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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2015

Arts Festival Back in Action

Monday, May 11, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Emily Wilson

After a couple of years of presenting a few individual shows under its banner, the San Francisco International Arts Festival comes back with a vengeance this May with about 150 theatre, dance and music performances, along with visual arts installations over three weeks. With the theme Bearing Witness, local artists as well as ones from countries including Iran, Ireland, Taiwan and the Republic of Congo will present their work. What changed? It all has to do with Fort Mason, hosting the festival this year and being the leading supporter. The festival first went to Fort Mason in 2009 and Andrew Wood, the director of the SFIAF, says he considers the repurposed military site, with its location by the water, multiple venues clustered together and views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Angel Island, the "spiritual home" of the festival. For the last couple of years, they weren't able to get the Cowell Theater because of seismic upgrades—or planned upgrades. This year, Fort Mason is allowing them to use some venues rent-free. 

Ariel Luckey in Amnesia. Photo: Pak Han


"The amount of space we have has tripled," Wood says. "Usually we try to rent two performing spaces from them. This year they're giving us seven. They've given us $200,000, basically."

For the artists to get the spaces for free and to get to keep 90 percent of the door means they can worry less about making money and actually get to focus on what they do. Having local and international artists together will mean a chance for them to talk to one another and share ideas as well as for audiences to see a variety of live performances in one spot. 

"It's a watershed year for us because of the concentration," Wood says. "I have known the festival had this potential since I started. All it took was space. In the end, space is more important than money. If people have space, they can generate their own money."

There's another important thing about having so many performances together. Wood says it can mean that governments will want to be represented and start planning to put it in their budget to send artists—rather than the artists having to apply for grants. 

All this fits in with Fort Mason Center's mission of supporting art and artists, says Rich Hillis, the center's executive director. Already, he says, Fort Mason offers reduced rents for organizations there, including BATS Improv, Magic Theatre and the Mexican Museum. 

"That's what we want to do, especially now when arts groups are being displaced," Hillis says. "In these times when people are struggling to find venues, that's exactly what we're here for." 

 devorah major. Photo: Malaika H. Kambon

Hillis says the breadth and diversity of the SFIAF impresses him. Headlining the festival this year is the Polish group Teatr Zar, the resident company of the Grotowski Institute from Wroclaw, Poland. The company will perform the US premiere of Armine, Sister based on some events of the Armenian genocide, which marks its 100th anniversary this year. 

Wood calls the group the ultimate ensemble act because it has the luxury of time to research its pieces—months or years, rather than the few weeks American theatre companies have. It's from Armine, Sister that the festival takes its theme of Bearing Witness, as the play deals with the complicity of witnesses to horrible acts who don't speak up. Wood says the piece represents something new for Teatr Zar.

"Basically, they found politics and activism in a big way," he says. "The Armenian community here is excited about it. There are a lot of things happening for the 100th anniversary, but this one stands out. It's a seminal theatre event."

San Francisco's third poet laureate, devorah major, is one of the leading local artists at the festival with a piece, Classic Black, costarring Brian Freeman and directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang. Although she grew up in San Francisco, major says she didn't know much about the history of African Americans here. When she was a poet-in-residence at San Francisco's African American Historical Society, she read monographs of historical figures. That led to this play, exploring the history of African Americans in San Francisco in the early 1900s. 

"It gives a sense of the various characters and why I found myself excited about them," major says. "I feel like history is often made out to very boring, and it is if it's dates and places and wars. History is always about wars. But it's also actions and dramas and individual lives."

One of those individual lives she learned about was William Leidesdorff, who has an alley named after him in San Francisco's Financial District. His father, a Danish slave owner, took his son to California, and gambled him away several times. As a man, Leidesdorff bought freedom for himself and his mother and became wealthy, launching the first steamboat to operate on San Francisco Bay and building the City Hotel, the first hotel in San Francisco. His father, who fought for the rebel cause in the Civil War, asked his son for money. 

The black history we do learn, major says, seems to be focused mainly on slavery and the Civil Rights era. Learning about these original, resourceful and hard-working characters here in San Francisco could make a difference, she thinks. 

"In the dynamics of race in America, people are constantly saying black people haven't done anything," major says. "Knowing the history of all the things we did do can change the perception of others towards us. Also you feel better knowing what you can achieve when you see what people have done with a little bit of nothing. People often feel very hopeless—that they can't change things. That's a value of history—to infuse people of with the possibility of what they can do."

Simona Sala in Teatr Zar's Armine, Sister. Photo: Irena Lipińska


Learning who the people were whose names are on signs on roads and alleys makes you think, major says. "It makes you wonder what else don't you know," she says. "There are stories behind the names, and they're interesting, not yawn-let-me-go-to-sleep stories."

Oakland-based Ariel Luckey, who presents a solo show (with a live band) during the festival, wasn't yawning when he learned about his great-great-grandfather's story of leaving a small town in Russia (now Belarus), traveling to New York, then to Los Angeles and retiring in Phoenix. Luckey came up with the piece, Amnesia, after Arizona passed SB 1070 in 2010. The controversial law required police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained if there was "reasonable suspicion" they weren't in the US legally.

"Arizona became ground zero of the immigration debate," Luckey says. "I have a bunch of family in Arizona, and we were immigrants, but when folks talk about immigrants, they're not talking about people who look like me, so I wanted to add it to the conversation." 

Luckey and his brother did research into his family's history, finding out and visiting the village his great-great-grandfather came from. In Amnesia, he explores race and immigration now and then as well as comparing and contrasting how it was for Jews and for Latinos to come to this country. 

"One of the real questions it asks is what is my role as a descendant of immigrants," Luckey says. "It's an ongoing political issue, and thousands are deported every day and locked up and taken away from their families. I'm bearing witness to their experience. It's easy as a citizen not to think about it, because I can go through life without worrying if a simple traffic stop will lead to my being locked up." 

Luckey and major are two of the local performers in the festival. Theatre of Yugen manages to be both local and international. Founded in 1978 and based in San Francisco, it is the only company in the United States to present work based in Japanese Noh drama and Kyogen satire. Its new director, Tanroh Ishida, grew up in Japan, but has lived in London the past 13 years since he moved there at 15. Classically trained in both Japanese and Western theatre, he wants to take the traditional Japanese theatre style and make it more accessible. 

"The perception of Noh is that it's slow and boring," he says. "That's sometimes true. We're trying to move away from that." 

In Yugen's piece at the festival, The Genji State, Ishida says they've invited a Martha Graham dancer from New York, Miki Orihara, as well as musicians from London. The story comes from traditional Noh theatre, Ishida says, but the context has been completely changed, and it's set in an imaginary state where there is heavy censorship. The play is in an immersive theatre style so the audience members are walking into the world of the play. 

 Ariel Luckey in Amnesia. Photo: Bethanie Hines

Ishida says he's looking forward to the festival and being able to share thoughts and ideas with other artists, both informally, and in a structured context, as when he and local director, playwright and actor Mark Jackson will give a public talk on the difference between theatre in the US and UK. 

Both major and Luckey agree the festival is a rare opportunity to have this kind of interaction. Major has participated in arts festivals on other continents and says she learns a lot and enjoys the cross-fertilization that comes from sharing with other artists. 

Luckey calls Fort Mason a "spectacular" spot, and he's he excited to see other shows and meet other performers. 

"It's fun, and more than that, there's a particular set of gifts and challenges that come with trying to make art in the world today," he says. "It's really special to have live performance in a world of increasing technology where everything is on a screen. To be making art and doing it together—it's so valuable to connect and network and be in community." 


The San Francisco International Arts Festival runs May 21–June 7 at Fort Mason Center. Visit

Emily Wilson is a radio, print and online reporter. She teaches students getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco.