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From the Executive Director: Dirty Words

Posted By TBA Staff, Wednesday, September 14, 2016

By Brad Erickson

In the overheated political atmosphere of this election season, certain words have morphed from virtues to vices. They've been transformed from compliments into epithets hurled by one side and the other. Among them are once respectable notions like "dialogue" and "compromise." Ardent partisans, true believers in a cause, often paint any discussion with the other camp as a traitorous retreat from principle. We've seen this in Congress, in City Hall, on the campaign trail. And we've seen it in our field.

We live–and make theatre–in a time when issues, long buried, have sprung vigorously to life. We've seen this especially in the arena of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Patience has run out. For many, incremental change isn't good enough or quick enough. The demands of "justice now!" thrill some and catch others by surprise. Considering themselves good people, many are perplexed, hurt, insulted when they are cast as being insensitive or worse. The challengers are just as mystified that injustice is not obvious–particularly after it's been plainly identified–and can only conclude that anyone standing in the way of reform must be motivated by prejudice or at least a callous desire to hold onto their own privilege. In this atmosphere, dialogue and constructive compromise is not only difficult, it is considered capitulation.

Here in the Bay Area we have seen an inspiring exception to this trend.

Early in the spring, conversations began to circulate around a local upcoming production of The Mikado by Lamplighters Music Theatre. In the past few years the Gilbert and Sullivan favorite has become a touchstone for protest and controversy. A Seattle production in 2014 inflamed and bitterly divided the city's artistic community, drawing attention from the national press. A 2015 New York City presentation of the show was pulled after heated complaints forced the G&S society there to cancel the run. Here in the Bay Area, the issues were the same as Seattle and New York. The operetta, set in a fantastical Japan, encompasses dozens of characters, all of them Asian, most of whom, if not all, are traditionally played by Caucasian actor-singers dressed and made-up in extravagant "Oriental" style. Once considered simply an old chestnut from the Victorian era, now the show to many could only be seen as being inherently racist, rife with Orientalism, and promoting a flagrant use of yellow-face. It was, some said, irredeemable, and should be retired from the canon, never to be done again.

That was one side. Another saw the show as full of sharp humor that pilloried not one particular culture, but universal foibles. They considered the work a classic full of beautiful music, rooted in its time but with deep and lasting meaning and relevance.

With positions like these, it would be difficult to imagine real dialogue. But that is exactly what transpired. Here in the Bay Area, the critics of the piece sat down with the producers of the show and both groups laid out their perspectives. They spoke their truths. The conversations were hard but candid and respectful. I know because I was there for that first meeting in my office with Lily Tung Crystal of Ferocious Lotus, an Asian American theatre company dedicated to showcasing the diverse realities of our world, and Sarah Vardigans of Lamplighters.

What ensued was a continuing discussion, involving many more in the community, with back-and-forths that were heartfelt and passionate. The dialogue could have devolved into mere name-calling (and to be honest, feelings were sometimes hurt when particularly pointed thoughts were expressed). The larger arts community was brought into the conversation at a convening hosted by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There a vigorous exchange was facilitated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and relayed across the country on HowlRound. Being in dialogue wasn't easy. For anyone. But remarkably, both sides and their allies and folks in between stayed in the game. They talked. They listened. They heard one another. And change happened.

This summer, Lamplighters Music Theatre, a company that has an international reputation and has been dedicated to presenting Gilbert and Sullivan classics for 64 years, produced a reimagined version of the classic, "The New Mikado," as they dubbed it. They set the action not in Japan but in a mythical Renaissance Italy. They utilized Asian-American dramaturgs to root out Orientalism and offensive humor. What they presented was not just a scrubbed up piece that could welcome everyone, but a new and gorgeous work of art.

After seeing the show, Mina Morita, a Ferocious Lotus company member, posted this on Facebook:

"Lily Tung Crystal, Phil Wong, and I saw Lamplighters Music Theatre's The New Mikado Saturday, and it was full of heart, grace, artistry, and made my soul sing. As Lily says, 'They did such wonderful work with the libretto, making only minor changes, staying true to the script, while opening it up to a wider, more diverse audience. It was clever and hilarious, and the music and singing were great.' Please support this important step towards inclusion while pushing for artistic innovation.... Congratulations, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Sarah Vardigans and Ellen Brooks and the entire cast, crew and creative team (Miriam R. Lewis for fabulous costumes)! And thank you immensely for being in conversation with us these past few months."

The courage and perseverance of Bay Area theatre makers that brought to life The New Mikado upends the current paradigm of hopeless division. Our theatre artists have shown that difficult discussions and the willingness to compromise doesn't have to result in some washed-out middle. They have demonstrated that dynamic tension and openness to change can spur a vibrant creativity powerful enough to move thousands and just possibly preserve a classic for another hundred years.


Brad Erickson
is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

Tags:  Executive Director's Note 

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From the Executive Director: The Big Win

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, July 5, 2016

By Brad Erickson

For those who have been following arts funding in California over the past 20 years, the news out of Sacramento last week was stunning. The California Arts Council (CAC) was able to trumpet that its budget had just been increased by another $10.8 million, for a total topping $18 million for the upcoming year. Just four years ago—and for a decade before that—the CAC could scrape together only $3 million from all sources ($1 million from the legislature, $1 million from the National Endowment for the Arts and $1 million from arts license plates and voluntary contributions).

Advocates, like those of us at Theatre Bay Area and Californians for the Arts, have been hammering away for over a decade to move California out of last place in the nation, in terms of per-capita investments in the arts—a figure that, for a dozen years, stood at just three cents per person. Our aim has been to restore (and even surpass) the CAC’s one-time $30 million appropriation in 2000, which placed the Golden State’s arts funding firmly at the national median of one dollar per person. Last week’s announcement that the Governor had signed the $18 million appropriation still moves California’s arts investment to only 50 cents per capita, but the jump was significant enough to be celebrated as a major victory for artists, arts groups and communities of all kinds around the state. Yes, we still have a long way to go to appropriately resource the CAC in order to fully support effective and equitable funding for arts programs around California, but we have also just had a very big win, and it’s right to celebrate.

Here in San Francisco, we stand on the cusp of a potentially game-changing development: a broad coalition of arts groups (of which Theatre Bay Area is part) has joined with advocates for ending family homelessness to place an initiative on the fall ballot. This ballot measure would restore funding for the arts and affordable housing that had for decades been supported by the San Francisco hotel tax, historic allocations that were severed several years ago by the City Attorney in an attempt to preempt a potential lawsuit over legal technicalities surrounding uses of the tax. This ballot measure would not only preclude any future litigation, it would reestablish a stable (and growing) source of funding for the arts while dedicating more than $20 million to provide housing for the more than 2500 homeless children in San Francisco and their families. For the arts, the restoration of the hotel tax allocation will mean an additional $21 million a year in funding within four years, and that total is set to increase annually as receipts from San Francisco’s booming tourist and convention industry continue to rise.

As impressive as that figure is, the consensus over the allocation of the funds is almost more astounding. With a coalition drawn from a number of San Francisco’s largest arts organizations (the Opera, the Symphony, the Ballet) along with American Conservatory Theater, Theatre Bay Area and a number of smaller and multicultural groups (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, the Queer Cultural Center, the Chinese Cultural Center, Root Division and the Center for New Music), the measure has been written so that two-thirds of the hotel tax funds would be directed to Cultural Equity Grants and arts in the neighborhoods, while one-third would fund the city’s Grants for the Arts, the original arts recipient of the 55-year-old hotel tax. That such a diverse cohort of arts groups could agree on arts appropriations—and move together to place this measure on the November ballot—is a new high-water mark in trust and cooperation between artists and leaders from across the city’s arts ecosystem. 

What’s next? Statewide, advocates will focus on the next legislative cycle. The new appropriations are only for the new fiscal year, so legislators and the Governor alike will need to be actively persuaded to renew or increase these appropriations for 2018. In San Francisco, the ballot measure campaign will take off in earnest once the necessary number of signatures are submitted (as expected) on July 11. The measure requires a two-thirds majority of the electorate to pass (always a high bar), and proponents will be working to motivate friends and neighbors to support a vision for the city that links community vitality to retaining San Francisco’s artists and arts groups while finding a way to end family homelessness.

For more on the ballot measure and an upcoming rally on Jul. 11, click here.

Want to add your signature to the ballot initiative? View a list of venues and dates here.

If you’d like to make a donation to support the campaign effort, click here.


Brad Erickson
is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

Tags:  arts advocacy  californians for the arts  Executive Director's Note 

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Executive Director's Note: Risk Capital

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Updated: Wednesday, December 2, 2015

By Brad Erickson


It’s the beginning of December, we’re nearing the close of 2015, and Theatre Bay Area stands at the brink of a huge milestone—our 40th anniversary year. Four decades ago, a group of theatre artists and leaders of local companies came together to launch an organization with the express purpose of uniting, strengthening, promoting and advancing the theatre community here in the Bay Area; Theatre Bay Area was created by this community, for this community. Forty years later we are honored to serve more than 300 theatre company members, 2,000+ theatre artist members and literally tens of thousands of theatre patrons located all around the region.

As our 40th year quickly approaches, we are excited to mark this anniversary by embracing a bold new strategic plan. Our goal is to see every individual and every community in the Bay Area experience the particular power of theatre. To that end, we have committed ourselves to focus our efforts on three major areas: 

• Equipping theatre-makers for success: We support the theatre-makers of the Bay Area with essential services and resources, programs that put grants into the hands of artists and companies, that assist theatre-makers in forwarding their careers and that empower theatre companies to better their work and reach new audiences.

• Recognizing artistic achievement: We celebrate the region’s artists and companies through an exciting new program, the TBA Awards, now entering its third year. The TBA Awards culminate each November with the glittering TBA Awards Celebration, hosted for the past two years by A.C.T. at the historic Geary Theater.

• Developing audiences: We work to bring more people, more fully reflecting the diversity of the Bay Area, to be more deeply engaged with theatre through a number of one-of-a-kind programs that link thousands of Bay Area residents and visitors to the dazzling variety of theatre offerings all around the region.

Now, with 40 just around the corner, we are readying ourselves for the future by launching an unprecedented campaign to create our first-ever Innovation Fund. The Innovation Fund will enable us to create forward-looking new programs and enhance legacy services. Our aim is to offer the best possible services to help theatre-makers successfully approach the realities of today’s Bay Area.  

How? New ideas abound. To become real they need resources—“risk capital,” as angel investors would say. Theatre Bay Area needs risk capital to support our region’s theatre-makers in times of enormous change.

Our Innovation Fund Campaign takes flight today. With five levels of participation, starting at just $40, we aim to include our whole community in building a Theatre Bay Area for the next 40 years. A Theatre Bay Area created by our community for our community. Watch for more on our Innovation Fund Campaign coming soon. 

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

Tags:  Executive Director's Note 

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From the Executive Director: Morning After

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, November 17, 2015

By Brad Erickson


It’s the morning after the second annual TBA Awards Celebration and the cheering—three nonstop hours of cheering—from last night’s event is still ringing in my brain (I’m pretty sure it’s the cheering and not the hangover from the way-too-much-fun after-party at PianoFight). The first reaction this morning is, “Thank God we made it! We can relax!” and the second, like on the day after Christmas, is that we’ve got 364 long days before next year’s event. 

The production values that our producers Nick Olivero and David Gluck brought to the evening were so high that I am tempted to review the celebration as if it were one of the productions highlighted at last night’s ceremony. Five stars, huge applause, falling-out-of-his-chair-Little-Man for MC Ron Campbell; for scriptwriter Allison Page; for announcer Carrie Paff; for the Killing My Lobster crew’s satirical opening number; for the show-stopping performances from Broadway By the Bay, San Jose Stage Company and Altarena Playhouse; and for the moving musical tribute led by Amy Lizardo and Teresa Attridge. We not only talked about theatrical achievement, we saw it live and on stage.

And what a stage. The Geary Theater is our community’s Notre Dame, and for this event American Conservatory Theater throws open the cathedral doors. Not only does ACT waive the usual rental fee, the company donates countless hours of staff time, from the box office, to the production crew to the executive offices. Watching hundreds of theatre artists, dressed to the nines and hailing from theatre companies of all sizes around the region, pouring into that burnished and glowing house and greeting each other so exuberantly (so very exuberantly that we had to hold the curtain a full 15 minutes) makes real the notion of a theatre “community” that we at Theatre Bay Area talk about so often.

Like last year, I was struck by the jubilation that rang out all night long, from the finalists as they appeared on stage, from the award recipients, from their friends and colleagues in the house and from those who may have been completely unfamiliar with an artist or a company until the names were announced. I heard no murmuring over those who might have been passed over. There was no need for a “triage for bruised egos,” as Ron Campbell joked—instead I sensed an extraordinary collective clap on the back for all the artists and their work.

What I did hear, many times, were comments like this from one veteran artistic director: “Who is that new company? I keep hearing their name over and over!” Or, “Wow, that number was terrific. I really need to go to [fill in the blank] Theatre more often!” Or even, “I’ve been in the Bay Area for years and I’ve never seen [fill in the blank]’s work. I’ve got to go!”

This might be the sweetest outcome of this program—if we are encouraged to explore the true depth and breadth of this theatre community we call home, and discover for ourselves the wealth of artistic achievement flourishing so joyfully on our stages night after night.

Click here for the full list of 2015 TBA Awards Recipients. 

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

Tags:  Executive Director's Note  TBA Awards 

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From the Executive Director: About to Bust in the Boom

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, October 20, 2015

By Brad Erickson


For years now—decades, even—arts advocacy has primarily meant beseeching government bodies (local, state and federal) to appropriate more money to their arts agencies, bureaucratic departments whose primary purpose was to dispense grants to artists and arts organizations. For advocates, the “ask” was simple: give more money to the arts. Why? So artists and arts organizations could better serve the constituents of the lawmakers by producing more art and art education programs in their communities.

It was easy to unite arts advocates around campaigns when the task was simply to wrest more public dollars for the arts from government coffers. When infighting broke out (and it did), the disputes were typically around where public dollars should be targeted: large-budget organizations or small? Multicultural groups or mainstream institutions? Urban or rural? Arts education or arts programming? Professional or community-based arts? Scarcity could make the debates desperately heated—and often worked to undermine the entire advocacy effort. When victories came, it was most often when the arts advocates themselves could lay aside the internecine disputes and speak with one voice—as we were able to do earlier this year in both Sacramento and San Francisco’s City Hall.

Today, as the Bay Area experiences a new tech-based economic boom, the issues facing the arts—and arts advocates—are more complex than simply seeking more money for public granting bodies. We’ll need plenty more of that, too, but the biggest challenge lies beyond the purview and the capacity of arts agencies.

The gravest threat to theatre and all the arts across the Bay Area is the skyrocketing cost of living and making art in this superheated economy. It is not news to report that artists and arts organizations are being forced out of their homes. But it bears repeating that in San Francisco the average rental rate for an apartment and the median price of a home have very nearly doubled in just five years. Prices in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties aren’t far behind. San Francisco now ranks as one of the top five most expensive cities in the world for commercial rents—right up with (if not surpassing) London, Tokyo and New York. And the ripple effects of those astronomical statistics are felt all around the region, as we saw when Uber announced the purchase of Oakland’s Sears Building and commercial rents in that neighborhood jumped by double-digit percentages in one afternoon.

Our public arts agencies cannot grant the arts out of this crisis. But something must be done. Activists have generated a welter of options, seeming at times to be following a strategy of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Initiatives are on the November ballot to build more housing—both market-rate and affordable—while others seek a moratorium on new housing in targeted neighborhoods, in an effort to cool down the market and create space for crafting long-range plans to manage development. Meanwhile, opponents say that curtailing construction will only exacerbate the problem—and both sides point to conflicting studies to back up their arguments. Other initiatives and new legislation seek to limit (or open up) short-term rental options (à la Airbnb), expand rent control, legalize alternative living spaces (mother-in-law units), strengthen “legacy” small businesses, establish “cultural districts” or “arts corridors,” open neighborhoods to megadevelopment, change zoning laws and increase set-asides for affordable housing, to name just some of the approaches being proposed.

For many of us arts advocates, navigating this new reality will mean boning up on unfamiliar and often complicated issues. It will mean finding new allies and participating in novel meetings and hearings. It will mean expanding our advocacy vocabulary and our minds.

Just this past week, I was impressed to learn what one Theatre Bay Area member, Peter Papadopoulos, and members of his company, Mojo Theatre, are doing in their Mission District neighborhood: rolling up their sleeves to understand arcane zoning codes; engaging with the city Planning Department; and meeting with City Hall staff to discuss potential legislation that could protect theatre companies, other arts groups and individual artists at risk of losing their work and living spaces. This kind of activism is not easy work. It’s certainly not sexy work. But it’s the kind of work in which all of us, as arts advocates, are going to need to engage if we’re going effectively confront today’s biggest threat to the arts in the Bay Area. 

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

Tags:  advocacy  Executive Director's Note 

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From the Executive Director: The Good Life

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, August 4, 2015

By Brad Erickson

I’ve just begun a project working with the Arts Council Napa Valley to train their staff and board of directors on arts advocacy, with the goal of empowering the ACNV leadership to lead ongoing advocacy workshops in their community. It’s a terrific initiative, designed by the organization’s CEO Olivia Everett, and gives me a great reason to drive up to the wine country several times over the next few months.

In the initial meeting with the Arts Council’s board, I asked the group to share their personal visions of what the Valley could be and how the arts fit into making that vision a reality. Napa County is a complicated place. Technically part of the Bay Area, it can seem both a world away and a world apart. The Valley’s reputation is worldwide, and the county draws millions of visitors each year. They come for the wine, of course, and the food, the vistas and the nearly ever-present sunshine. They come for what many on the Arts Council’s board referred to as “the good life.”

Seemingly pulled from the glossy pages of Conde Nast Traveler, for me that phrase immediately conjured images of affluent (white) people sipping wine on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking an idyllic scene—exactly what the Napa Chamber of Commerce might hope! The phrase seemed, at first hearing, steeped in privilege. And yet, it came up again and again. Apparently in this particular community, soaked in natural beauty, an ethos that declares that everyone, not just the well-heeled, deserves a chance to enjoy a “good life,” feels not so far-fetched.

For Napa County, with a third of its population living below the poverty line, that’s crucial. If the vision for Valley is, as one board member put it, to be “where life is good,” then life needs to be good for everyone. And the arts, in the view of the ACNV board, must play a crucial role in enriching the lives of all the county’s residents—as well as its many visitors. Art in the county, the board asserted, must be for all.  

That’s a message that can resonate for the rest of us in the Bay Area as well. We know we live in one of the most affluent regions on the planet (there are now more “super-rich” people living in San Francisco than Los Angeles, despite the fact that L.A. is more than three times as populous as SF). And we know that the income gap between rich and poor in the Bay Area is more pronounced than almost anywhere in this country. Income disparity in the Bay Area is replicated in gaps in education, opportunity, health and public safety, as well as gaps in access to the arts.  

Bridging the gap in access to the arts is where arts advocacy becomes an issue of social justice—because the arts, as we have made the case to policy makers so many times, really do make a difference in people’s lives and their communities. Bridging the gap in access to theatre is where our work as theatre-makers (and theatre supporters) becomes an act of social justice, a way of making the entire Bay Area a place “where life is good.” For everyone.   


Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area. 

Tags:  Executive Director's Note 

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