaped from her lease with a buyout in January. After several months searching for a new space, she reports that she probably won’t reopen.

No saga better captures the long odds faced by art presenters than the Jazz House, a tiny room at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Adeline. An antique store turned theater turned performance space (this latter known as TUVA), the Jazz House emerged in 2002, filling the vacuum left by Beanbenders as the East Bay’s leading spot for independently produced jazz and new music events. Percussionist Rob Woodworth and a team of dedicated volunteers transformed the site into a humming beehive of activity, with African drum workshops, jam sessions, clinics for young musicians, and shows at least six nights a week. Local luminaries like guitarist John Schott, trumpeter Eddie Gale, clarinetist Beth Custer, saxophonist Larry Ochs, and drummer Donald “Duck” Bailey performed regularly. The venue also attracted the attention of touring musicians desperate for a place to play on their way through the Bay Area, such as reed master Sam Rivers, saxophonist Tony Malaby, and cellist Erik Friedlander. But when the Berkeley Police Department substation next door decided to turn the space into extra parking, the Jazz House lost its lease. Since closing at the end of 2004, nothing has filled its niche—and the parking structure was never built. Go figure.

Still, it would be churlish not to count our musical blessings. The new Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley is a world-class venue that reveals new assets with every visit. The worries about loss of intimacy in the larger space have proven unfounded, and rather than shunning local artists as some feared, the club has come up with ways to present more Bay Area acts than before. Two other long-running nonprofit venues in Berkeley, Ashkenaz and La Peña Cultural Center, can’t compete with the Freight’s state-of-the-art production values, but they are both invaluable presenters. Despite losing charismatic founder David Nadel in 1996 (the killer who shot him down in the club’s doorway has never been apprehended), Ashkenaz continues to provide an international array of roots, folk, and dance music. La Peña focuses on Latin American styles, though its progressive political agenda encompasses musicians from around the world. Next door, the Starry Plough offers a convivial atmosphere and smartly eclectic (though appropriately Irish-centric) roster of singer/songwriters, bands, and spoken word events amplified by an enviable array of Meyer Sound speakers.

For jazz, Yoshi’s in Oakland is maintaining its status as the finest venue on the West Coast, despite the still bumpy transition to accommodating a sibling club in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. And Berkeley’s Jazzschool remains a largely overlooked gem, a cozy basement space that showcases established masters and ambitious students taking advantage of the instruction offered on the premises. In Oakland, 21 Grand has persevered as a vital outpost for new and improvised music, offering regular performances by a disparate community of underground artists despite struggles with alcohol enforcement. The bottom line is that it’s hardly the worst of times for jazz and non-commercial music in the East Bay. But you don’t need to strain your memory to recall a healthier scene.


Enduring Upstarts
By Jeanne Storck

We all know the story: Painters, sculptors, and poets displaced by skyrocketing rents in San Francisco took refuge in Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley, where, with more space to dream, they quietly built a scene. Their signature event—Art Murmur, the monthly gallery walk in Uptown Oakland—might sound subdued, but since its inception in 2006 it’s grown into one riotous can’t-miss soiree.

Since 2000, galleries have been popping up like wildflowers. Some flourish for a year or two, then vanish, while others—early pioneers like 21 Grand, Oaklandish, Mama Buzz, LoBot, and Rock Paper Scissors—hold on and take root.

21 Grand opened in 2000 on an industrial backstreet near downtown Oakland and for the past 10 years has invited painters, musicians, and filmmakers to use its warehouse as a testing ground. At the same time, shape-shifting Oaklandish began as a guerrilla street campaign in which wild-eyed artists projected films on walls. Oaklandish’s public art moved indoors to a gallery for a time; today the project lives on as an ingenious store where the proceeds from sales of local, artist-designed apparel funnels back into community arts grants.

In 2003, when Telegraph Avenue near West Grand felt like a ghost town, Mama Buzz opened its doors, serving up cheap eats and local art; today the regulars continue to show up for coffee klatches on the rambling back patio as well as monthly openings. 2004: Enter LoBot Gallery, located in industrial West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms (hence the name) where curatorial imaginations range freely in a lofty 10,000-square-foot space. Outsize happenings unfold here—like an artist-designed miniature golf course or a bike night with films and a round of bike polo. Rock Paper Scissors Collective leaped into the fray around the same time as LoBot, offering a communal place for artists to teach, craft, take classes, and show off their work.

And the list of intriguing galleries and art initiatives—Johansson Projects (which now does the rounds at international art fairs), Swarm, Rowan Morrison, The Compound, Hatch, Krowswork, Branch, and too many others to mention here—just keeps growing, evolving, brimming with possibility.

But neither the promise of the future nor the flurry of the past decade can eclipse what’s come before. Turn back 40 years to the heady ’70s, when several East Bay stalwarts were born: Pro Arts, mastermind of the annual Open Studios that flings wide atelier doors from Benicia to Livermore to San Leandro; Kala Art Institute’s internationally recognized printmaking studios; The Arts & Crafts Cooperative’s storefront for local artisans; and Berkeley Art Center’s showcase of local talent in a bucolic setting in North Berkeley.

Another veteran, The Oakland Museum of California, built in 1969, just premiered its updated 2.0 version with sparkling new California art and history sections. In the grander scheme of things, the redesign shines as a rethinking of the museum concept. Whereas 40 years ago, spectators might have been shushed and told to not touch, now they’re invited to open drawers, leave comments, and add their voices to the dialogue.

The U.C. Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA) settled into its current modernist digs on Bancroft Avenue back in 1970, celebrating the moment with performances and readings by Bay Area luminaries such as William T. Wiley, Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Duncan. Today, the museum is headed for a new 100,000-square-foot space, slated to open in 2014 in the Addison Street arts district. With Berkeley Rep, Freight & Salvage, and the David Brower Center next door, BAM/PFA promises to turn up the volume in this cultural corner of town. Call it coincidence, but the renovation of these two famous East Bay 1970s-era museums finds itself echoed in all the commotion in the streets, in Art Murmur, and the bubbling up of new galleries. The influx of fresh-faced artistes might signal the start of something big, but let’s not forget the local art scene has been quietly on the move for years now. The hubbub du jour simply offers more proof of good things to come.


Real Troupers
By Rita Felciano

The East Bay, the narrow strip of land that hugs the water and climbs up and over the hills, doesn’t look much like pioneer territory. But in terms of dance, it is. During the last 40 years, visionary men and women—gifted, persistent, and savvy—have shaped the region’s cultural landscape far beyond its immediate geography. The five following dance mavens especially have lifted local dance.

Undeterred by the big neighbor across the Bay, Oakland-born Ronn Guidi grew his tiny local ballet troupe, Oakland Ballet Company, into a nationally respected one. He did so by daring to bypass the work of George Balanchine and focusing the troupe’s repertoire on new commissions—many by local choreographers, many by women—and above all, by reviving works from the Diaghilev era. His was the first American company to resurrect Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 “Les Noces.” In the ’70s and ’80s, the Oakland Ballet Company was the place to see exciting, unusual choreography. The troupe fell on hard times in the early part of this decade—for a while they were out of business, and Guidi left for good last April—but Graham Lustig’s appointment this past August as new artistic director promises a renaissance.

When Judith Smith became AXIS Dance Company’s new artistic director in 1997, she started with a mixed ensemble of able-bodied and limited-mobility dancers that was more respected for its efforts than its accomplishments. Smith, in one daring move, upped the ante. Believing that good dance is impossible without good choreography, she commissioned Bill T. Jones, one of the country’s best-known (and most controversial) dance-makers. His fee cost the struggling ensemble its whole budget for that year. Today, through a continued commitment to the best choreography, AXIS has become a big-time player not just in the field of physically integrated dance, but dance overall, stretching audiences’ and choreographers’ definitions of the art.

When Deborah Vaughan founded Dimensions Dance Theater in 1972, African dance was just beginning to enter mainstream consciousness; much of it was still shoved off into that special category labeled “ethnic dance” and almost exclusively performed by touring Africans. From the beginning, Vaughan, a Mills College graduate, focused her choreography on the experience of contemporary Africans and African-Americans. Then as now, she often commissioned scores and employed live music. Vaughan also started Rites of Passage, a now well-established program that offers Oakland’s public school children free dance classes as well as after-school and Saturday morning classes that integrate broad-based dance training with life lessons. Vaughan’s clear-eyed vision can be seen behind much local African-American dance, including the ongoing “Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now,” which takes place every February in Oakland and San Francisco.

U.C. Berkeley opened its 2,000-seat Zellerbach Hall in 1968. But it was not until 1986, when Robert Cole became director of Cal Performances, that the organization was launched on a stellar trajectory, eventually becoming one of this country’s foremost performing arts presenters. In terms of dance programming, Cole’s previous experience as a ballet conductor in Southern California proved invaluable. In 1987 he engaged the then–little known Mark Morris Dance Group and created the framework for its annual appearances. Under his leadership—he retired in 2009—the Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham dance companies started to perform yearly. He also brought the work of other major European, Russian, and Asian companies to the campus. The one thing Cole says he has always regretted is the lack of a second, smaller—perhaps 600-seat—theater to showcase more local dance.

The name “Shawl-Anderson” may not resonate with everyone. But mention it to anyone even tangentially connected to the scene, and you’ll learn that the essence of Bay Area dance is housed in this ramshackle Edwardian building on Alcatraz Avenue, at the Berkeley-Oakland border. Frank Shawl, now 78, and Victor Anderson, 82, have impeccable performing credentials; their careers go back to the beginning of modern dance with Charles Weidman and May O’Donnell, an early member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1968, Shawl and Anderson moved their fledgling school to its present location, probably never imagining that more than 40 years later, they’d still be running a community space offering over 70 classes a week in jazz, modern, ballet, hip-hop, and more. But it’s the spirit of these men—generous and welcoming, informal yet professional—that makes the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center the precious resource it has become.

Faces of the East Bay