Name: Setsu

Web Site:

Bio: Shot from New York like a bat out of hell, Setsu is a writer and collector of stories. She recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chinese Language & Literature. Her coursework included a stint at a monastery in rural China, where she studied swordplay and Daoist philosophy. Setsu is a co-founder of writing groups in Seattle and San Francisco, where new writers can take their first steps toward publication. She has dabbled in many arts, but only martial arts and writing seem to have stuck. Visit her blog at

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    Dance and Diaspora: Persian Dance at the ODC Theater

    January 31st, 2014

    I went to church to find God, he was not there. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda, God was not there. I went to the Kaaba of Mecca, God was not there. I crossed the wilderness and asked about him from Avicenna, the philosopher but he was beyond the range of Avicenna. With misery, I screamed and I turned and I danced and there, into my heart, in that place, God was there. He was in no other place.


    This weekend, the ODC Theater in San Francisco is pleased to present the next installment of Dance and Diaspora, its biannual showcase celebrating the world of dance in the Bay Area. This month’s double bill runs Saturday and Sunday, February 1 and 2, and features work by Persian dance artists Farima Berenji and Shahrzad Khorsandi. The evening will showcase Middle Eastern culture through music, dance and poetry.

    About Shahrzad Khorsandi

    Shahrzad Khorsandi. Photo credit Juan Soto.

    Khorsandi founded Shahrzad Dance Company in Berkeley, CA in 1996. Blending elements of contemporary dance with the refined aesthetics of ancient Persia, Khorsandi has created her own style of dance which she calls Contemporary Persian Ballet. The first piece Khorsandi will perform at the ODC, “Transcendence” (2009), is set to a recorded score composed by renowned Persian musician Mahmoud Zoufonoun with recited poetry by Omar Khayyam. This piece is a tribute to Zoufonoun who passed away in October of 2013. Accompanying Khorsandi are dancers Jennifer Shindelus and Marta Serra. Khorsandi will also perform a solo piece titled “In the Name of Grace”, set to live music composed and performed by Mahmoudi on santoor with accompaniment by Dehghani on daff.

    Khorsandi’s performance, “Transcendence”, is an homage to Zoufonoun who passed away last year.

    “He was such a master musician: accomplished and well respected and at the same time probably the most humble man I’ve ever met,” Khorsandi said. “He talked about things in such a down-to-earth way that you’d forget you’re sitting next to a master. To me, that’s a true Sufi.”

    The music in Khorsandi’s performance layers Zoufonoun’s work and blends in the recited poetry of Khayyam.

    The other half of Khorsandi’s performance, “In the Name of Grace”, is dedicated to women who have to act with grace and beauty even though they would rather express something else. This performance blends more modern and raw movements with the traditional, graceful flow of Persian dance.

    About Farima Berenji

    Farima Berenji. Photo credit by Carl Sermon

    Berenji, an Iranian-born ethnologist and archaeologist, is also an internationally acclaimed performing artist and dance instructor. “Poetry in Motion”, the name Berenji has given to her own dance style, is an improvisational dance form that draws on Persian classical poetry and sacred teachings from Iran and Central Asia. For Dance and Diaspora, Berenji will premiere two solo performances: “The Persian Garden”, inspired by Persian miniature art, and “Dance of the Soul”, which explores conventions of mystical Sufi movement. Berenji will be accompanied by Persian musicians Samandar Dehghani and Saman Mahmoudi.

    Berenji’s performance, “Poetry in Motion”, also incorporates Khayyam’s verses. Berenji explained that most of the movements in Persian dance vocabulary were formed from Medieval Iranian poetry; each artist seeks to capture the feeling that the author tried to describe.

    “For example, the poet would go and sit by the river and observe the woman brushing her hair,” Berenji said, “or see the birds and the butterflies flying by, and then write down his feelings about that moment. Then the painter came and read the poetry, and he painted the Persian miniature art. The dancer would than look at the painting and wanted to bring this alive.”

    “Everything in Persian dance is poetry,” Berenji said. “It describes a feeling, a story.”

    Photo credit by Tatsuki Kobayashi

    These stories also describe beauty, love and divinity, shown by the Sufi moving meditation: whirling. The subtle movements of fingers, facial expressions and whirling are Persian dance’s expression of ecstasy.

    “You turn toward your heart, toward the left,” Berenji said. “By mimicking the orbit — the whirling of the universe — you create that karmic law. As humans, we often neglect ourselves. We don’t listen to ourselves. By turning, you begin to listen to your soul. This dance represents that.”

    Berenji, who has an MA in Anthropology and Archaeology, has studied the roots of these movements and their relation to women’s agency in Iranian history. Her research is dedicated to understanding and reclaiming this lost history for Iranian women. Her “Lioness” project seeks to explore and spread the word about these studies.

    “No one ever talks about them; no one talks about these great ancient Persian priestess, empresses, warriors, Amazonians,” Berenji said. “These ‘lionesses:’ they were strong. They had war dances and spiritual dances to give them power.”

    She also studied the Elamite and Median movements, and posits that some of the beautiful, lyrical movements in traditional Persian dance are derived from archery and other war practices. The more she studies, the more it seems the universe is guiding her toward this lost history. While out on a dig, Berenji discovered a tablet of a woman dancing: a serendipitous event that was hard for her, as an archaeologist and dancer, to ignore.

    “One of the village elders came up to me and said, ‘this woman was not lost, she was sleeping and waiting for you to find her. She wants you to tell her story.'”

    See Khorsandi and Berenji on February 1 and 2 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available Learn more about Shahrzad Khorsandi at Learn more about Farima Berenji at

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    High-art Haunted House: Layla Means Night

    October 20th, 2013

    Furies in Layla Means NightJust in time for Halloween, “Layla Means Night” by Rosanna Gamson is a high art haunted house that explores perception and intimacy through retellings of 1,001 Arabian Nights. Held at the ODC Theater in San Francisco, audience members are led through the theater in three groups to view performances of the 4th night, 40th night and final night. Curtains, veils and shadows — combined with food, drink and live musical accompaniment — create an aura of mystery while engaging all the senses.

    By the end of the performance, viewers begin to doubt their perceptions, wondering whether they saw the same performance as their neighbor, though they may only be standing across the hallway from one another.

    “Layla Means Night” came about as Gamson’s response to two events: a party in Morocco, and anti-Arab sentiments after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

    Blindfolds in Layla Means NightAt a party in Morocco, Gamson experienced an openness and immediate intimacy that simultaneously shocked and delighted her.

    “As I entered the party, I was lavishly hugged and kissed by a woman I didn’t know,” Gamson said, “and my husband was lavishly hugged and kissed by a man he didn’t know. We were split up and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the night.”

    She went on to describe how women danced with each other while men watched from two floors up; and how people would reach into the platters of food with their fingers and hand it to her. Gamson was struck by the incredible intimacy and camaraderie within a culture that Americans typically perceive as having rigid social boundaries. It was a striking experience.

    “It’s kind of like when you’re a little girl, and little girls have that easy kind of intimacy,” Gamson said. “As you get older, even if you have deep friendships, you don’t have that slumber-party vibe.”

    Niloufar Talebi in Layla Means NightAfter the 1993 bombing, many Americans began to develop a deep hostility toward the Arab population in New York City. This compelled Gamson to bring the cultural warmth she had experienced in Morocco to light. “Layla Means Night” was born.

    “There’s an idea that’s very strong in ‘Layla’, and also in the complex patterns of Islamic art,” Gamson said. “The patterns move past the frame, implicit that the pattern continues on. You cannot see the whole pattern; only god can see the whole thing. Poor little mankind can’t see this infinitely complicated mosaic. That became the structural and thematic issue: you think you’re seeing the whole story, but you’re not.”

    In “Layla Means Night”, Gamson plays with perception in very unique ways. For example, during the performance, the women in the audience watch a complex dance while the men are blindfolded and have stories whispered in their ears.

    “In a meta way, I’m Scheherazade [in Arabian Nights] because if you get bored, you’ll kill me,” Gamson said. “The idea of keeping your audience entertained at all costs is part of the show. There’s a little bit of that desperation: let me feed you, let me massage your hands. Scheherazade’s imperative is to stay alive, and to stay alive she must entertain. But her bigger arc is to transform her audience into somebody who would not kill her, which she does in the end. She makes the king human again through empathy. It’s Beauty and the Beast.”

    The performance invites the audience to both witness this journey and experience it for themselves. Through forced intimacy and interaction with the actors, the audience manifests their own transformative story arc. The path is a metaphor for Scheherazade’s ‘trial’ for the king, having audience members work their way back to humanity. The end of the performance is a celebration of newfound empathy, connection and love.

    See “Layla Means Night” on October 30 and 31 and November 1, 2, and 3 at the ODC Theater. For more information, visit Rosanna Gamson on Facebook, and check out her video teaser for the show. Tickets are available at

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    Exploring Relationships at the Intersection of Film and Dance

    August 1st, 2013
    Deconstructing the Surrogate

    Bryce Vinnicombe Winkler and Harold Burns. Photo by Josh Nece.

    When I was a kid I thought that falling in love meant floating on air like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Now, in my late twenties, I have a much more complex vision of love and relationships. Deconstructing the Surrogate, a multimedia dance performance, sums up that complexity with over a thousand layers of audio track, a chaotic projection of color and silhouette worthy of Burroughs’ dreamachine, and dance. Through this performance, husband and wife Daniel James and Bryce Vinnicombe Winkler give us a writhing meditation on the interdependence of human relationships.

    The piece came from a series of discussions about how our relationships can be distorted or stained by other relationships.

    “The choreography explores both the beautiful and grotesque in an intimate duet, beneath a blanket of film and music,” Winkler said.

    Deconstructing the Surrogate

    Photo by Lynn Fried

    She went on to say that the way we interact with our family can inform the relationships that come after. The fragility of these relationships can be a corruptive influence when there is an imbalance, and Deconstructing the Surrogate translates those concepts into physical expression. Even the costuming, which is sex-specific, draws a line of binary opposition rather than perceived gender roles.

    “Though that, too, is an element of the performance,” Winkler said.

    Together, Winkler and James are exploring new artistic territory, giving choreographers the time and space to really let loose.

    Deconstructing the Surrogate

    Photo by Lynn Fried

    “This is the first time my husband and I have aligned our visions in a collaborative effort to create a multimedia production,” Winkler said. “We worked side-by-side on this project to create an inseparable interplay of music, film and dance to which the audience can have a completely immersive experience. The richly layered 40 minutes of original music corresponds to a colorful and frenetic film, which encompasses the stage and dancers, creating an intimate world for the audience to voyeur into.”

    A deeply personal performance, Deconstructing the Surrogate is a tribute to the vulnerability and rawness of true connection – and the bravery it takes to face it.

    On August 17 and 18, Deconstructing the Surrogate will be showing at the sixth annual Summer Performance Festival at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. To purchase tickets online, visit, or call the box office at 415-863-9834. Box office is open Monday through Friday from 12-3pm.

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    Taking Classical Ballet to New Heights

    August 1st, 2013

    Milissa Payne ProjectMilissa Payne Bradley takes classical ballet to new heights in her most ambitious work, Up in the Air, showing at this summer’s sixth annual Summer Performance Festival in San Francisco. The piece transforms grounded, classical movement into flight, inviting the audience on a majestic and exhilarating journey. Nine dancers balance the technique of classical ballet while weaving in contemporary dance vocabulary.

    “A critic wrote that I ‘speak the language of classical ballet with fluency and a modern accent,'” Bradley said.

    The critic went on to write that much of Bradley’s vocabulary is traditional, but her sentence construction and punctuation is delightfully quirky and offbeat; essentially, she is E.E. Cummings of ballet.

    Milissa Payne Project“Since I founded the Milissa Payne Project in 2010, a narrative has driven most of my work,” Bradley said. “However, for this project, I am trying to express the feeling of flight in all of its related meanings: lightness, freedom, uncertainty, abandonment, the strength needed to escape gravity, and so on.”

    In bringing us Up in the Air, Bradley relinquished her cherished role as storyteller and invites the audience to take away their own interpretations.

    Bradley’s greatest lesson from her experience as a dancer is to know and honor her roots. She has studied other styles of dance, from jazz to modern, swing to tango; but her passion and love remain with ballet, its history, evolution, and foundational role in Western dance.

    Milissa Payne Project“Many choreographers whose work is grounded in classical technique deliberately downplay or sabotage certain elements of technique as a way of rebelling against the constraints of tradition,” Bradley said.

    However, rebellion only goes so far; it has almost become expected of contemporary choreographers. Rather than rebel, Bradley prefers to perfect and explore the existing form.

    “I do not find it constraining but, rather, liberating,” Bradley said. “It gives me a rich palette and vocabulary, into which I weave elements of contemporary dance forms and everyday gestures.”

    Learn more about the Milissa Payne Project at See Up in the Air at the Summer Performance Festival at the ODC Theater in San Francisco on August 17 and 18. To purchase tickets online, visit, or call the box office at 415-863-9834. Box office is open Monday through Friday from 12-3pm.

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    BodiGram Wants Their Audience to Get Tipsy

    August 1st, 2013

    BodiGram Dance Company has come a long way from their roots in Asian philosophy. Founded by choreographers Blair Bodie and Julia Graham, BodiGram bridges the gap between pop culture and elite modern dance, smashing through the fourth wall to shed light on current social issues.

    At the ODC Theater in San Francisco this month, Bodie and Graham bring their social lives to stage in their latest dance performance, D.R.U.N.K.S., or Dangerous Rebels Uncovering Nonsensical Knowledge Satirically. Each word that makes up the acronym manifests itself during the dance, along with cowboy boots, toy guns, line dancing and, of course, free drinks.

    “Julia and I are interested in making accessible work,” Bodie said. “We don’t want our audience leaving saying, ‘I don’t get it.'”

    BodiGram’s last piece, For the Love of the Game, similarly exposed the choreographers’ personal lives, delving into the world of dating. Telling stories that are relevant to their viewers’ lives is at the core of BodiGram’s performances.

    “We are not going to change the world, dazzle you with our technical prowess, or take you to an ethereal place of beauty with our work,” Bodie said. “We are going to let you kick back and chuckle about some of the idiotic truths of life.”

    Learn more about BodiGram at See D.R.U.N.K.S. at the Summer Performance Festival at the ODC Theater in San Francisco on August 14 and 17. To purchase tickets online, visit, or call the box office at 415-863-9834. Box office is open Monday through Friday from 12-3pm.

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    The Helen Project Gives a Voice to the Face that Launched 1,000 Ships

    June 18th, 2013

    The Helen ProjectYou can hardly say the name “Helen of Troy” without the epithet “The face that launched a thousand ships.” Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker dive face-first into the mythos of Helen in their new play, The Helen Project, part of this year’s DIVAFest in San Francisco.

    The play shows Helen at four ages on four important nights in her life, bringing to life her experience of war, love and family.

    “These four Helens are the actual historical person, Helen of Troy,” Cohen said. “They speak her untold story in our original text; they have psychological depth and sensory experiences; they are 100% personal. There is a fifth figure who is essentially the archetype, the eternal and immortal figure of ‘Helen.’ She speaks in found text from sources like Homer and Marlowe.”

    Watching all five Helens onstage was a fascinating and realistic take on a woman’s experience during times of turmoil. Through poetic dialogue and magnetic performances, Helen tries to reconcile both beauty and her role in the Trojan war by owning her decisions. Sarah Moser floats around the stage as the immortal Face Helen, a pure archetype in her red dress. The other four (Misti Rae Boettiger, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Ariane Owens, Lily Yang) come alive with fear, cynicism, curiosity and decisiveness. Helen’s legend shepherds her temporal selves into a coherent and intensely self-aware performance. When the young Helen asks, “This will all work out, won’t it?” the older Helen, knowing the answer, only looks away.

    Cohen and Tasker masterfully juxtapose the recorded text of Helen with sensory and emotional detail that never made it into the histories. From the moment Helen convinces herself to abandon her children, to the public contempt and shadow of a marriage she returns to after the war, the audience is right beside her. The result is eerily intimate, as though you were watching shadows of Helen’s memory flit by.

    Cohen and Tasker took a few moments to talk with us about their inspiration for the project and how to successfully create interactive theater.

    Art Animal: How did this project come to be? Was it a collaboration from the beginning?
    Megan Cohen: As I remember, it was sort of disgustingly collaborative from the first moment. I think Amy had “Helen of Troy?!?!” scribbled in the margins of a notebook we were flipping through, but not with any clear intention behind it. My memory of this whole process — start to finish — is less that anybody thought of anything per se, and more like we were using a Ouija board.

    Amy Clare Tasker: Megan and I had worked together – well, really, worked near each other – a couple of times in 2009 or 2010, and I’m pretty sure this whole thing started with us at a bar saying, “We should do something together.” Around that time, I directed Euripides’ Andromache for Cutting Ball Theater’s Hidden Classics Reading Series, which led me down a rabbit hole of stunning plot twists in the Trojan War saga. I realized how little I knew the story of Helen of Troy, compared to what I thought I knew from her towering presence in Western culture. I think Megan and I were both interested in how Helen could be so famous and so mysterious – how we all could know her name but never have heard her story beyond the part about launching a thousand ships.

    AA: How does having different Helens on stage bring out more of her story? Did their interactions determine the script or vice versa?
    ACT: After we workshopped some early text with actors, who showed us how electric it was when two people playing Helen could have a conversation, we saw we could form some sort of relationship between a past and future self. From there, we wondered what it would be like to have a handful of Helens, or one hundred Helens. Five felt like the right number, and the text fragments sorted themselves well into four specific nights of Helen’s life: the night she ran away with Paris, the first night of the Trojan War, the last night of the Trojan War and the night she returned to Sparta. And then the fifth is the figure we think of when anybody says “Helen of Troy,” our shared cultural icon, who provides context for the temporal Helens. And they, in turn, recontextualize her.

    The Helen Project

    Cast members Misti Rae Boettiger, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Ariane Owens, Lily Yang and Sarah Moser

    AA: In your description of the project, you say the onstage performances are testing a Build-Your-Own-Helen-Play-Kit. What do you mean by that? Is this interactive theater at its best?
    MC: The Kit is a series of short texts which show different sides of Helen. Within a set narrative arc, the Kit provides thousands of possible variations in how it can be assembled, or “built,” into a live experience. Sometimes the Kit belongs in the hands of the artists who prepare a presentation, and sometimes in the hands of the audience during the presentation. We’re on a quest to find the most elegant solution. We do already have an interactive element of the project — the Online Edition which you can visit here.

    ACT: When we started writing, I think we spent a couple of hours trying to basically co-type the first page of the piece, which was slow and awkward, as you might expect. So early on, we developed this process of writing short fragments and “bookending” them. So Megan would write something, and I would write a beginning and end onto the text she had given me. Then I’d send it back to her and she would bookend it again – or not; when something felt done, we just let it be done. This tight creation loop has meant that we don’t have any idea who wrote what, or who thought of which idea. It also meant that the text was made up of a couple hundred fragments, like we had put Helen through a shredder. In thinking about how to assemble those pieces to make “a play,” we realized there could be thousands of ways to build a performance text, and no “right answer.” We also realized that if we used all of the text, the performance would be about eight hours long. (I hope to do that version someday. There is so much story to tell!)

    AA: It sounds like each performance will have a different format, from online games, to a play, to a more abstract performance art piece. How are the different installations correlated? How are they independent?
    ACT: From the beginning, I have felt a strong desire to tell every last fascinating, complicated bit of Helen’s mythological story. It seems deeply unfair to me that The Illiad tells in great detail how many ships came to Troy and what all the heroes were wearing, but it only bothers to mention Helen six times, and whenever she appears, she goes out of her way to shoulder the blame for the entire Trojan War while being as gorgeous as possible. We only ever get to see the external, lovely Helen, not the shocking, unattractive turmoil of her inner life.

    There has been a very fruitful tension throughout our process between my desire to tell the whole story and Megan’s insistence that this is impossible and probably not dramatically satisfying. As we were editing, I began to forgive the storytellers who came before me for leaving out the parts about Helen’s children, her relationship with her new Trojan family, the secrets of Paris’ past, what happened when she returned to Sparta, did she ever see her parents again…The story is just so epic. The Kit forces us to consider all of Helen before we decide what we think of her.

    MC: Across different media and/or the different “builds” of the kit, we hope that each artistic experience stands on its own, but it seems really cool to think of seeing more than one. It’s an exciting idea that something can’t be canonized; there isn’t a definitive edition or production, or even a definitive format, for these ideas and for this story.

    Every installation or expression of the project is independent, but the more of them you see, the deeper your experience will be. They enrich each other.

    Try your hand at building your own Helen Play Kit at the Interactive Helen Experience. For more information, visit The Helen Project and DIVAFest, and Megan and Amy‘s Helen Pages.

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    Modern Art Desserts: Caitlin Freeman’s Creative Cooking

    May 7th, 2013
    Modern Art Desserts: Mondrian Cake

    Mondrian Cake

    Imagine walking up to a piece of modern art and taking a big bite out of it. What would it taste like? Caitlin Freeman’s job is just that – imagining how to turn iconic works of art into dazzling, delicious treats.

    Freeman originally studied to be a photographer, but found her true calling when she happened upon Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Display Cakes while visiting the SFMOMA many years ago. So taken with the painting, Freeman found a new obsession with pastry. After several adventures and serendipitous meetings (read the full story in her book), she found herself back at the SFMOMA, blending art and food in innovative and delicious ways.

    Every Thursday, Freeman sits with her team and reviews what is coming to the SFMOMA, challenging her team to constantly push the boundaries on their menu.

    In her new book, Modern Art Desserts, she shows readers how to make 27 of these desserts from Warhol Gelee to Matisse Parfait. Each recipe is clear and easy to follow. Freeman weaves in stories about the art and her design process while teaching her readers to bake. Each recipe is broken down for beginners with an “above and beyond” section for those who really want to get into the nitty gritty of dessert perfection.

    With the SFMOMA’s impending closure for renovations, the book couldn’t be more timely, giving anyone the power to build complex works of art in the comfort of their own kitchen.

    Modern Art Desserts: Winogrand cake

    Winogrand Cake

    Art Animal: If you could invite anyone in the world to the SFMOMA and make a dessert from their work, who would it be?
    Caitlin Freeman: Well, if I could invite anyone to the SFMOMA to chat with (because I’ve already made thousands of cakes from his work) it would be Wayne Thiebaud. As for someone who I haven’t already made a dessert based on their work, (and this would also require resurrection from the dead) it would be photographer Vivian Maier. But she probably wouldn’t want to talk to me, and she clearly didn’t want anyone paying attention to her work.

    AA: Which piece of art did you find most challenging to transform into a dessert?
    CF: Luc Tuymans told us to make a dessert based on his painting St. Valentine, which is blue/gray/purple and has a mysterious, heart-shaped object in it. We wanted to honor his request, of course, but it was a real struggle to come up with a gray dessert that would be amazing enough to honor his beautiful painting.

    AA: Have you had to modify or make custom kitchen tools? What are your favorite tools or most essential ingredients?
    CF: We have had custom cookie cutters made, but most often we find ourselves sourcing props for our desserts: the perfect little bottle for a Cindy Sherman float, custom bee chocolate transfers for an Avedon piece, edible paper for a Damien Hirst cake, custom coasters and gaudy Turkish tea cups for a Koons hot chocolate. The most unusual material we’ve bought for a dessert has to be the MP3 players that we sourced for our Garry Winogrand ice cream cake.

    Modern Art Desserts: Tess Hirst cake

    Creating the Damien Hirst Cake

    AA: What about a painting or a sculpture informs how the dessert should taste?
    CF: Most often the color helps make our flavor choices. I’m really not into using food coloring (except in necessary situations like the Mondrian, where natural just didn’t cut it), so we try to come up with natural ways to work color into our desserts. Black sesame, black cocoa powder, chocolate ganache, strawberries, saffron, tomatoes, creme de violette liqueur, lemon curd, Italian meringue, fruit gelees, avocado and fresh flowers are all great materials for working color into a dessert.

    AA: Tell me about the design process. Do you make several prototypes before settling on the right piece? Were there any really strange experiments that you learned from?
    CF: We tend to sketch a lot, but most often we talk through ideas in our meetings before getting to the testing phase. We’ve become pretty streamlined in how we work, so we’re able to reach a finished design much more quickly than when we first started. The ice cream cake that plays music is actually an example of how we’ve broadened our thinking about what we can do, rather than being particularly experimental. Feeling free to add more and interesting non-pastry components to our desserts feels like a wacky and amazing luxury.

    Modern Art Desserts: Tuymans Parfait

    Tuymans Parfait

    AA: When you think of the perfect treat, or the perfect execution of form and flavor, how close does what you see in your mind match what you’re able to produce?
    CF: I’ve been known to test up to 30 versions of a recipe, usually in our home kitchen, until I get to what I’m envisioning. Sometimes things happen easily and naturally. Leah Rosenberg (my pastry chef at the SFMOMA cafe) has become such an amazing force in the kitchen, and it feels sometimes like my brain is in her body, making exactly what I was hoping for.

    AA: How did the book come about? How did you narrow down the recipes to include?
    CF: My husband and I were working on our first book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (which, really, I only did 1/4 of the work on), and I thought that I should start thinking about a book about our museum desserts. I approached my editor who was excited about the project, so we started work on it as the Blue Bottle book was wrapping up. We had a tight deadline with the SFMOMA closing in June 2013 for their big expansion, so I had to work in hyper speed. It was more work than I ever could have imagined, especially getting all of the rights to reproduce the original artwork, but I’m thrilled that we worked through it and made a beautiful book without any compromises. My editor was really the one to narrow down the recipes, choosing projects that are both widely appealing and make for balanced content.

    Modern Art Desserts: Kahlo cookie box

    Kahlo Cookie Box

    AA: What kind of feedback do you get from the artists who inspire your confections?
    CF: The few that I’ve met (Cindy Sherman, John Zurier, Andrew Kudless, Rosana Castrillo Diaz and Ruth Laskey) have been incredible and so delighted about our project. There’s only been one who has objected and made us stop. But he didn’t make us cry!

    AA: You mentioned earlier that you are your own worst critic, but working with art takes a lot of independence and resilience. When you come up against something really challenging, how do you pull yourself through?
    CF: By sleeping! I am devoted to a good night’s sleep, and very often wake up with the solution to problems I might be having (desserts or otherwise). And sometimes (if I have the luxury of time), I will just drop it for a while and wait for a solution to come to me. A good example is a peanut butter cookie that I was trying to develop a few years ago for the Blue Bottle shops (not at the SFMOMA). I was originally planning on trying to come up with a vegan peanut butter cookie, but somehow that turned into becoming obsessed with making one that had whiskey and lard in it. My husband loves peanut butter cookies, but after 27 versions of lardy boozy cookies, he had enough of being my taste tester. I decided that I was frustrated and no longer inspired, so I dropped it. Two years later, I realized that my problem was that I was trying to make a soft cookie, which was always going to be gross with lard, and turned my focus to a crunchy cookie (this time without whiskey), and I got it right after just two batches. But I needed to get out of my own head and let things settle.

    Modern Art DessertsAA: What advice do you have for bakers (or photographers) who are looking to find their niche?
    CF: Find what you like to do and do it your best. I’m a firm believer that you’re never going to be great at anything unless you really, truly love what you do.

    AA: What will you be working on while the SFMOMA has its renovation? Will the cafe re-open at another location?
    CF: I just don’t think it makes sense to make desserts inspired by art anywhere other than in a museum. So no, we aren’t going to continue on with this project in another location (unless another museum comes along). The other part of my job at Blue Bottle is to make treats that pair well with coffee for our other 9 shops, so that will keep me busy. Leah will stay on staff to begin to archive all of the projects we’ve done at the museum cafe over these last 4 years (I only documented a quarter of them in the book!), and we will work together on planning new desserts for the re-opening in 2016. The SFMOMA is acquiring so much amazing new art, and we want to be there to get to know the pieces and plan for an incredible re-opening. By this summer our schedules will be calm enough that we’ll finally be able to make the Mondrian cake available for ordering online to be shipped around the US. That will be a fantastic way to make this cake available, and it’s such a perfect cake for shipping. So, stay tuned!

    Head to the Blue Bottle Café on the 5th floor of the SFMOMA to try Caitlin’s latest desserts. Modern Art Desserts is available on Blue Bottle Coffee’s web site, and at the SFMOMA for purchase.


    How Lindsey Stirling Is Reinventing the Music Industry

    April 18th, 2013

    Lindsey Stirling photo courtesy of @KmeronDespite harsh criticism on America’s Got Talent and a constant barrage of music industry rejection, artist and composer Lindsey Stirling has succeeded in forging her own path toward stardom. With 1.7 million YouTube followers and over 250 million views, the 26-year-old violinist is capitalizing on a new media model that skips signing with big labels and relies purely on fan-based support. And she has proven that it works.

    In an interview with Forbes, Stirling explained why artists no longer need an agent or industry executive to jumpstart their careers.

    “Before I learned of the world of YouTube, I tried the traditional, non-social media route,” said Lindsey to Forbes. “I feel like I tried everything. I submitted videos and applications to talent agencies and TV shows, I drove to Vegas and visited agents, I was on America’s Got Talent, I played for free at venues in attempts to be ‘found’ and yet all the experts in the entertainment industry told me that what I did was not marketable and that I had to join a group or do more traditional music.”

    The experts were wrong. Stirling and other musicians are in a prime position to embark on a massive industry shift. In an age when all you really need are a computer and semi-sophisticated recording equipment, Stirling is part of a new generation of musicians that is using social networking and online media to launch their careers, leaving behind the “you have to know someone who knows someone” industry mantra.

    “The beautiful thing about social media is that no one has to give you the green light signal in order for you to do what you want to do,” said Stirling in Forbes. “No ‘industry professional’ has to approve that what you are doing will be successful.”

    Lindsey Stirling photo courtesy of @KmeronThat’s not to say that the original business model has been completely thrown out; Stirling has expertly marketed herself to a particular demographic interested in geeky subculture, writing her own arrangements from fantasy series like Game of Thrones or the popular RPG, Skyrim. (She also spends extra time hand-sewing costumes, building props and filming her performances before posting them on YouTube). Her most popular song, “Zelda Medley”, a mash-up of theme songs from the Zelda video game series, played an integral role in launching her career; since uploading it to YouTube on November 26, 2011, the song has gotten 9.9 million views.

    Today, Stirling’s burgeoning musical career involves national tours, sold-out shows and full-length album recordings.

    “I was told that what I was doing would never make it,” Stirling said. “But I think that when you do what you love people are drawn to you. When you’re really true to yourself, you’re gonna be better able to share your gifts with the world.”

    Last week, she played sold-out shows at The Regency Ballroom and the Warfield in San Francisco.

    “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played,” said Stirling onstage. “In all honesty, it’s crazy to me. Last May, less than a year ago, I did my first ticketed show for 300 people. It’s crazy. I can’t believe that I’m looking out and this room is filled.”

    Lindsey Stirling photo courtesy of @KmeronHowever, Stirling hasn’t forgotten her virtual roots; even her live shows pay tribute to YouTube and 21st century technologies that made it possible for her to so quickly rise to fame. An onstage screen played familiar scenes pulled from her YouTube videos, behind-the-scenes clips and videos of fans performing her songs; “Just Dance” was performed with Stirling and three fans trying to win the favor of the crowd.

    Both onstage and on video, Stirling — along with a number of other modern musicians — is pointedly backing away from the music industry machine, showing fans that money is not the ultimate goal here; instead, she places unprecedented trust in her fans’ support, allowing them to decide just how valuable her art is. The result has been bigger than she ever imagined.

    “It can be really discouraging to hear that over and over again that you’re not good enough and that you’ll never make it,” Stirling said, “but I know that every one of you have talents, and you have ambitions and you have dreams and goals…and you probably also have people telling you that you’re not good enough. It’s up to you guys to determine that. The same way you helped me live my dreams I know that each one of you guys can achieve the things you want to in life as well.”

    Learn more about Lindsey Stirling (or learn to play like her) by visiting her website or her YouTube channel. For tickets, visit

    Photos courtesy of @Kmeron from LeWeb on Flickr.

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    On the Ground with War Photographer Lalage Snow

    March 7th, 2013

    Lalange SnowWhen disaster strikes, there’s no time to think. Bullets fly, cars burst into flame and the only way to escape is to run. Lalage Snow is one person who runs toward danger, her camera capturing the surreal chaos of conflict – tear gas hovering over Bangladesh streets, and Russian jets screaming across the sky – and puts them directly before your eyes. You almost forget that a human being had to be there to take these shots.

    A photojournalist, war correspondent and documentary filmmaker, her credentials are extensive: she has freelanced in the Middle East, Europe, Central and Southeast Asia before moving to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2010; her work has been featured in publications all over the world, from Glamour and Elle to BBC and the Wall Street Journal.

    She originally caught our eye with her triptych series, We Are Not The Dead. The series attempts to scratch the surface of what soldiers endure, photographing British soldiers in Afghanistan the day before, halfway through, and after their tour is completed; a brief interview accompanies each photograph.

    Lt David Kim, a Navy Chaplain attached to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment looks at the sky after a memorial service to the fallen.

    Refusing to be dragged down by the politically-charged, harsh stories that come out of the region, Snow also keeps a blog called Kabul Kitchen where she writes about navigating culture gaps through cooking.

    We had the chance to talk with Snow about her experiences in the Middle East, and what happens when disaster strikes.

    AA: What made you decide to become a war photographer?
    LS: I had always been into photography. I started to work in consumer journalism and realized you could do it as a job, and that’s what I really wanted to do. As far as war, it was the excitement and adventure; you know, all the really frivolous reasons to go and photograph conflict. I did a Master’s in London in photography, and while I was doing that I decided to go on an EmBed in the military. My cousin’s regiment was out there in southern Afghanistan. So after a lot of paperwork from the ministry of defense I flew out. I’ve always been drawn to sort of dodgy places; before that I was in Bangladesh and I lived in Middle East for a bit as well.

    Door by Lalange Snow

    AA: How do you prepare for a shoot?
    LS: It depends. When I first started out I was working as a stringer for AFP (Agence-France Press). It was sort of my baptism by fire. I was in Bangladesh during some student riots where it got really violent. There was no prep at all. I happened to be there right time right place. The only preparation was running very quickly away from people with stones.

    Preparation for [photo series] We Are Not The Dead was basically getting the subjects and soldiers to really trust me as a confidante. I’d trained with them for about 2-3 months in the field — freezing cold, boiling hot — photographing training but not photographing them individually. Once that trust was established we could do the portraits and interviews.


    Gun by Lalage Snow

    AA: How do you carry your equipment to places where you have to be constantly on the run?
    LS: My kit is two cameras, a 35mm and a 50mm. I used to carry a belt that had different lenses but now I have two with fixed lenses, and if I wear a belt or bag for my film I keep other lenses in there. I’ve also got an 85mm for portraits, having learned about invasion of space [laughs], and a 17-40 Lens. I’ve got a Canon Mark I, and a Mark II which is great. I’m not gonna upgrade. I come from the mindset that if it isn’t broken you don’t need to fix it.

    AA: What other equipment to you usually need to bring?
    LS: I usually end up borrowing from the military if my vest isn’t good enough. When we’re in with the military we end up sharing with journalists from all over the world. They’re always heavy; there’s nothing you can do about it.  Helmet-wise, I wish I had my own because it would probably fit better and not fall into my eyes. It’s like, “Bridget Jones does war photography.” Everything that can go wrong does go wrong and it’s completely hapless. I’m always losing my armor or my helmet or something.

    AA: In the We Are Not The Dead series, the second photograph in each triptych seems to glow with the same inner fire as Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”. Was that a trick of lighting or something more?
    LS: The British do six month deployments, so each triptych was taken the day before, three months and six months. The light in northern Scotland and the desert is quite different. Both Scottish shots were in the beginning of spring and beginning of autumn on grey days in a storeroom that was lit overhead by two skylights.

    I got some funny comments about the glow. I shot it outside using ambient light — no reflectors — just a black sheet for a background that blew away when a helicopter landed. I tried to choose a fairly shaded corner but it was always outside. The idea that I manipulated the light is quite hilarious, really. You can’t ask soldiers to sit for a half an hour while they’re busy, you need to grab them, have the five minute chat and let them go to do their jobs.

    Adam from We Are Not Dead by Lalage Snow

    Adam from We Are Not Dead by Lalage SnowAA: It’s amazing to see the how different the soldiers look in their portraits over the span of six months. Did you notice anything in particular?
    LS: For Adam Petzsch — seeing the difference in his eyes — he looks like a different person in the middle picture, and he was. He’d just seen something horrific. He was an officer in charge of this operation and had to suddenly do his job, do it quickly and do it well; so that’s what was going on in that picture.

    Christopher McGregor is incredibly photogenic anyway, but I think he changed a lot. I knew them so well as people, so when I paired [the images] up it was a surprise.

    AA: You did a series on British female soldiers on the front lines, as well as the rise of women in the Afghan army. The US just lifted the ban on women in combat roles in January. It sounds like your documentary Afghan Army Girls was incredibly well-timed. Could you tell me more about it?
    LS: It’s funny because I’ve never filmed before and it’s a totally different art compared to photojournalism. You’re telling a story but in a completely different way. The documentary became about three girls, why they joined, and their civilian-to-soldier story.

    Flower by Lalage Snow

    AA: What were some of the things you learned while filming the documentary?
    LS: Well, for example, it’s a common misconception for the West to think that all Afghan women are repressed and have to wear burquas, and that’s the way it is. In the 50s and 60s, before Afghanistan wasn’t completely destroyed, it was a much more liberal country. Since then, there have been over 30 years of conflict, whether it was the Soviet occupation,  civil war, Taliban rule or the ongoing conflict there now. These girls are young — 18-25 — and have only ever known being a refugee or being brought up in this state of conflict.

    There were three girls who were really pious who didn’t want to be filmed. One of them used to say to the others (and I only found this out after I saw the transcriptions) “be careful — you don’t want to be on TV. People will think you’re a prostitute.” It’s the way they’re brought up. Another girl, who was really beautiful, her mother accused her of inciting people to propose to her because her older sisters hadn’t gotten much attention. She was really ashamed. When I was taking a break for two weeks, it turned out that her fiancée had come to the base. He thought one of the American female soldiers was a man (because she had short hair), called this girl a  prostitute and went to her house and tried to kill her and her father. It was completely bonkers.  It’s like something out of Shakespeare or something.

    AA: It reminds me of all those Regency novels that tell female protagonists, “you must marry this man or you’re a terrible person!”
    LS: Exactly! One of the British defense ministers got into trouble because he described Afghanistan as being slightly Medieval. He got it bang on!

    Lalage Snow

    AA: I saw a documentary called Wings of Their Own where the US government sold planes to Saudis, but they refused to accept one of the planes on the grounds that a woman had piloted the plane over there. Do you ever encounter that level of culture clash?
    LS: Oh god, of course, always. I’m not going to reiterate the situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan because it is what it is, but it’s quite funny because if you’re going to go interview someone, I never quite know if they’re going to shake my hand or do the whole hand to the chest bow. They know that foreign women are different, and independent, and just really weird.

    AA: There was another article published in Telegraph talking about how female journalists are considered to be a third gender rather than “women,” so that Muslim men speak to them more frankly than they would to women of their own country.
    LS: I’m glad you brought that up. It’s big over there. Being a girl, you can go into female prisons, or the hospital, or wherever, and you can interview women or men. You really are a third gender. You’re not a woman; you’re not a guy; you’re just Western.

    AA: How do you cope with the danger of living in a war zone? Do you have any opportunities to create a kind of normalcy?
    LS:  I was watching Julie and Julia one night and it gave me the idea to start a cooking blog. I’ve always found it therapeutic. Anything we read in the news is all to do with insurgents and the war on terror — somehow related to al-Qaida — and yet there’s this community of expats living there, some getting rich off the war and some doing journalism. It’s this really absurd world that you don’t really see, and that’s what my Kabul Kitchen blog was trying to show. It can be really boring there, but then these strange things keep happening. I remember bread was really difficult to make because of the altitude; the quality of the flour wasn’t very good, and you’re never really sure about the yeast. It always went to mush and never rose properly. Oh, and the oven was always broken so you had to leave the door open or it would explode.

    AA: If something happens in front of you, someone gets injured or shot, have you ever had to make the decision to take pictures or stop and help?
    LS: I think it was in Bangladesh, actually. There was a boy –someone smashed rock into his head. I took one picture, just one, and then looked around, and this poor kid was surrounded by 15 other photographers. At that point I dropped my camera and was like, “for god’s sake, would someone help him!” Then I and someone else got him into a rickshaw. It’s one of those things that you can never predict. If it were to happen again, I would do the same thing. There are points where it’s not important — one tiny little photo that’s probably going to get lost in the ether anyway are not important if someone’s life is at risk.

    AA: Do you ever find yourself becoming part of the story you’re covering?
    LS: When you’re out there for a long time you do become part of the story and your understanding of the country, as a foreigner, becomes part of who you are. It forms you. I think a lot of people who spend time in different countries does add to who they are as a person.

    Find out more about Lalage Snow on her website or follow her on Twitter. Read about her cooking adventures at her blog

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    Review: The Fourth Messenger

    February 14th, 2013

    The Fourth MessengerTalented writer Tanya Shaffer is back with a brand new musical that takes a refreshing, open minded look at spirituality in a modern era. As a local playwright and actor, Shaffer made a name for herself in the late 90s while doing a solo show about her adventures in Africa. In 2005, she honed her stagecraft with the romantic comedy, Baby Taj. Most recently, Shaffer joined forces with indie-pop veteran Vienna Teng to bring you the reimagined story of a modern Buddha in The Fourth Messenger, now playing at the Ashby Theater in Berkeley through March 10.

    The story follows journalist Raina (Anna Ishida) as she returns to work at a failing newspaper after her father’s death. Seething, she takes on the next big story: discrediting guru Mama Sid (Annemaria Rajala). After Raina infiltrates Mama Sid’s ashram in northern Canada to learn Mama Sid’s secrets, her cutthroat professionalism begins to wane. Meanwhile, Mama Sid begins to realize that Raina, though a difficult student, helps her find the strength to tear down the last illusions of her own life.

    Accustomed to more mainstream shows like Pippen, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, I was afraid The Fourth Messanger would be preachy or narrow in scope; however, the message is quite the opposite. It addresses spirituality with a gentle touch and saves the metaphysics for the last moments. To quote Mama Sid, “I’d offer you a compass but my path isn’t yours. You have to open your own doors.”

    The Fourth Messenger

    What sets The Fourth Messanger apart from other “spiritual” theater is the message of self-growth; Mama Sid’s journey from bourgeois to Buddha demonstrates that it is possible to be both flawed and enlightened. Her transformation asks what it means to be enlightened in a modern world saturated with class warfare, tabloid media and other forces trying to undermine true growth. Shaffer never quite answers this question, but implies that modern civilization tends to destroy goodness instead of learning from it.

    “Nothing like a goddess falling down to earth to strike the nerve of the masses,” cry the reporters in the opening number.

    Shaffer’s delightful existentialism is equally matched by Teng’s musical genius. The score has grit and determination: an alchemy of jazz and folk-rock that resonates from the first to final chord. Teng’s complex harmonies and inspired melodies in pieces like “The Human Experience” and “Look to the Thought” stick with you long after the curtain goes down.

    The Fourth Messenger

    A powerful duo, Shaffer and Teng make two hours feel like twenty minutes, and succeed at surprising their audience with a final reversal at the musical’s conclusion. Profound and profane, combative and compassionate, The Fourth Messenger has everything and more for a musical worth seeing.

    Shaffer and Teng took a few moments to talk with Art Animal about creating the musical and what to watch out for next.

    Art Animal: This retelling of the Buddha story is about an American woman. How did changing genders enhance or change the story? What was challenging about writing it?
    Tanya Shaffer: Writing about a historical figure of such profound significance is daunting from the get-go. After conceiving the idea for this musical, I ruminated on it in the back of my mind for several years before actually starting to write it. Eventually, I took as my point of entry the elements of the Buddha’s life that I’d always found troubling. I was fascinated by the questions of how to reconcile the notion of this enlightened being and his teachings with these actions that I found questionable. These parts of the Buddha’s life had not been discussed much in the many Buddhist talks I’d attended, and I wondered whether that would be different if the Buddha were a woman. Are we more critical of women’s choices in certain areas than of men’s? Reframing the story with a woman as the central character threw those questions into relief in an interesting way, and, I hope, will cause others to view the story with fresh eyes.

    AA: What sets a story about the Buddha apart from other spiritual musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell?
    TS: Those are great musicals, and I love them. They tell a story that is much more familiar to a Western audience than the one we’re telling. I was really excited to bring the legends around the Buddha’s life, as well as aspects of his teachings, to a Western audience in a way that is fun, exciting, thought-provoking and accessible.

    The Fourth Messenger

    AA: What are you hoping the audience takes away from the show? What message are you trying to send out?
    TS: I hope people will emerge from this musical reflecting on the nature of our humanity; what it means to be human, what we’re doing here, how we can accept ourselves and each other. I hope they will argue about the central character’s choices and whether or not they were justified. I hope that hearts and minds will be opened wide, and that the audience will have an experience that is both highly entertaining and deeply moving. And I hope they’ll walk out singing Vienna’s gorgeous songs!

    Vienna Teng: I hope they’ll look at the imperfect teachers in their lives with more compassion and curiosity. We don’t know the full story of each other’s lives and ideas unless we ask with an open mind.

    AA: What surprised you most about bringing this story to the stage?
    TS: How hard it was! We went through so many drafts. Along the way I’ve learned so much about writing musicals. “In a musical, the music should do the heavy lifting,” Matt August, our director, repeatedly told me. I’ve stripped away a lot of spoken text to make that possible. It’s been a long journey, but I’m so proud of where we’ve ended up.

    The Fourth MessengerAA: Vienna, what surprises or insights did you experience while working on this show? Which song are you the most proud of?
    VT: There are so many ways to structure a piece of music for theatre. I didn’t fully understand how to build songs effectively until Matt August started putting scenes “on their feet” in rehearsal — he deserves a lot of credit for making each number work. With “Monkey Mind,” for example, he wanted the ensemble to hum underneath each individual meditator’s outburst; it’s a subtle effect, but it makes a big difference in keeping the whole song cohesive and anchored in Sid’s winter retreat.

    AA: Vienna, you mentioned that musical theater is way outside of your comfort zone.  What interested you about the project?  How did you prepare to write this score?
    VT: I was drawn to the nuances and complexities of Tanya’s story. At the time, I was at a crossroads with my music career, wondering if it was a calling or an indulgence, and Mama Sid’s journey fascinated me. I just wanted to be involved in bringing it to life somehow. I had no idea how to write for a musical; I remember warning Tanya that I was a total novice. But she assured me that my instincts were good, and sent me examples from classic shows as a primer. I got a crash course from Wicked, A Chorus Line, Rent and a number of Sondheim shows.

    AA: The music in The Fourth Messenger has the same powerful emotional resonance that your albums do; yet you have a computer science degree and are pursuing an MBA/MS. How do you balance right brain and left brain pursuits? How do they feed into each other?
    VT: I love both the analytical and the imaginative realms, but each has its limitations, so I’ve tried to construct my life so that I can move between those worlds. Sometimes it’s a bit hectic — for the past several weeks I’ve been flying between rehearsals in California and classes in Michigan — but it’s totally worth it. Each gives me inspiration for (and time off from) the other. I’ve made spreadsheets to keep track of our song edits for the musical, and a songwriter’s eye for metaphor has come in handy for school presentations.

    The Fourth Messenger

    AA: What’s the harshest piece of criticism you’ve had that you learned from?
    TS: There have been whole subplots that had to be removed because the piece just couldn’t sustain them. There’s a saying, “Kill your darlings,” which refers to the need for writers to cut individual scenes, speeches or songs that they love if they don’t serve the larger piece. Vienna and I have both had to kill a lot of darlings in this process in order to create a successful whole.

    VT: I haven’t gotten much harsh criticism, but there’s been plenty of “damning with faint praise” over the years. It’s taught me two things: one, to keep nurturing my own sense of what’s good and what works; and two, to be fearless about going deeper. Sometimes I actually deserve the backhanded compliment because I was playing it safe, or stopping short of the heart of the matter.

    AA: What advice do you have for others who want to break into your field?
    TS: My advice for playwrights is always to get things on their feet. Find companies who will take an interest in your work and help you get it out there in the form of readings, workshops and productions. If those opportunities don’t present themselves, then take the reins and produce your own work. Plays are meant to be performed. Producing is not for the faint of heart, but if you can do it, you’re not dependent on the whims of others to find your audience. I always advise artists to take the power into their own hands if they possibly can.

    The Fourth Messenger

    VT: Advice for composing musical theatre? I don’t have much, except “find a talented playwright who believes in you!” As for music in general…it’s not very romantic, but I’d say this: find a way to make money that you genuinely enjoy, and that has flexible work time. That way you can pursue your creative passions on your own terms. And often the skills you pick up at the other job will come in handy — just ask Annemaria Rajala, whose other passion is teaching yoga!

    AA: Do you have any upcoming projects that should we look out for?
    TS: I’m asking myself that question right now! I have ideas for projects for both page and stage, but nothing far enough along to announce it at this point. The best way to stay apprised of my work is to fill out the contact form on my website ( I’ll send an email when I’ve got something going on!

    VT: I’m going into the studio next week to start recording my next album, which will be released in early 2014. And I’ll be going on tour across the U.S. and Europe this fall, for the first time in three years. So far it looks like the Bay Area tour stop will involve either multiple, smaller venues, or one show in a big beautiful theater. We’ll be announcing the full tour schedule in April.

    See The Fourth Messanger through March 10 at the Ashby Theater, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are $23-40. For more information, visit


    Feature: The Erotic Reading Circle

    February 7th, 2013

    Erotic Reading CircleOne thing you can say about San Francisco is that it is a sex-positive city. I once bought a dozen red roses from my local florist and he reminded me not to scatter petals across white sheets because they will stain. I got the same candor at the Erotic Reading Circle, a monthly writers’ group hosted by Carol Queen and Jen Cross.

    The Erotic Reading Circle began in the mid-1980s at the Good Vibrations sex toy shop in San Francisco, where the staff (one of them being Queen) hosted a group for anyone who wanted to read their erotic writing. However, the group started to lose momentum, and eventually the meetings tapered off.

    Meanwhile, Cross was leading an erotic writing workshop for queer survivors of sexual trauma, and was looking for material. She came across Sex Spoken Here, an anthology of writing from the Erotic Reading Circle compiled by Queen and her former colleague, Jack Davis.

    “I was surprised that such a group no longer existed in San Francisco,” Cross said. “I approached [Queen] in 2006 about starting the group up again, and she was game.”

    That year, Queen and Cross joined forces and moved the Erotic Reading Circle to the Center for Sex and Culture, where the group has been going strong ever since.

    Every 4th Wednesday, a core group of 5-10 people — ranging in age, income level and sexual orientation — gather to share short stories, vignettes from novels, poetry and other works. Most attendees are regulars, but meetings always attract a few newbies who want to see what the group is about. Kooky and humorous stories abound here (for example, a story about interspecies dating between a Hyena and a Zebra); but braver, more personal stories are the ones that truly stick out.

    Erotic Reading Circle“I leave nearly every reading circle inspired,” Cross said. “I love it that folks are willing to come into a circle of strangers and share…It’s so risky, and in taking that risk, they open themselves to being generously witnessed in their creative skill and brilliance. There are so few places in our lives where we get to be witnessed in that way.”

    When I sat in on a session last week, everyone was incredibly supportive. Cross and Queen use the Amhurst Method of critique, letting the author know what they valued in the writer’s work. Fellow writers at the Erotic Reading Circle provide insightful feedback on whether or not scene is realistic, emotions come across and, of course, whether the writing is hot; as a result, writers have the unique opportunity to develop confidence in presenting explicit material.

    I was surprised to find that rather than using thin plotlines as an excuse to write about sex, each reader had a unique voice, perspective and story.

    “As far as challenges, the first, I think, is falling back on trite language and ideas rather than seeking a new, creative way to represent erotic ideas and experience,” Queen said.

    Writers often surprise themselves when they first say aloud what they desire. Cross believes that writing and reading aloud makes writers more in tune with their bodies that can lead to a lifestyle more welcoming to delight and pleasure.

    “Erotic writing is so powerful when it can surprise us,” Queen said. “Writing about something that’s initially embarrassing strengthens the writer. We have certainly seen, MANY times, people grow comfortable within the group and become more skilled and fearless as writers. If that’s happening in the bedroom too, I’m thrilled.”

    Carol Queen of the Erotic Reading Circle. Photo courtesy of Karen Vibert-Kennedy

    Cross quoted Li Thorn Han (author of Conflicting Desires: Notes on the Craft of Writing Erotic Stories) about the power and necessity of writing about sex: “Erotic stories are stories about human behavior. The genre is fundamental to our nature… Everyone who is here is here as a result of sex. Everyone who will ever be here (barring cloning and the like) will be here because of sex. No other area of storytelling can make a corresponding claim.”

    Queen went on to say that sex as plot device is natural for stories involving erotic tension. It can help characters move into a new phase in their relationships, or heal estrangement between characters.

    “It also expresses emotional issues, sexual orientation issues and many other things,” Queen said. “Just like real life!”

    Despite its universal themes, erotica is still marginalized even in the wake of successful books like 50 Shades of Grey. Our culture has a mixed relationship with the erotic itself, and authors don’t get enough support and recognition.

    “A culture that marginalizes its erotica doesn’t get enough good erotica,” Queen said. “We’re making more space for writers to delve into and create erotic inspiration and knowledge.”

    The final piece of advice that Cross gives to writers of erotica is to take a deep breath and dive in. Queen heartily agrees.

    “If YOU think it’s hot,” Queen said, “there will be other people who’ll think it’s hot too, so write for yourself first. Don’t edit or censor yourself, especially in the first draft; get it out on the page!”

    Keep an eye out for upcoming Erotic Reading Circle events on Twitter: @CentrSexCulture, or sign up for the Erotic Reading Circle’s mailing list at Readers and listeners of all orientations are welcome.

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    Review: Crones for the Holidays

    December 20th, 2012

    Crones for the HolidaysFresh from the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival, Terry Baum and Carolyn Myers (aka A Coupla Crackpot Crones) bring their newest sketch comedy and improv show, “Crones for the Holidays”, to Stage Werx in San Francisco. As Crackpot Crones’ third holiday show — after “I Hate Valentine’s Day” and “Moms!” — you know you’re in for a treat when you see a Christmas tree, a Mayan Calendar, a window full of stars and a giant Menorah on the stage.

    “Every year you see shows like The Nutcracker, The Velveteen Rabbit, and A Christmas Carol,” said Terry Baum, one half of the Crones duo. “We wanted to put on a show for the weirdos and perverts and blasphemers. You know, for us.”

    The word ‘crone’ simply means a woman beyond childbearing age, and according to Baum the term has been used to frighten women, calling up images of witches and negativity.

    “Here we are, owning that we are over 60 and we are old women,” said Baum in an interview with the SF Examiner. “From a feminist point of view, there is also the concept of crones being wise and powerful and having a deeper understanding of life.”

    Crones for the Holidays

    The two-act play is a hilarious take on the struggle to get through the holidays. In “Bubbie & Her Butch,” we learn whether it’s worse to wear dangly earrings or convert to Judaism, and how to broach the subject of sex with young children.

    “I’m her bubbie,” said the newly minted lesbian played by Myers. “Bubbies aren’t supposed to have sex at all.”

    There’s a ton of audience participation, including improv poetry and a sing-along of two carols, “Moishe the Green Nosed Herring” and “The Twelve Days of Family Insults”. The entire performance is a raucous and irreverent sleigh ride; yet in spite of the dirty jokes, Crones for the Holidays still manages to be poignantly touching.

    “The Version Mary” brought up the paradoxical role of Mary as the “goddess of compassion” — though culturally, she has never quite achieved “goddess” status — summed up by the line, “man begat man begat man.” The piece also shed light on the controversy surrounding punk band, Pussy Riot, and the continuing struggle of women’s rights around the world. In the play, Mary offers her support to a young girl who, like her, was pregnant and didn’t know what to do.

    Baum’s performance as Mary was so touching that she brought tears to my eyes.

    “To love yourself — to save yourself — is not a sin,” said Baum as Mary. “Whatever you do you, have my blessing. I am always on your side.”

    Crones for the Holidays

    “The Last Best Christmas Eve Party” was also more straight-faced, recounting the death of activist and openly gay actress Pat Bond on Christmas eve. Baum was there that night, and she remembers how Bond’s family and friends still held a Christmas Eve potluck right there in the hospital room.

    Alternately hilarious, raunchy and powerful, Crones for the Holidays puts on a good show, rejoicing in all aspects of the holiday season and shedding light on feminism, the feminine and the future of women’s rights.

    See Crones for the Holidays from December 15-30 in San Francisco. For more information, visit


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