Monday, August 11, 2014
By Lily Janiak
When Charlie, who performs in circus and a variety of other media, gave me a tour of his illegal live-work-performance space last winter, one of the first sights we visited in the 2,800-sq.-ft. former auto shop was behind a partition, buried under props and set pieces and enshrined in a plastic case.
"You see this outlet?" he said. "All our electricity for the last three years comes from this outlet. All of it. A hundred percent."
That means that the previous winter, when he and his three roommates each had space heaters connected to it, the cord exploded; it means that when they host events that require lighting, they have to turn off the refrigerator; it means that they can't make coffee and toast at the same time.
Talia Lipskind, Jillian Nicole McMann, Madamn Burnz and Nastassia Weit of Oakland's Sky High Odditorium. Photo by Anastassia
"Charlie" isn't Charlie's real name, and he didn't want me to reveal the name of his space or where in San Francisco it's located. His dwelling is still zoned as commercial space, so his agreement with his landlord is illegal. If at any time the city's Department of Building Inspection became aware of his situation, he could get evicted, with none of the usual channels for recourse: no 30 days, no squatter's protections. Even if that doesn't happen, he knows his landlord is turning the property into condos, so he'll be kicked out in three to five years, probably on short notice, no matter what.
If and when he does leave, finding a similar but legal situation in the city, where new one-bedrooms in large buildings are going for $3,000 per month, would be all but impossible. San Francisco does have some areas zoned for live-work, thanks to a 1988 housing ordinance that created that zoning in response to desire to keep artists in the city. It led to the construction of approximately 3,000 live-work units, mostly in the Mission and SoMa. But new construction was frozen in 2000 amidst complaints that the city did a poor job ensuring that the law benefitted artists, as it was intended—how do you enforce that a tenant does work in his or her live-work space, let alone that the work is art? Dot-commers snapped up many of the cheap, trendy units, ironically driving rents for live-work units above the rates for regular units.
Prospective live-workers have a much better shot in Oakland, where the planning code has fairly liberal requirements for converting properties into live-work, a legacy of former mayor Jerry Brown's 10K Plan to get 10,000 new residents to move to Oakland by 2002. But even in favorable environs, artists are uniquely vulnerable to the vagaries of the real estate market, particularly when they don't have pay stubs to show landlords. Dana Harrison (who happens to be managing director of Theatre Bay Area) was inspired to create a live-work-performance space in the Bay Area after an experience creating a body cartography project at Burning Man. If she could give artists the opportunity to be together all the time, she says, "any time when inspiration struck, there would be opportunities for all kinds of creative collision and collaboration. There would be no limitations on time and cost of rehearsal space. With dance, since you need space to create, having to reserve rehearsal space far in advance—well, what if that's not the moment when inspiration strikes? The constraint of space was always a huge, huge problem."
She bought a warehouse in Oakland, calling it the Noodle Factory, in 1999 and partnered with Northern California Land Trust in 2004 to make the gutted building suitable for habitation. The plan was for it to have 11 live-work units, a performance space and a café and green room. Artists would be able to buy one of the lofts with a $10,000 down payment. But after years of work, right after she got the occupancy permit for the building, the housing market collapsed, and her bank changed all its conditions for mortgages. "Of the 22 artists that had been prequalified, zero could get mortgages," she says. "The requirements changed. You had to have a regular income." The bank wouldn't renegotiate the value or the terms of the loan, and they eventually seized the property. Harrison lost about a million dollars on the project.
When they can make their spaces work, legally or not, live-workers cope with extraordinary nuisance, and peril, in order to live in their spaces. Charlie can chronicle the entire life cycle of a termite (they have a flying phase) as well as devise a clever workaround when rain leaks onto his sole power source. Gary-Paul Barbosa Prince, a painter who for two and a half decades has lived in the Vulcan Lofts—a 100,000-sq.-ft. complex of 59 live-work lofts near Oakland's Fruitvale BART—has a strict wintertime physical regimen in order to keep warm enough to paint: paint for three minutes; jump rope for one; repeat. Unpleasant as this sounds, he and many of the jugglers, fire performers and other artists I talked to in Vulcan say the high ceilings in their spaces, which make them impossible to heat, are necessary for their craft.
Additionally, when Barbosa Prince moved in, a pimp had set up shop on his doorstep. In that first year, he says, "I probably got asked if I wanted a date at least 100 times.
"A lot of people look at these spaces and think they're glamorous," he continues. "It's not glamorous at all! It's probably the most unglamorous thing you can imagine," he says over neighboring BART and even closer car traffic, which keep his corrugated garage door-qua-wall ever a-rattle.
If their spaces aren't "glamorous," live-work-performers have to be wary of their success (and their shows can be quite successful, drawing hundreds of young audiences who aren't a part of the normal theatre crowd) in a way that most theatre companies needn't. Complaining neighbors are either eviction threats or fellow artists with whom performers want to create an arts-friendly ecosystem; one must navigate a web of complex relationships to protect one's right to create. Correspondingly, live-work-performers must market their shows with the contradictory aim of not letting audiences get too big, often getting the word out about performances only on informal, underground, word-of-mouth channels.
If the spaces don't provide premium (or basic) comfort, the rent tends to reflect that. Charlie pays only "five hundred dollars for my own fucking theatre."
But the benefits aren't just financial. Artists in live-work spaces circumvent institutional processes to privilege their own. They need conform to no one else's standards as to when, where and how they do their work. The biggest advantage of living in his space, Charlie says, "is doing my own work and creating it on my own terms." Madamn Burnz, an aerialist, fire performer and performance healer who teaches, rehearses and performs in the Skyhigh Odditorium in Oakland (which is actually the same property as Harrison's aborted Noodle Factory), says that without her own space, she probably wouldn't have developed her own mode of teaching. (She's developing an online video encyclopedia of basic aerialist vocabulary.) "I can't teach in a gym, someone else's sterile space," she says. "If you're in your 20s to 40s and you go into a classroom, you're making a choice, and you need to feel supported. I've been to a lot of other aerial facilities, and there's a lot of competition. I'm like, '
No.' When you teach in a facility that's not your own—there's a curriculum, whether it's set or not."
Madamn Burnz. Photo by Alan Boling
The opportunities for collaboration and support are another huge benefit of live-work spaces. The performance troupe the Lucid Dream Lounge, which is also the name of its loft in Vulcan, says that living together means they never have to stop working. "We don't have any separation from our work," says Breanna Leslie, the company's curator. "We hate it when we're not in production." Prospective roommates in the loft, which has held six to eight since Leslie moved in eight years ago, must be involved in the theatre company in some way. "In our relationships with each other, we wear at least three different hats," says Kris Mandell, the company's theatrical director. "We're friends. We're roommates. We work together. Sometimes, we're in relationships." That means there's little to no separation between a meal and a production meeting, free time and a rehearsal, creating a kind of 24/7 creative alchemy. For Lucid, that's meant periods of intense creative output—eight shows in a year and a half, each lasting three to four and a half hours with weeks-long runs, with teams of 30 and audiences of 150 to 200 each night. The company specializes in immersive theatre experiences, using texts by Genet and Shakespeare. They also devise their own pieces, including a live cooking show, complete with commercial breaks and a shared banquet. They completely transform their loft for each show, often employing large film projections, and audiences explore the space, touch the set and interact with the performers, all at their own pace; at any time, they can also go outside to take a break, have a drink and socialize.
A good portion, though not all, of Lucid's audiences are fellow Vulcan dwellers, and the community is one of Vulcan's greatest assets, both artistically and practically. (Need a particular cord? Another artist in a neighboring loft probably has it.) Mandell even says that, in lieu of real corporate donations, "our corporation donation is our community." Part of Lucid's mission is to incorporate into its shows all who volunteer, according to their ability and the amount of time they can commit. "You can get a raw, honest performance from a freshie," says Leslie, referring to those who've never acted before. "All you have to do usually is tell them to speak up."
There is of course a drawback to this ready-made and ever-present group of audiences, volunteers and artists and the seemingly ceaseless artistic creation it engenders, which is lack of privacy. Myles Faigin, Lucid's executive producer, says he at moments feels, understandably, that he just really doesn't want a show in his house. At times, performers commandeer even private sleeping quarters within the Lucid complex. "You have your room," says Leslie, "except, oh, there's two people putting on makeup there." Even more invasively, Lucid has a proud history of pets giving birth in residents' bedrooms on opening nights.
Lucid dwellers and other live-work-performers deal with that by going on walks or visiting others' spaces, but they all stress that their passion for integrating their life with their work keeps that problem minimal. "If I'd wanted to live in a tiny space with my own room, I would have done that," says Leslie.
The key, Mandell says, is being honest with yourself about how much hardship you're willing to take. To live in the Bay Area, says Mandell, "you sacrifice. You're willing to live under your own specific poverty line. The thing about Oakland is, you really have to know yourself, or she'll spit you out."
Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound.