Where Were Pat and Vanna When the Lights Went Out?

The S.F. taping of Wheel of Fortune goes momentarily dark; Spanganga fades permanently to black

Since 2001, the Spanganga community art space in the Mission has been known as a petri dish of diverse traditional stage shows and experimental hybrids, from panel discussions to S/M workshops, peace-driven beatbox performances to pitch-dark sex parties ... all at discount prices. At the end of April, alas, Spanganga is shutting its doors. Dog Bites dropped by to interview its founder, impresario Sean Kelly, who's closing the space so his life can return to some kind of normalcy. Kelly, a deadpan guy with blond locks and unflinching eyes, is jovial and friendly, but he sorta looks like he'd kill you for a quarter.

Dog Bites: First question: "Spanganga"?

Sean Kelly: "Spanganga," as a word, comes from a game we used to play in Miami. The object is to trick your opponent into saying the word "what." Then you say "basuki" or "spanganga." I had to wait about a year before this guy finally let the spanganga.com domain expire. I called him a bunch of times to get him to say "what," but he never picked up.

It started as a place to perform for my sketch comedy group [Please Leave the Bronx] that disbanded about a month after I opened ... and to be a rental venue for amateurs who wanted to get up onstage and do something.

DB: Did you feel there was a need for that?

SK: I felt like there was a vacuum. We had the option of either performing on the 4-by-8 stage at the Mock Cafe or on the sidewalk with Popcorn Anti-Theater. We would take any stage time we could get. Most of the nonprofit theaters would not rent to us based on the fact that we did comedy.

If you're a community-based arts organization, you're supposed to be there for everybody, not just for the people who are very intellectual and not funny. I don't feel a lot of nonprofits at that time were reflecting the people in the community. And they still don't.

That is why I started Spanganga. Anybody who could put up $100 could do a show. Some people legitimately had no place to perform. Some people had burned their bridges at other places. It was interesting to weed through these characters. And I wasn't going to edit or curate who was in the space; I was just going to let it go.

DB: What about the food-fight sex parties?

SK: The "Splosh" parties. We needed a truck to haul 14 lawn bags full of pasta from the industrial kitchen where we cooked everything. One hundred twenty people went to each one -- that's about as many as we could take. They were an absolute, yet beautiful, disaster. It rained chocolate milk in the basement as the drain backed up.

DB: What about the pitch-dark sex parties?

SK: The "Darkness Falls" parties. It's like a zone. Once you cross that line, you've already agreed you'll participate. I thought, "How do I break the ice? Maybe if I don't let people talk, and I turn the lights off, and they all agree they're gonna get groped, and it's gonna be clumsy and dirty and everybody goes for it."

There was this one guy ... he was the Ball Toucher. It was this dude, and he didn't involve himself in any play except he crawled around the room and he touched your balls while you were fucking. He kinda cupped them.

DB: How do you even know who and how?

SK: At some other party we went to afterwards with a whole bunch of people from "Darkness Falls," I asked, "Did anybody touch your balls?" One guy was like, "Yeah." The more guys I asked, the more 'fessed up. I think maybe one of them who 'fessed might have been the Ball Toucher.

DB: With Spanganga's close, have you achieved your vision?

SK: A lot of people ask me about vision and art and all that crap. It was just supposed to be a place to do stuff, for people to get it off their chest, or get it on their chest. I like proposing ridiculous ideas, like, "Hey, what if I opened a venue?" and then doing it, and then seeing what happens.

DB: People credit you with creating a swirl in this town, blending the subcultures. How do you plead?

SK: The underground art scenes in San Francisco are all fighting about who's gonna be the coolest and hippest art scene, and I think it's all bullshit. There are people who do stuff -- successfully complete projects that they like -- and there are people who don't. I'd like to think the people involved in Spanganga are the people who do stuff. They get together. They make a plan. Whether it's an African dance or a beatbox piece on peace in the Middle East, these are the people who are doing it. (Michael Vavricek)

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