Name: Alicia

Web Site:

Bio: Alicia Coombes is a dramaturg, director and writer. Growing up in rural Oklahoma as an outsider with a flair for the dramatic, she wasn’t exposed to very much art or theatre outside of rodeos and Halloween Hell Houses. Luckily as a teenager her family returned to the Bay Area and she quickly immersed herself in more arts and culture than she had imagined was possible. She still has a particular soft spot for the dramatic (and clowns, perhaps from the rodeo days). She graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Theatre with an emphasis in Dramaturgy. She was Aurora Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Artistic Assistant for four seasons and served as resident dramaturg for the 2011-2012 Season. She has worked in many aspects of the theatre with several other Bay Area companies including Crowded Fire Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Z Space/Word for Word, Golden Thread, Woman’s Will, and CalShakes and is currently the Company Manager for San Francisco’s foolsFURY Theater.

Posts by acoombes:

    Top Ten Theatrical Moments

    February 19th, 2013
    Cyclops in the Salt Plays by Jon Tracy

    Hydra in the Salt Plays by Jon Tracy

    As a theater professional, I’ve seen more plays than I can count. Picking favorites is tough since I base my opinion on a number of considerations: the experience as a whole, technical elements, various aesthetic choices…The list goes on. Therefore, it is almost impossible for me to tell people which shows they should see since any given production could be vastly different from what made it enjoyable to me as an individual viewer.

    This is why I could never come up with a top ten list of productions; instead, I’ve chosen to hone in on a top ten list of onstage moments that made some of my favorite productions awesome. What makes these moments so special are the balance of surprising elements and technical expertise; moments that turn out differently than I expect, while showcasing a very talented person doing something extraordinary. To me, these moments truly make theater the unique artform it is.

    10. Good Vibrations

    In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl

    Set in Victorian England, In the Next Room is about a doctor who cures “hysteria” by inducing orgasm with a vibrator. There is a touchingly hilarious scene in the middle of this sumptuous play in which the doctor’s wife (Hannah Cabel) and patient (Maria Dizzia) sneak into his office to fire up his newest machine and test it on themselves. Watching shy, naive housewives discover a vibrator while discussing its merits in front of a jaded modern audience — all without becoming pornographic — was a charged moment indeed.

    9. Gender Bender

    Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

    In Jacques Brel’s famous musical revue, the song, “Amsterdam”, can be powerful but blustery and is usually sung by a male actor. This particular production by the Marin Theatre Company was no different; the song was dark but intriguing, well-executed by a great male singer. During a production by the Marin Theatre Company, the lead singer fell ill and Kristin Stokes took his place. Stokes’ soulful voice transformed the song from a harsh retelling of fishermen and prostitutes living in Amsterdam into deep, touching and bitter emotion.

    8. Curtain Raiser

    Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman

    The well-known story of a murderous king who falls in love with his wife’s tales is a rich mine-field of beautiful images. A cast of dozens work together to weave the tales together using song, dance, comedy and movement. In Zimmerman’s production, the curtain rises with nothing onstage but shapes covered in white dropcloths. When the lights come down and the real show begins, however, the space is transformed by a sudden influx of singing actors and carefully orchestrated stage magic, revealing Oriental rugs, hanging lanterns and bright silks. The simplicity of quickly changing a space in front of the audience’s eyes made this moment breathtaking.

    7. Last Word

    Taming of the Shrew by Shana Cooper

    The story of a woman fighting for autonomy, being humiliated and starved, wagered as a bet to an insufferable man and slowly brought to submission might be enough for many to want to put this particular Shakespeare play to rest. However, Shana Cooper’s careful direction of the onstage chemistry between Kate (Erica Sullivan) and Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) allowed their relationship to bloom. Kate’s final speech, addressed to her sister, is traditionally meant to show her newfound understanding of submissiveness; however, Sullivan executed the speech as a loving affirmation, speaking of loyalty as a way to lift her up instead of hold her back.

    6. Just Be Yourself

    Anna Deveare Smith’s monologues

    Anna Deveare Smith‘s one-woman shows feature monologues taken from her own interviews with real people (some famous, some not). In her most recent show, Let Me Down Easy, her characters included a rodeo bull rider, Lance Armstrong, Eve Ensler and a doctor who worked in a hospital after Hurricane Katrina. However, my favorite moments in her shows happen in between her character monologues, when she is herself once again, moving in her own body, before jumping into the next character like a spirit medium.

    5. Simple Twist

    The Salt Plays by Jon Tracy

    In this rewrite of Homer’s Iliad, low-tech theatricality enhanced the performance and made it unforgettable. Twine wrapped around nails became the outline a ship, while cleverly hung lights moved by actors became a Cyclops and Hydra.

    4. Heartbreaker

    The Birds Flew In performed by Nora el Samahy

    In this short play, a Middle Eastern woman laments her son’s death at his funeral, recounting a heart-wrenching story of coming to grips with losing her son. The entire monologue was disturbing, vibrant and nuanced, especially when el Samahy played with emotions like fear and irony to temper her character’s mourning.

    3. Girl Gone Wild

    The Wild Bride by Emma Rice

    The inherent theatricality of having three women play the same character at different points in her life has been explored before, to be sure. However, in Kneehigh Theatre‘s production of The Wild Bride, this convention is used to its full potential. All three women interact during each phase of the character’s life, weaving together stages of pain, sadness, healing and eventual victory.

    2. Bringing Home the Bacon

    Our Town by the Barrow Street Theatre

    Having been performed hundreds of times in high schools throughout the country, Our Town can easily become steeped in sickly-sweet nostalgia. In the final act (usually the most heavy-handed and sentimental), one of the main characters, Emily Webb, looks down upon the town from the afterlife, begging the semi-omnipotent Stage Manager to visit the morning of her 11th birthday one more time. In this production, the Stage Manager whisked open a curtain to reveal a fully-functioning kitchen with Mrs. Webb tossing a slab of bacon in a cast-iron skillet. As the bacon sizzled, the tiny theatre was filled with the smell of breakfast, along with personal nostalgia from individual viewers.

    1. Movie Magic

    Brief Encounter by Emma Rice

    Incorporating projections into theater has become a trend that walks the line between adding a creative element to the production and distracting from the stage. Emma Rice’s use of projections in Brief Encounter, however, was nothing short of theatrical genius. The play incorporates a number of film elements: soaring music, close-ups of a beautiful woman’s tear-streaked face and black-and-white scenery. One of the most jaw-dropping moments happened during the lovers’ final farewell. As an actor ran to catch a train (projected on a screen behind them), he leaps through it, his image then appearing in the window of the projection, waving to his lover as he glides offscreen.

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    Interview with Poet erica lewis

    January 31st, 2013

    erica lewisPoet erica lewis’ third publication, murmur in the inventory, was released this month. murmur in the inventory is lewis’ first published book project that isn’t part of a collaboration with an artist and does not contain a visual arts pairing, letting the poetry stand alone in a way that it has not before.

    A graduate of Northwestern University and Mills College, her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. Books include precipice of jupiter and camera obscura, both featuring original artwork by her husband, Mark Stephen Finein.

    Originally from Cincinnati, lewis now lives in San Francisco where she works as a fine arts publicist by day. This means that lewis spends most of her time showcasing the work of other artists; in fact, most people who know her in a professional capacity do not know she is a talented artist herself.

    lewis took the time to speak with Art Animal about her creative process, her double life and the meaning behind her work.

    Art Animal: How would you describe your work to someone who is not well-versed in poetry?
    erica lewis: I would say that my work is an ongoing examination about how we relate to one another and how we relate to ourselves — how we see ourselves as individuals and collective beings, and how we view the world inside and outside of the box that we put it in.

    I’m a big believer in art that makes you feel something.

    A lot of my work has to deal with memory and the past, and how we grapple with the things we cannot change in order to move forward. Maybe I’m just trying to work out some unresolved issues that I have with growing up and being an adult. But I think it’s good to put all that out there; maybe others will get something out of it. That’s what I always hope for with my work; that it makes people feel something. I’m a big believer in art that makes you feel something. I did a reading in Berkeley recently and someone came up to me and said, “Your poems sucker-punched my soul in the face.” That was the best compliment ever. People think they’re going to get one thing from me and then they get something entirely different. I love it. I think that’s a big part of my work as well; you get something entirely different than what you were expecting. To hell with pre-conceived notions of poetry.

    Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis' camera obscura

    Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis’ camera obscura

    I don’t write traditional verse. I’ve heard what I do called, “West Coast avant garde.” Some of my projects involve visual art alongside the text. Most of my poems have non-traditional formatting on the page. It might not all be immediately easily accessible, but I think there is a way into it for everyone. It used to be a lot more academic, a lot more experimental, but formal in its experimentation. Now, I’m writing stuff that’s a little more conversational, or at least the conversation isn’t so internal or one-sided as it once was.

    AA: When did you start writing?  Were you encouraged by anyone in particular?
    el: I started writing when I was very young. I always kept journals and notebooks; as far back as I can remember I always had this affinity for and fascination with language. I loved books. When I would get in trouble as a child, as punishment I would get sent to my room, or wasn’t allowed to play outside or couldn’t watch television. My mother thought that she was punishing me, but I was completely fine with it. I would just go read a book or write. So thanks, mom. Actually, she caught on. When she figured out what was going on, it was the funniest thing because she was pretty much like, “What do I do now? Take away her books?” God bless my mom. She’s always just let me be me. I would say she was my earliest inspiration and mentor.

    God bless my mom. She’s always just let me be me. I would say she was my earliest inspiration and mentor.

    My father wrote poetry with a capital “p.” He considered himself a writer, but he didn’t inspire me. He wrote poems for special occasions, weddings, funerals, big life events. He was the go-to guy for a poem. But people looked up to him. So maybe it was inspiring to see that. But really, I just remember this love affair I’ve always had with the written word. I got books instead of toys. Going to the bookstore was the best thing in the world. My mom always brought books home to me, always read to me when I was young. I always thought I would have a meaningful relationship with them.

    I have always looked up to writers, living and dead. Reading the collected works of Langston Hughes was pivotal for me. My English professor at Northwestern, Larry Evans, made me want to have a deeper understanding of writers and writing, specifically British writers – I discovered [T.S.] Eliot and [Ezra] Pound through him. There are some San Francisco writers that I consider to be mentors – Susan Gevirtz and Norma Cole have been amazing mentors for me, really supportive and generous; they are just really creative women who have been working at their craft for a long time, and who continue to be relevant and creative. That’s inspiring to me. I want to be like them when I grow up.

    Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis' camera obscura

    Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis’ camera obscura

    AA: In 2009, you were voted “Best Theater PR Person” by the SF Weekly. How does your work as a publicist affect your personal, creative endeavors?
    el: The short answer is that it really doesn’t. I try to keep my work life and my creative life entirely separate. Most people in my creative life don’t really know what I do for a living, and most people in my work life have no idea that I have an active creative life.

    Unless you know me really well, you don’t know that I am an artist, that I’m not just someone who participates in the enabling of art for others. The biggest thing for me has been maintaining that balance and separation. It’s almost like having to be two different people.

    It’s hard to switch from one mode to another. I don’t get out nearly as much as I would like to for art and poetry events. I am way behind on my personal reading list (the stack of unread books on my nightstand is reaching scary heights). Sometimes I’m just too mentally and physically drained from my day job to even think about writing. But not mixing the two has been my way of maintaining a sort of balance between what I do for money and being an artist. I am very guarded about that line and maintaining a separation between work and art.

    AA: How would you describe the tone of your current book? How does it differ from your previously published work?
    el: I think all of my projects are meditative. I tend to work with larger themes and concepts and break them down, distill them, slowly turn the screw.

    How do you know you’re still there? How do you survive when you’ve already disappeared?

    My current book, murmur in the inventory, is essentially about fragmentation, being haunted, and how sometimes you are your own ghost. There are 75 poems written in different “voices” throughout five sections; it is the first published book project that I have written that does not contain a visual art collaboration — a departure that, I think, has yielded some interesting textual results. murmur is the book that I started writing when I quit my job a few years ago, so it is very reflective in the sense that it asks, when everything you’ve known has been stripped away — when the thing that you thought was your identity is no longer how you can define yourself — then who are you? How do you know you’re still there? How do you survive when you’ve already disappeared? It was a very strange, difficult time in my life and I thought about these things a lot. I still do. I read poems from this book now and I’m immediately taken back to that time. And it’s so surreal. And humbling. Because things are so different now. I’m so different now.

    AA: You have done a lot of work in collaboration with other artists. Do you find the process of collaboration particularly suited to your style?
    el: I have done three collaborations with a visual artist (Mark Stephen Finein) but I’ve also worked in collaboration with other poets (Ariel Goldberg and Dan Thomas-Glass). I think collaboration is definitely suited to poetry as a form.

    While I have done collaborations, I don’t think that collaboration particularly suits my style as a writer. I am very process-based and very specific in the way that I write and work within my process to put the pieces together; it is very much a solo process. I’m sort of enjoying that solo process right now, actually. The visual collaborations with Mark happened very unexpectedly and very organically. With camera obscura, I used photos of his art that I found in a box in our apartment. They were photos of paintings, lithographs, woodcuts and drawings. He gave me permission to use what I wanted and did not participate in the placement of the art with the text, although he did read each art/text hybrid once it was written and give feedback.

    For the precipice of jupiter, all of the accompanying artwork was created for the project. The text was written first, and then the images were produced specifically for each respective text, more or less as reactions to the work. The images are a manifestation of the text, and in a way, they are abstractly enacting the text, or are the action to the text; they provide the visual “motion” in this series, as each piece has a specific visual “direction” to the text as well as the image. Not only are the right and left side of the main text in conversation with one another, but they are also in a multi-layered conversation with the accompanying image. Mark read each piece first and then created each of the images by hand.

    AA: Do you have a personal piece that you would call your favorite? Why?
    el: There are different pieces that I am drawn to for different reasons at different times. But right now I am really drawn to a particular piece in murmur in the inventory, in the fifth and final section, that just sort of sums up everything the book is about to me. It’s a piece about being damaged and learning how to see things as they really are and learning how to fix yourself. How memory or loss bores holes into you. And what you can do to move on from that.

    What gets me about the piece is that I remember exactly when I first started to write it. And I am probably drawn to it right now for many of the same reasons as when I initially wrote it. I was on an airplane leaving Cincinnati after a particularly emotionally traumatic trip home to take care of my mother, who was very ill, and there was all of this language about saving yourself and others and safety; you know, the things they have to say on planes before they take off. I was in a very disoriented headspace, processing everything that had happened in Cincinnati and also trying to orient myself to get back to my “real” life in San Francisco. So I was processing this language that I was confronted with in a very strange way. I sort of mashed it all together and this piece is the result of everything that happened to me on that trip. It speaks to the heart of what this book is really about for me, and the more that I read the piece, the more I realize that.

    Join erica lewis for upcoming readings of her work at A New Cadence on February 16 in Santa Cruz, California and at Studio One in Oakland, California on May 5.

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    Interview with Shiloh Sophia McCloud, founder of Cosmic Cowgirls

    January 24th, 2013

    Shiloh Sophia McCloud of Cosmic CowgirlsShiloh Sophia McCloud has dedicated nearly two decades of her life to practicing and sharing the creative arts. Six years ago, she founded Cosmic Cowgirls, INK – a multi-faceted woman-owned company consisting of a magazine, university and publishing house. McCloud has worked with tens of thousands of women online and in person through interactive journals, workshops, painting classes and coaching.

    McCloud and Cosmic Cowgirls use creativity, service and self-reflection to “change lives into legends.” McCloud believes that the women who make up the core membership of Cosmic Cowgirls have had to choose their “Good Girl” side — sacred, loving, care giving — over their “Bad Girl” side — wild, artistic, irreverent black sheep. She is sure, however, that a creative and artistic spiritual practice can bridge the gap between the sacred and wild sides of the women she works with.

    Art Animal recently sat with McCloud to discuss her work with Cosmic Cowgirls and what it means to live a legendary life.

    The Beaded Lady Divine Warriorism by Shiloh Sophia McCloudArt Animal: You describe yourself as a leader in the intentional creativity movement. What is this movement and what does it mean to intentionally create?
    Shiloh Sophia McCloud: Intentional Creativity is a term that has been circulating for quite some time. The way that we use it is to literally create whatever it is we’re creating with mindfulness, conscientiousness and intention. So whether that’s a painting, or cooking a soup, or dancing or planting a garden, before you begin the act of creation you actually intend it for something and bring heart to it.

    In order for there to be a movement, there have to be a certain number of people doing it. We have at least 75 women painters who are working with intentional women’s creativity, creating hundreds of images across the internet. So we’re calling that the movement.

    AA: Can you give our readers a few examples of other artists out there that are proud about their intentional creativity?
    SS: There are all kinds of people that are doing it in different ways. When we first started calling it that we weren’t necessarily studying other women artists, but I would say that there are definitely women inside of my community that are doing that. Elizabeth Gibbons, Annette Wagner — those are women who exhibited at the Celebration of Craftswomen [an all-women craft show in San Francisco], who would specifically say that they are doing intentional creativity. Also companies like Willow Arts, Pomegranite, Brush Arts and Papaya, who are bringing that into their work as well.

    Piece by Shiloh Sophia McCloudAA: How did you begin as an artist? Did you have anyone in your family or circle who taught you or supported you in particular?
    SS: Absolutely. I was raised in a very creative climate. My mom was a poet and an artist, and I had a mentor named Sue Sellars. When we train women in our programs, it’s through the legacy and the line of people who have taught me. I was encouraged that creativity was the best and most wonderful way for someone to become themselves, to become who they are. I wasn’t naturally talented as an artist; nobody said, “Wow! You’re gifted,” or “You should draw,” or “You should paint.” Doing that as a career came much later.

    AA: Let’s talk a little bit about Cosmic Cowgirls. How did it start? 
    SS: Cosmic Cowgirls is a woman- and girl-owned company that is both a publishing house and university. We have over 200 members and a lot of those are legal owners in the company. I founded it with the “Founding Mamas” in 2006, basically in response to a couple of different things. I wanted to do what I could to end isolation among women. I would have these women coming to workshops and they would go back home and it was like, “ok, now what do I do?” Cosmic Cowgirls was sort of the answer. Well, here’s what you do: you get involved, you get connected. We work on projects together and we paint together. We do poetry together, both in person and online. It’s a model that has a hundred-year-old business plan that we’re hoping to pass on to our children and grandchildren. In a way, it’s a keeper of women’s mysteries. Our sense is that this kind of women’s wisdom and connectivity is never going to be lost.

    Focusing on Beauty by Shiloh Sophia McCloudAA: Would you say there are quite a few women who came to you from scratch, not really having any creative knowledge?
    SS: Absolutely, a lot of the women, including in our leadership base. Our vision is “transforming lives into legends.” It’s our motto; it’s what happens when you show up and do creative work. You start shaping your life. It’s not uncommon for people [from Cosmic Cowgirls] to become coaches, for people to open stores, open art galleries. People are writing books, teaching workshops; people are publishing their blogs. They get on fire to create form. I think that’s one of the great common denominators of our community.

    AA: I know Cosmic Cowgirls is deeply involved in the community. What sorts of service projects do members get involved with?
    SSM: There’s a real call for service inside of our community. We are working on some different projects: we’re working on a girls’ journal; some of our members are working in recovery centers; we have women who work in rape crisis centers; we have people working with the homeless; we have women working with Wounded Warrior programs. As a company, we don’t really reach out to specific organizations for partnership. What happens is the individual inside of the company reaches out and goes outside of their own communities to form alliances.

    Bountiful One by Shiloh Sophia McCloudThis year, in March, I’ll be working with the Women’s United Nations Report Network. I will be presenting at the United Nations on creativity as it connects with women and violence. Another one of our members runs a not-for-profit called Top Angels; she works with women in refugee camps who have been displaced in Africa.

    Those are the ways that we are reaching out. Small, individual, close-to-home ways that our members reach out to their communities and teach workshops.

    AA: How has Cosmic Cowgirls expanded and grown since its inception, and in what ways do you see it growing and evolving from here?
    SSM: In our ultimate vision, it’s still the same things we are doing now, just at a larger level. [We want to be] in a place where we could really spend time creating material, books and videos that are in service to whatever it is that women are going through in the world. It’s really about the evolution of the creation of products and videos and books and audio that make a contribution to women who have experienced trauma — so it has a healing angle. But in addition to that, it’s to grow our membership community so that there’s a culture where women leaders feel fed and nourished and supported and get continuing education, so that they become the people that they need to be in order to go out and do this work in the world. It’s a big emphasis on “train the trainer.” So that women are empowered to do whatever it is that their work is in the world.

    It’s really a constellation of women: a fixed group of stars that move. I think of us as a cultural constellation, and inside of that constellation, women come and go with different pieces of wisdom and they offer it back out into the world.

    To find out more about Shiloh Sophia McCloud, visit To learn more about Cosmic Cowgirls, visit

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    Feature: Your Body Is Not A Shark

    December 20th, 2012
    The Women of Your Body is Not a Shark

    Photo courtesy of Rainbeau Pictures

    Choreographer Cid Pearlman and her collaborators don’t see limitations as being negative. Pearlman and three other women — Denise Leto (poet), Maya Barsacq (musical director) and Joan Jeanraud (composer/cello) — recently came together to create Your Body is Not a Shark, a performance piece that combines dance, live music and sound collage. The piece plays off of their insistance that limitations can be generative, bringing forth empowerment and instigating change.

    All four have used their personal limitations to strengthen their art. Jeanraud muses that she would not have become a composer if not for her Multiple Sclerosis, while Leto’s speaking difficulties (due to Laryngeal Dystonia) helped her poetry break out of the typical podium-bound readings, connecting the art form back to an oral tradition.

    “It is important to highlight that fact that disability can be generative and transformative but also a lived, painful experience that needs to be seen and encountered realistically and not just as a moment of inspiration for the able-bodied.”

    Your Body is Not a Shark sprang out of Barsacq approaching Pearlman and Jeanraud with ideas about aging, disability and silence.

    Your Body is Not a Shark

    Photo courtesy of Rainbeau Pictures

    “These ideas were very provocative to us,” Pearlman said. “Though the piece is not about disability, it addresses issues about limitations and physical difference as central to the process of generation.”

    “I think it’s also looking at where limitation brings forth empowerment and inspires people,” Barsacq added. “It’s about moving beyond the limitations and looking at how challenges can bring forth power and instigate change.”

    The women began their collaboration by sharing their work with each other to spark creative inspiration. Leto read some of her poetry and the words from one of her pieces resonated so much with the group that they decided they would use them as the title for their performance piece. Leto then wrote six pieces to integrate with Jeanraud’s music and Pearlman’s choreography. Using the form of the poems as a guide, Pearlman kept the choreography within the boundaries of each piece. Jeanraud then recorded Leto reading her own words. To prepare, Leto listened to Jeanraud’s music for hours.

    “This meant that as I wrote I had as vibration and somatic context a force that entered the work in terms of rhythm, inspiration, modality,” Leto said.

    In addition to recorded poetry, the piece integrates nine live musicians as well as six dancers, ranging in age from 18 to 63.

    Your Body is Not a Shark

    Photo courtesy of Rainbeau Pictures

    “I’m interested in living in a complicated world,” Pearlman said. “I’ve been researching how gender operates onstage — the heteronormative narrative (a man and woman onstage tells the story of ‘boy meets girl’) — so I’ve been investigating ways in which we can tell other stories, stories about people who are different ages, races, gender, class. Working on Shark seems like a natural extension of this.”

    Pearlman’s dancers do not all fall into the typical dancer’s athletic, young “virtuosic body” narrative. Shark‘s oldest dancer can roll on the floor with everyone else, but she might take a little longer to get back up. This limitation, like all of those incorporated into Shark, serves as an inspiration for creation rather than a problem to be solved by hiring a younger dancer.

    “These dancers represent a picture of the world that I’m interested in living in,” Pearlman said.

    Your Body is Not a Shark

    Photo courtesy of Rainbeau Pictures

    Unifying all of these limitations, the women embraced the idea of “the stutter and the stumble.”  This idea reappears throughout the piece, from Barsacq conducting a string orchestra (the conductor must be a half-second ahead of the strings) to guiding the choreography away from lifts that might have previously been incorporated into the same dancer’s repertoire. On the surface, the “stutter and stumble” seems like setting oneself up for failure at performance time; but this very element is what makes the group’s work extraordinary.

    Your Body is Not a Shark is a multidisciplinary dance-performance piece playing January 11-13 at ODC Theater in San Francisco. For more information, visit

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    Interview: Christine Young of Works by Women SF

    December 4th, 2012

    Christine Young self-picChristine Young, the Theatre Program Coordinator at the University of San Francisco and director who specializes in new play development, has recently headed up the launch of a new website called Works by Women SF. Based on the grassroots feminist movement in New York called 50/50 in 2020, a movement that promotes gender parity in American theater by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Works by Women SF is another facet of the burgeoning conversations around getting the voices of women onstage and in our artistic institutions.

    Art Animal: You are an educator, dramaturg, and director. How would you describe your career path thus far?
    Christine Young:  I’ve always admired people who have long-term career plans, five-year goals, that sort of thing. That’s never been me! My career has evolved much more eclectically. I’ve pretty much pursued several tracks simultaneously in my work life, splitting my time and focus between directing/dramaturgy/producing, non-profit administration and teaching. I love doing each of these things, and initially, I felt I had to do all of these things at the same time in order to make a living.

    Yet one advantage of this multi-focal career path has been that through my experiences I have come to know a little about a lot of things, which serves me well in my current job as a teacher within a liberal arts institution. And I can really see how the different aspects of my work life have informed each other — teaching about theater has made me a better artist; working with budgets and organizational structures has made me more thoughtful about how I use resources in both educational and artistic settings; working in both tiny organizations and large institutions has made me appreciate what types of opportunities and obstacles are endemic to different kinds of working environments.

    One really conscious choice I did make in my career was to shift away from non-profit theater and toward academia after my first child was born in 2004. During the first year of his life, I had something like seven jobs all at the same time. My husband was also working as a freelance arts consultant, and our lives were nuts – too little time and much too little money. So I pursued the path I thought I might eventually take one day and looked for a college teaching job. I feel incredibly fortunate that I have been able to find full-time work in the city I want to live in. That doesn’t happen for everyone. I know many wonderful artists/teachers in the Bay Area and elsewhere who absolutely deserve full-time teaching work, and there aren’t enough jobs.

    AA: What sort of work do you create/produce? What would you consider your specialty?
    CY: I don’t have a signature style as a director, although I do like to use a lot of space (I often stage my productions all around the audience) and I’m very conscious of shaping the rhythm of a theatrical experience for an audience. I also absolutely adore collaboration. I much prefer engaging with other artists in making a piece than trying to manifest a vision I cook up all by myself. I have a MFA specifically in New Play Direction and I’ve worked with a lot of playwrights as both a director and a dramaturg, which I would say is my favorite thing to do. I always become pretty obsessed with whatever project I’m working on, and I tend to generate my best ideas through dialogue with others. In my experience, playwrights are the only people who want to talk about the play as much as I do – because, of course, they created it! So I find it very, very satisfying to dialogue deeply with a playwright and to find inventive ways to fully manifest the play they imagine in their heads and have described on the page into a fully-fleshed live experience that makes them say “yes!” when they see it on the stage.

    Christine Young stage performanceAA: Can you tell me a bit about your impetus for starting Works by Women San Francisco
    CY: The seed of the idea came to me in 2008 during my first semester at the University of San Francisco (USF). Working in higher education was new to me, and I was trying to wrap my head around the whole idea of academic research. I started a project where I was interviewing women directors with the idea that I would put the material on a website in podcast form as a way to capture the wisdom and artistic richness of the women directors I know. My motivation was to create a repository of the kind of material I wished had been available to me when I was a young woman training to be a theater artist. But several other projects claimed my attention and the project (which was pretty labor-intensive) got shelved.

    In the summer of 2010, I met Susan Jonas, a NYC-based dramaturg and professional theater woman, at the Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) conference. She did a presentation about this grass-roots feminist theater movement called 50/50 in 2020. I was absolutely electrified by her talk and I eagerly approached her afterward asking how I could get involved. She gently let me know that 50/50 in 2020 was basically a NYC-focused group, and she encouraged me to start something in San Francisco.  At that point I still felt a little overwhelmed by my full-time position at USF, and I didn’t think I had the bandwidth to start anything myself.

    AA: How long did the idea percolate and how did you begin to implement it?
    CY: The idea has been percolating ever since. For the past two years, I’ve been following the original Works by Women blog (the face of 50/50 in 2020 in NYC) and collecting all kinds of articles, links and resources related to women in theater.

    Finally, sometime last spring it clicked that I absolutely could and deeply wanted to devote myself to making San Francisco/Bay Area theater women more visible and more celebrated. I spoke to Ludovica Villar-Hauser, the founder of the Works by Women site in NYC, and she gave me permission to use the name to found a sister site here in San Francisco. I wrote a grant for a research assistant, which is a resource I have access to at the university, who could help me with the technical aspects. And I was also encouraged by the recent groundswell in interest in gender parity locally, including several events hosted by actor Lauren Bloom and the unofficial women’s subcommittee of Actor’s Equity, and the “Yeah. I Said Feminist” Theatre Salon founded by actor/director Fontana Butterfield. There seems to be a genuine hunger for women’s voices to be center stage in Bay Area theater right now. I want the Works by Women San Francisco site to support my amazingly talented and diverse colleagues in Bay Area theater and also to provide a space of encouragement and career support for young women who are considering entering the theater field.

    AA: What has the response to the Works by Women SF site been? Any fallout?
    CY: Well, we’ve only been live for a few weeks, so we’re still working on building an audience for the site. I would say that overwhelmingly the response has been positive. People are excited that there is a tangible visible place where they can go to see what women are doing in Bay Area theater. And we’ve consciously aligned ourselves with our NYC theatrical sisters, saying “we are part of a movement,” and while we choose to focus on what is happening locally, we also see ourselves as part of something bigger. One valid concern that has been raised though, and I think this is a hot-button issue in Bay Area theater, is who decides what content gets covered? Right now, I am pretty much exclusively curating the blog, and that’s just a necessity at the moment. There’s just me and my awesome research assistant Suma Nagaraj, and actor Valerie Weak has been very instrumental in getting the blog launched. But as we progress, I want to get more and more women’s voices out there, as interview subjects, as writers of opinion pieces, as commenters and contributors, so that the site reflects a diversity of perspectives and aesthetics that does justice to the richness of women’s work in Bay Area theater.

    AA: When did you notice the issue of gender parity onstage?
    CY: I’ve been interested in women’s equal participation in theater for as long as I’ve been making theater. As a high school student just discovering directing, I remember getting a list of great plays to read from my English teacher who doubled as the theater advisor, and being surprised that only one of about 30 authors was a woman (Lillian Hellman). In college, I was a Women’s Studies minor, and my thesis project was a feminist retelling of the biblical Eve myth that put a cast of eight women and one man onstage. In grad school, I was puzzled by the fact that even though my MFA Directing class was full of women, we never studied any female theater-makers, nor could I find much written about them in the books I had access to. I’ve heard throughout my career about the lack of opportunities for women both on and offstage, and yet I see women all around me working in theater. The Bay Area is full of talented women creating performance work, but they still don’t seem to be as visible and as recognized as male artists are. So that’s a curious contradiction that I’m really interested in exploring through the Works by Women San Francisco site.

    AA:  How would you compare the Bay Area’s scene and conversations around gender parity to the larger national one?
    CY: I think the Bay Area is having an amazing awakening around gender parity right now. I have been in rooms lately with women ranging from 20 to 70 who are all fired up about creating more opportunities for women in theater. Many of these women have been engaged in gender parity work for a long time in different ways. And yet, right now, it feels like a hot topic. I think nationally, and certainly in New York, gender parity is starting to make it onto the radars of more and more producers. And yet, like any issue, it is easy for people to overlook it in favor of the many other vital social concerns that are at play in their environment. So we have to be strategic and be in it for the long haul.

    A positive thing that stands out to me and gives me hope is the clarity and persuasiveness of the arguments I’ve been hearing lately. Playwright Lauren Gunderson wrote a piece I adore for the Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox Blog called “Women Aren’t Minorities!!!, which makes the important point that we represent more than 50 percent of the population worldwide, so why, why, why aren’t our stories being told in all mediums, in equal measure to men’s? In what has been called the “post-feminist” era, I nonetheless see women young and old all around me stepping up to the mic and calling out the systemic and institutionalized sexism in our society. As we are with so many social issues, I think the Bay Area is going to be a key player at the forefront of the gender parity movement in theater in the 21st century.

    Read interviews with women in theater by visiting the Works by Women SF blog at

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    Review: Laura Cunningham’s “Before California”

    November 23rd, 2012

    Laura Cunningham’s Before California exhibit at the Hazel Wolf Gallery in Berkeley is small but information-packed. A few walls showcase less than a dozen oil paintings and photographs side-by-side, opening up into a larger room dominated by sketches of native flora and a mural of a grizzly bear, two condors and an elk. Condors, elk and grizzlies make up much of the subject matter of Cunningham’s artwork as well as mammoths, whales and wolves.

    Cunningham describes herself as an artist-naturalist and works in the field of wildlife biology. She was trained in paleontology at U.C. Berkeley and in natural science illustration at U.C. Santa Cruz. In addition to producing mural exhibits for institutions such as the Badlands National Park, Cunningham has provided scientific illustrations for the Museum of Paleontology at U.C. Berkeley and for the Smithsonian.

    Many of the pieces shown in the exhibit can be found in her 2010 book, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. The paintings, rendered in oil on canvas, depict well-known areas and landscapes in the Bay Area, imagined as they might have looked 200, 500 and even 12,000 years ago. Most of these paintings are juxtaposed against a photograph of the area as it stands today: mudflats are now landfills, taxicabs and skyscrapers dominate what once was a meadow and much of the wildlife is either extinct or endangered. These paintings are coupled with commentary about when people began building and living on the sites and which behaviors have changed the landscape. One haunting quote: “Species such as elk, California condors, and wolves survived the wave of extinctions at the end of the [Pleistocene] period, but will they survive the impacts caused by industrial society?”

    Though the concept is provocative, the paintings themselves are, unfortunately, not particularly interesting, resembling textbook illustrations (and, indeed, Cunningham is an illustrator for many museums and conservation projects). The artist’s comparison to the present-day landscape sparks the imagination, and the plaques explaining what you are looking at and what it means are helpful, but I found myself wishing that the imagined renderings of past landscapes weren’t so concrete and literal.

    The better parts of the exhibit were Cunningham’s stark sketches of wildlife and plants that were reproduced from her notebook, including scribbled graphs, notes and outlines. Though not as intricate as the oil paintings, the sketches felt more visceral and were much more arresting to look at. The technical skill needed to render Cunningham’s meticulous field research into a realistic painting seemed to take away from some of the more speculative elements.

    Aside from art, the exhibit included a light-box filled with the tools of Cunningam’s trade: pencils, notebooks, field guides, maps, etc. Cunningham’s curiosity is contagious; I spent most of my time at the exhibit studying and learning from her artwork. One of the most fascinating pieces was a hand-sketched graph of native flowering plants through the blooming season, arranged as Cunningham had observed them over the years. She also included a sketch of four native and non-native grasses growing in a field, each different heights according to the grazing habits of domesticated animals.

    I found myself wishing that Cunningham’s paintings held some of the more intriguing, multi-faceted aspects found in her sketches and field research instead of sticking to a single idea of a historic landscape. Perhaps if her paintings were more layered like her sketches, her work would convey the same narrative in a more visually stimulating way. The seeds of that aesthetic are in some of the less developed parts of the exhibition. If Cunningham’s point is to fire the imagination and fuel interest in conservation, perhaps a little less museum-quality perfection and a little more trust in the audience’s imagination is needed.

    Before California is showing at the Hazel Wolf Gallery in the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA through January 30.

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    Interview with Kimberly Rose Wendt and Eloisa Bravo of Bitchslap!

    November 8th, 2012

    Despite the long-running success of many female comedians, the world of stand-up has been traditionally dominated by men, and comedians from Johnny Carson to Adam Corolla have declaimed women for not being funny.

    However, comedians Eloisa Bravo and Kimberly Rose Wendt know that these naysayers are wrong. After sharing a stage several times and running into each other on the scene, Bravo and Wendt noticed that while the shows they attended might only have one or two women performing, they were the ones getting the biggest laughs. That’s when they came up with their brilliant idea: they could join forces to produce an all-female lineup of comics. Bitchslap! Comedy was born.

    So far, Bitchslap! has had two performances at The Exit Cafe in San Francisco and will be performing two Fridays of each month through the year. Art Animal got a chance to talk with Bravo and Wendt about their new endeavor and the state of comedy for women today.

    Art Animal: When did you start doing stand-up, and what was that journey like for you? 
    Eloisa Bravo: I love stand-up. You stand alone. It’s just you and your thoughts and that’s it. It forces you to make difficult and sometimes painful situations into something that makes people laugh, all in a five minute bit.

    I’ve always performed in one way or another, and I’ve always, always had a big mouth. Two years ago, when I was looking for a good hobby after I discovered that I was barren — [feeling] barely “a woman” — and consequently my marriage ending disastrously, I found stand up. I’ve never looked back. I did a little bit of acting, dancing, and Minnie Mouse-imitating before starting stand up; but stand up is the only place where my mouth doesn’t get me into trouble.

    Kimberly Rose Wendt: I have been a preschool teacher for the past 10 years and played roller derby for the past six years. In 2010, I moved out of the Bay Area for the first time to Denver and became a personal trainer. I was “dating” this dude who kind of dared me to do stand up. At that point in my life, things were so radically different that I took the dare. I went to some open mics in Denver, did a spot at Comedy Works, spun my car out on the freeway and came home to the Bay Area. When I got here in 2011, I kept doing stand up, went back to teaching and playing roller derby. Two months after I got back, I tore my ACL. I kept falling over when I would stand in one place for too long, so in December 2011 I had knee surgery. Comedy has helped me get through re-learning how to stand, walk and roller derby again. It has become my one true love.

    AA:  How did you two meet and get to know each other?
    KRW: Eloisa and I were in the same comedy competition at Rooster T. Feathers [Comedy Club in Sunnyvale, CA]. It was my first competition since moving back to the Bay Area. After that, we kept running into each other at open mics and shows. We hit it off right away. While we have very different comedy styles, we have a very similar sense of humor, so we were fast friends.

    AA: Can you tell me a bit about why you decided to start Bitchslap! Comedy? How did you begin once you’d decided to go for it?
    EB: We founded Bitchslap! because we kept going to shows where there was only one woman performing, and she was always the one getting the best response from the audience. San Francisco has two major comedy clubs and there are few women that perform regularly at either. Even if you look at open mics, it’s mostly men. Why is that? Because women have not been provided with a good, non-sexist environment in which to perform. We seek to provide that with Bitchslap!. Beyond that, just as an independent comic, I believe in making your own pie. Don’t try to piggy-back on somebody else’s.

    KRW: We decided to name it Bitchslap! because on the day we had a production meeting, Eloisa was struck in the face by a homeless man. After that traumatic experience and dealing with the cops, it seemed like a fitting name for our production company. It is about claiming everything we are as women and being funny because we are funny.

    AA: How has the audience’s response been to the first two shows you’ve done? What is your audience’s gender demographic?
    EB: Well, we’ve put on some great shows. We haven’t sacrificed on the quality of the comics just because they have to be women. Consequently, the audiences have loved it. It’s been a good gender mix, too. Men love to see women perform just as much as women do.

    KRW: Our friends have been super supportive of the show, and we are starting to accumulate fans. We looked at the names of who had bought tickets the other day, and there were total strangers on the list. That was an elating feeling; we have fans!

    AA:  How would each of you describe your personal style of comedy?
    EB: My comedy is crazy, angry comedy. The world presents so many opportunities to be angry, and I fucking am. So angry! All the time. So I express that on stage. And people think it’s funny. Great. Let them.

    KRW: I make myself laugh so hard. My brother teases me because I will think of something that is so funny that I laugh until I cry. I have a darker side, but mostly I am a story teller. My jokes tend to be longer, but they are really just snipets of my silly little life.

    AA: Do you find that certain kinds of jokes or styles are “gendered,” or that you get pushback if you tell the same sorts of jokes a man might? Is there a double-standard in the stand-up world?
    KRW: I think there are a lot of male comics who just believe men are funnier; and [there is] a lot of stereotyping around jokes — that men tell better political, sports and dick jokes. However, sexuality, background and economic status also have a lot to do with how a comic tells a joke. Stand-up comedy is a one person show, so each comic is telling his or her own story. I feel like it is my job as a comic to destroy, defy and disassemble stereotypes.

    AA: Who are a few of your comedy heroes? What is it about their style that you admire?
    EB: Joan Rivers — she’s an incredibly hard worker. She knows her one-liners. She’s also had the courage to address some women’s issues in her time that she had to pay a price for. I want to have that courage in my time.

    KRW: I got to see Sarah Silverman do a working set at the Comedy Store in L.A. last month and it was so inspiring to see an established comic in the creative process. I love Margaret Cho. She has taken so much hurt and made it so funny. I just love, love all female comics though. Our history is quite incredible, and I am grateful for the comidiennes who have paved the way for us.

    AA: To take it back another generation, how do you feel about women from the vaudeville and variety show traditions? Women like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett or Gracie Allen, for example. How have they contributed to the comic style of comedians today?
    KRW: Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Gracie Allen helped get it all started. Lucille Ball was one of the first women to own her own studio. Carol Burnett has had a five-decade long successful career and one of the last great variety shows. Gracie Allen was the better half of “The Burns & Allen Show” (on CBS and NBC from 1934 to 1950) and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. So all these women proved women could do just what men did.

    AA: Have attitudes toward female comics changed in the past few decades?
    EB: Audiences are more interested in seeing female comics and the woman’s perspective. But to be a great comic, you need 20 years of experience. Look at the best comics today: Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, etc. They have all been making a living from comedy for 20 years or more. For women, that hasn’t been possible, partially because of [Johnny] Carson’s attitude. We are still struggling to find our voice in this male-dominated profession.

    AA: Who do you have lined up for your next show?
    KRW: Karinda Dobbins is headlining. Leslie Small, Melanie O’ Brien, Alison Stevenson and Mary-Alice McNab are all Bay Area comics. I was so excited to book all of them because each has helped me in my young career in some way. Each lady is talented in her own way. And, of course Eloisa and I perform and host at all of our shows.

    The next night of Bitchslap! will be this coming Friday, November 9, at The Exit Cafe (156 Eddy Street, San Francisco) at 8:30pm. Tickets are $10. To find out more about Kimberly Rose Wendt, Eloisa Bravo, and Bitchslap! Comedy, check out their website at

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    Interview with Cake Artist Michelle Cockle-Persoff

    November 2nd, 2012

    Michelle Cockle-Persoff is a versatile artist who paints, sculpts and designs. She just happens to do so through the edible medium of cake and pastries.

    Cockle-Persoff’s creations range from large wedding-style cakes to small birthday cakes and everywhere in between. Raised in a tiny town in Colorado, she received a BA in Music at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado before moving to California and finding her passion for cake making.

    After her husband decided to go to the California Culinary Academy, Cockle-Persoff decided to attend as well. She went through the program with a small cohort, learning basics like knife skills and sanitation before delving into bread-making, plated desserts, chocolate and candy, as well as nutrition and business management. She received her certificate in Baking and Pastry with honors in Cakes in 2004 and has since developed her own unique art form.

    Art Animal had a chance to talk to Cockle-Persoff about her delicious creations and their unique artistry.

    Art Animal: Can you tell me a bit about your journey into cake decorating? How did you start? 
    Michelle Cockle-Persoff: I started baking and decorating at a young age, sitting on the counter of my grandmother’s kitchen watching her make cakes. As I got older, she let me start helping with certain parts of the process. When I decided to go back to school to get my culinary degree, it seemed natural to go into baking and pastry arts. I quickly fell in love with my Cakes class and excelled. I took honors for my work in cakes when I graduated in 2004. I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on.

    AA: Tell me about a cake design you’re particularly proud of.
    MCP: My favorite cakes so far are the most recent wedding cakes I did, [one of] which was for a dear friend whom I used to babysit for long ago. She had her wedding back in the town I grew up in and begged me to do her cake. I drove out to Colorado with all my gear in the back of the car, took over my dad’s small condo kitchen for two days and made a cake that resembled a fall aspen tree. I created the bark part of the cake by piping brown colored buttercream onto the side in the streaks and then smoothing them out slightly with a spatula. The leaves were gum paste formed into leaves, dried completely, and then colored with an airbrush. I attached them to the cake with a little buttercream on the back. [My friend’s] smile was worth the trip alone.

    The second was a steam punk cake influenced slightly by the web comic, Girl Genius by The Foglios. I made it as a trade for a person who did some head shots for me at one point. The occasion was a Halloween ball, Steam Punk themed. It took me quite a while to make — the top two layers were done with Styrofoam to give the effect of a tiered cake, but they didn’t want that many servings. The roses were made of gum paste — it dries completely hard so you can make the delicate petals of flowers and they keep their shape. The lace on the side was made by piping buttercream out of a very tiny tip. The leather look was just gel food color painted on with a paintbrush. The gears were also made with gum paste and then painted with what is called Luster Dust, an edible sugar decoration that shimmers.

    AA: How would you like to see your cake decorating evolve?
    MCP: I would love to one day find a way to own my own cake shop. Not your typical, popular cupcake shop that are popping up everywhere, but a unique and different specialty cake shop.

    The thing about cake shops these days is that with the boom of the popularity of the Food Network, you really need to have something unique about your own style that draws people in. Something that isn’t the same old buttercream or fondant designs. (Fondant is a sugar Playdough-like material that is used to drape cakes with.) But you also need to be able to do those traditional styles too. There will always be a customer who wants something like that.

    Being that I’m a geek of sorts (I like science fiction, fantasy, role playing, etc.), I think I’d like to feature cakes that appeal to “geek” culture.  Video game and fantasy representations, internet memes, cakes based on books and iconic characters. [Along the lines of] the Steampunk cake I did. Stuff that appeals to the subcultures that you tend to find in the Bay Area.

    AA: Do you have other artistic endeavors?  What are they, and do they inform each other?
    MCP: I am an extremely artistic person, passed down genetically from my mother who was a painter/crafter.  I have the soul of a wood fairy that is currently stuck in the cement and smog, longing to be back among the trees.  But I work with what I have and try to “bloom were I’m planted.”  I’m constantly evolving/changing into who/what I feel I really am.  Getting a little closer each day but always searching for the next part of “me.”

    AA: Any baking disaster stories?
    MCP: So far, none worth reporting. Knock on wood!

    Hungry for more? Contact Michelle Cockle-Persoff at


    Review: NW by Zadie Smith

    October 11th, 2012

    It is a rare occasion to read a book and feel it messing with your head: such is the case with Zadie Smith’s newest novel, NW. Titled after the postal code of northwest London in which it is set, NW gives readers a glimpse into the lives of four people — Leah, Keisha (renamed Natalie as an adult), Felix and Nathan — who all grew up in the same housing project as kids. Each contributes to the ethnic and racial stew of the neighborhood: Leah is white and her husband is a mix of Algerian and Guadaloupean, while Natalie is Caribbean and her husband is Italian and Trinidadian.

    The “messing with your head” part comes in through the fragmented, out-of-context stories that shift in style and follow none of the rules of time. Each section changes tone and syntax, and the book only reveals snatches of information at a time. From page to page, you never quite know which bits of information will be important or when they might come up again. Occasionally, the narrative even interrupts itself to remind the reader to “pay attention” or “keep up!” The result is the sense that these stories are both the idle gossip of strangers and archetypal plays. It’s delicious.

    It took awhile to get into the first section of the book — Smith continuously holds the characters at arms-length, and I needed to re-read passages in order to follow what was happening. Once the action started, however, I was hooked. The first section delves into the life of Leah, who begins to describe the neighborhood to the reader through her fuzzy sense of time and obsession with details. We learn that she is married but attracted to women; her husband wants to have children but she does not; and she has a love-hate relationship with Natalie, her childhood best friend, who is preoccupied with her seemingly perfect life.

    The book then shifts to follow Felix, who goes through the motions of an ordinary day. We follow him as he meets with his father, tries to buy a beat-up vintage car and visits his ex-girlfriend’s flat in order to break it off with her. Smith shines here in her skill at creating a character that is likable though lacking in moral judgement. By the end, I liked Felix, so much so that when he gets into an altercation at the end of his section, it’s with regret that I discover his fateful outcome.

    Natalie’s section — a rundown of her childhood as it became entwined and untangled from Leah’s friendship — is perhaps the most fractured, yet most enjoyable, section of NW. In the form of very short vignettes, the section divulges how young Keisha becomes adult Natalie, and how the choices Natalie makes lead to the miserable relationships in her adult life at the end of the book. Sometimes the titles of the vignettes are longer than the content, underlining the fractured quality of the writing. But the thing that most stood out to me was the playful tone of this final section set against the darkness of the material.

    The final piece of the puzzle is Nathan, who Natalie encounters at the end of her section. He remains the most elusive and mysterious of all of NW‘s characters since Smith never lets the reader hear from him personally. Though Smith displays her ability for masterful storytelling by shifting between characters’ different points of view, the narrator still keeps her distance, never digging too deeply into personal motivations and innermost thoughts; rather, the characters seem to act more like pinballs bouncing through their circumstances, with no warning as to where they might go next.

    Finally, we return to Leah, and Smith gives us the chance to see the neighborhood and its inhabitants freshly through her eyes once again. The book ends with each character’s life dramatically changed (mostly for the worst); however, you get the sense that major changes were necessary for any sort of resolution to be reached. Both heartbreaking and realistic, I found this to be a very intriguing way to wrap up the story.

    Despite the morally irredeemable choices they all make, Smith crafts characters that are fascinating and layered. I immensely enjoyed the disquiet of the prose, and how its layers could forever be folded back to reveal more ugliness and beauty at the same time. NW was a wonderful read and I hope to revisit the neighborhood and its denizens again.

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    Morgan Thorson’s Spaceholder Festival

    October 4th, 2012

    What do an auctioneer, an archaeological dig, your trash from last year and repetitive movement have in common? Choreographer and 2010 Guggenheim Fellow Morgan Thorson might have an answer in her latest dance performance piece, Spaceholder Festival, playing at the ODC Theater in San Francisco on October 5, 6 and 7.

    After reading some of the work of archaeologist Sarah Croucher, Thorson began seeing connections between the movements of the body and artifacts. She and five performers began developing what they called “movement artifacts,” the idea being that repeated gestures throughout the life of a person create muscle memories that display their behaviors and patterns. The particular movements seen in Spaceholder Festival are extraordinary in the fact that they resemble every day gestures more than choreographed dance.

    “One example is the use of finger-pointing,” Thorson said. “Pointing your finger is universal, and one of the first behavioral gestures a baby learns.”

    Through the life of a person, the gesture of pointing your finger morphs and layers its uses based on experience.

    She worked with the personal history of her dancers (4 women, 1 man) and together they devised the gestures, objects, and movement of the piece. Thorson uses the word “spaceholder” in her work a lot.

    “The idea is that there’s a space here that we’ll fill with something,” Thorson said. “We’re just not sure what that is yet. Kind of the opposite of digging something out, it’s making room.”

    Part of their research involved spending a day analyzing bags of materials found at an archaeological site. Thorson and her performers discovered that digs are often conducted at sites that were essentially trash dumps.  A single object could inform the archaeologists of the patterns of the humans who used them. In the process of excavating a site, the archaeologist unearths newer layers to the object, gradually revising their original idea of what it is they are looking at: a clod of dirt becomes a stone, which then becomes a bead. Seeing the connection to modern human movement, Thorson began to incorporate the excavation process as well as the idea of trash becoming historically significant into dance.

    While developing these ideas, Thorson came upon several related themes. One was the experience of hearing an auctioneer, realizing that the process of auctioning was strangely related to the patterns of behavior and repetition, as well as the value placed on items. Seeing this connection, she decided to become a certified auctioneer in order to integrate the same techniques, pattern and repetition into her Spaceholder piece.

    Thorson believes that Spaceholder will help to develop her future work in profound ways, especially in understanding how to use the body as an artifact of movement.

    “The hope is that with the next piece,” said Thorson about her future work, “we’ll be able to make the movement part of the notation of the piece itself, create an embodied record of it, and recreate it again later.”

    Spaceholder Festival is playing for three nights only in San Francisco: October 5, 6, and 7. Spaceholder Festival is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation Fund Project co-commissioned by ODC Theater in partnership with Alverno Presents, Legion Arts, Red Eye Theater, CFA Wesleyan and NPN. The Creation Fund is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For more information visit To find out more about Morgan Thorson and the Spaceholder Festival, visit

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    Review of Hubba Hubba Revue

    September 26th, 2012

    Gorgeous corsetry, punk-glamour style, kitschy comedy and daredevil aerial stunts are all on the menu at Hubba Hubba Revue, a neo-burlesque variety show based in San Francisco. Like its mother from the 30s, neo-burlesque dancers prefer to focus on the “tease” portion of a strip-tease, placing emphasis on the art of gradually revealing themselves and often ending the dance in a spectacular shimmying of certain body parts covered in pasties, corsetry or fans. (Burlesque is oh-so heavy on irreverency, taking great pleasure in juicing up higher forms of art like theater and ballet with humor and parody.)

    The Revue holds a big show once a month at the DNA Lounge that features a rotating band as well as dancers, daredevils and aerealists. They also host a smaller, scaled-down version of their show every Monday night at the Uptown in Oakland. Last Friday was Hubba Hubba Revue’s 6th Anniversary Party, and Art Animal attended to get a taste of the talent seen at this fabulous monthly party.

    The emcees of the evening included Kingfish and Miss Information (aka Autumn Adamme, the proprietess of Dark Garden Corsetry in San Francisco). Each deftly heckled the crowd, ushered in the performers and led a costumed team of techs across the stage to clean up the detritus after each act.

    The best acts of the evening did a great job balancing the grotesque with beauty, like the masked BDSM-themed Bunny Pistol. I found her act surprising and thoughtful, especially considering that she used her mask as the final piece of clothing to be removed. Other acts relied on buffoonery and physical mastery, or parodies of high-brow art. One of the highlights was a troupe from Chicago called the Dolls of Doom, who performed a buffoon-circus contortionist act (which began inside a Chinese Dragon puppet). The Dolls of Doom and their director, Lola Martinet (who performed a “mermaid stuck in a net” arial act), are notable for their weight-shared controlled acrobatics and circus-like balancing acts. Mind-blowing performances by My Little Chernobyl (an arial “fallen angel” act) and Ariyanna laFey (a straightforward fan-dance in a feathered costume creation) were also a treat. Throughout all of these performances, I was fascinated by the way these women of all sizes were able to use their bodies so artistically to tell a complete story while still adhering to the conventions of the form.

    A few local groups were also featured that night: Rubenesque Burlesque and Kitty Kitty Bang Bang. The Rubenesques were punky and edgy, and it was nice to see larger body types onstage, but they seemed to be less choreographed and imaginative than the other groups. Kitty Kitty Bang Bang performed a fun can-can gone awry. The night was rounded out by perfectly serviceable dances by Honey Lawless, Gigi DeFlower, Sparkly Devil, Pickles Kintaro and Kiss Me Kate.

    Unfortunately, some of the comedic acts fell short. Balla Fire danced for an audience member who was at the Revue to celebrate his bachelor party, coming out onstage dressed in a bridal gown and finishing the act on the couch eating chips and soda before dragging her man off to the bedroom. She was a great dancer, and the idea was cute, but the humor wore out before she ended her performance. Hunny Lawless and Gigi DeFlower’s dance performance to “I Will Survive” also flopped, mainly due to the fact that the punchline was at the top of the sketch. Similarly, a dating game skit performed by a group of dancers felt way too long, being either poorly rehearsed or not well thought out.

    Funnier was Lady Satan (an award-winning local “drag-king”), who appeared on the stage dressed in a 70s costume, complete with a mustache, afro and stuffed sock. Obviously enjoying herself immensely, she proceeded to perform an incredibly hilarious tease with the aforementioned bachelor. Like many of the other acts, however, the skit lasted too long, wearing out the audience before its close.

    In general, the comedic pieces lacked the amount of timing, specificity and calculation that clearly went into the aerial acrobatic pieces. If the humor had been as carefully orchestrated, the payoff would have been tenfold. Instead, most of the comic sketches amounted to an indifferent audience while people onstage had fun taking their clothes off.

    Despite the mixed bag of talent, however, the evening was worth the cover charge, if only to get a taste of the unique art of neo-burlesque variety entertainment.

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    Review of 2 Days in New York

    September 12th, 2012

    It speaks volumes to the farcical nature of the characters in 2 Days in New York that Chris Rock is the most dignified of the bunch. Showcasing his growth as an actor, his restrained straightman routine only cracks a few times in the film, most notably when he’s alone talking with his life-size cutout of Obama, or when he’s playing his on-air radio personality version of himself.

    Julie Delpy’s sequel to 2 Days in Paris explores Franco-American culture clash and family ties while celebrating flawed-but-beautiful cities and people. Most of the characters given screen time in the first film return for this one; unfortunately, they are shorthand versions of their previous incarnations, making their behavior seem malicious or downright evil without context.

    Marion (Delpy) is a photographer with a quiet bumbling nature (interrupted by angry episodes and goofball storytelling). Her relationship with Mingus (Rock) is shaken up by the arrival of her father, Jeannot (real-life father Albert Delpy), and sister Rose, (co-writer Alexia Landeau). Rose allows tagalong Manu (an ex-boyfriend of Marion’s played by Alexandre Nahon) to join them on the trip, throwing off carefully constructed sleeping arrangements – Mingus and Marion live in a tiny Manhattan apartment with their two children, each from previous relationships. The couple allows everyone to stay in the apartment instead of securing hotel rooms despite Manu’s inappropriate remarks and Rose’s insistence on wandering around the house half-dressed while giggling over the fact that Mingus’ name rhymes with a sex act. Mingus doesn’t throw the inevitable fit until an opportunity for him to meet the president is ruined by Manu’s earnestly mistaken racist remarks while Marion and Rose have a loud hair-pulling and screaming fight. By this point, the trip is half over and the worst damage is done.

    The ostensible reason for the visit – Marion’s photography exhibit – feels a bit contrived and isn’t well executed (a critique echoed onscreen, triggering another one of Marion’s out-of-character tantrums). The exhibit involves a ten-year retrospective of Marion’s relationships in the form of self-portraits in bed, and culminates in an auctioning off of her soul. Unfortunately, no importance is given to this event until it is bought by Vincent Gallo (played by himself) for half the amount she was expecting. Her confrontation with him plays out like a failed improv exercise.

    Sprinkled into the plot are moments of genuine sweetness: Albert and Mingus trying to bond at a neighborhood Thai massage place; Albert breaking through an assumed language barrier with the Vietnamese therapists there (Albert was born in French-colonized Saigon); Marion cuddling with her son in bed, visually referencing the art on display in the previous scene. Marion reflects a lot on the passing of her mother (her real-life mother, who was in the first movie, also passed away last year), but her father and sister seem less affected. Unfortunately, a lot of that is buried or forgotten under the tried-and-true farcical elements of language barriers, culture shock and conversations involving obviously mistranslated statements. The end is wrapped up suddenly with not one, but several, unsatisfying dei ex machina.

    All this aside, I liked this film in spite of itself, if only because of Chris Rock’s generally controlled performance and the opportunity to revisit the fun characters from Paris. I’m glad I saw 2 Days in Paris first — it did all of the heavy hitting as far as character development — and I found myself liking these people despite their flaws. The cinematography and score is reminiscent of a Woody Allen film, and the structure of imperfect people in a lovely setting worked well. I just wish the film’s sincerity wasn’t lost amidst jokes we’ve heard before.

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