Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly dispatching a producer to bemoan the ambient cannabis smell or megachurch pastors condemning sexual licentiousness, San Francisco has long been the beautiful city some conservatives love to hate. Lately, the ire has focused on theater. Like Jesse Helms wetting himself over Piss Christ, the right-wing mendacity factory Breitbart condemned the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s June production of Walls as a “lesbian illegal alien musical.” (Click the link if you must, or trust us.) And the guardians of public morality at the Catholic League worked themselves into a lather this year over CounterPulse’s production of Perverts Put Out — which actually took place seven years ago (and happened to star SF Weekly’s own film critic).
It may be because the president has a habit of filling Cabinet positions as if they were television roles, and it might be because of its history of shocking the squares, but suddenly, radically political theater is a locus of resistance again. And CounterPulse, a three-story, mid-size theater and performance space in the Tenderloin with a strong — although non-exclusive — queer bent, is inextricably bound up with the current politics of theater.
In post-Obama America, LGBT people — especially in San Francisco — are visible, clamorous, and all but daring a reactionary government to try to wrest hard-won rights away.
This wasn’t always the case on the stage, no matter how gay-friendly it may appear theater always was. (It’s almost incomprehensible what a sensation the self-hating characters in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band were in 1968.) Concurrent with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, a renewed push for gender equality, and efforts to fully enfranchise non-native-born Americans, LGBT rights advocates are holding the line against renewed assaults on a minority population. But with the shifting of trans rights from the periphery to the center and the reconceptualizing of gender and sexuality from a binary to a spectrum, one could argue that queerness is undergoing a revolution of its own as well.
CounterPulse is on the front line of that revolution. A space for socially conscious artists to produce radical work other institutions might politely decline, it’s also a beachhead for performance in a city that’s hemorrhaging creative people whose projects are not meant to help them become Instagram influencers. And having lost its home once already, it’s here to stay.
Described as a “sad yet hopeful satire that connects threads of extinction to wildlife and wild life,” Our Future Ends is Clement Hil Goldberg’s multimedia exploration of contemporary San Francisco’s artistic ecosystem, using the 19th-century concept of the lost continent of Lemuria as its jumping-off point. Conceived as an explanation for how lemurs and other primates got to Madagascar from Africa — this was before the theory of plate tectonics — Lemuria’s supposed sinking mirrors the plight of the endangered lemurs today.
The words lemur and Lemuria trace back to the Roman term for ghost, but the easily anthropomorphizable creatures, known for their ringed tails and “surprise eyes” lend themselves well to the stop-motion animation that comprises a key part of Our Future Ends. Goldberg sees a metaphor for San Francisco in the rapacious deforestation and strip-mining that’s rendering Madagascar unsuitable for the adorable little primates that live nowhere else and which have called the island home for 60 million years.
“I did visit the lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center,” Goldberg, who uses the pronouns they and them, says. “And I was watching this PBS documentary called The Loneliest Animals, which was all about different animals that were going extinct. The lemur thread stood out to me because they were matriarchal, and [biologists] would pair one left of a certain species with a different species. There was something very queer about that. What does it mean to be the last of your kind?”
One lemur in Our Future Ends gets test results that determine mating is impossible, as his “genetic line isn’t beneficial to us as a species.” Even if a match were to be found, a technician tells him, “It would be a waste of resources to support your pairing.” Comparing his plight with that of climate refugees or any other marginalized people, Goldberg saw a “foregrounding of where we’re headed.” And Our Future Ends posits a similar extinction event for the ancient Lemurians, “but in a fabulous way.”
The dream-like result — a multimedia theatrical production that consists of video and animation with a voiceover plus live dance, and stars Brontez Purnell, Maryam Farnaz Rostami, and Heather María Ács — plays at CounterPulse for six performances, Oct. 12-21. It’s a charming, quirky project, and Goldberg is a punster who gets a lot of mileage out of primate/prime mate word play, but it largely came together because of the resources that the larger institution lavished upon it. As Purnell says, CounterPulse is “one of the main centers for alternative performance, and it’s extremely valuable in what it offers.”
In this case, it was time. To no small extent, Our Future Ends helped reframe Goldberg’s entire practice, toiling for months in CounterPulse’s basement studio on a Creative Work Fund grant awarded jointly to the artist and the venue. (They later had a second residency there, as well.) After working on the experimental film adaptation of Michelle Tea’s novel Valencia, they “fell hard and fast” for stop-motion animation.
“I just started looking back at my work, like, ‘These are art films,’ ” Goldberg says. “I wish I had known that at the time. I just didn’t.”
The stylistic choice has other repercussions: namely, in making a tale about collective grief more palatable. Rostami, a Persian-American visual and performance artist whose work has grappled with the idea of large-scale endings — Late Stage San Francisco, in particular — senses the difficulty inherent in coming to terms with one’s alienation and then trying to find a way to fix this broken world without falling prey to despair. Her forthcoming Untitled 1396 — a reference to what year it is in the Jalali, or Iranian, calendar — asks, “How can we make better space in our daily lives to resist when it all seems too much?”
Furry lemur puppets with expressive eyes make it harder to shut down, even in the face of real-life threats to continued survival like wildfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes — the consequences of which disproportionately affect the poor, the non-white, and the geographically marginalized.
That is to say, they fall along the same axes of oppression that artistic jeremiads insist we pay closer attention to.
What Goldberg calls “post-extinction strategies” are as important to the logic of Our Future Ends as they are to performance in the new San Francisco. The combined forces of LGBT assimilation and rising unaffordability have made central cities more hospitable to Color Factories than to people of color or factories. (See Valencia Street, post-Valencia.) And nowhere in urban America has this shift been more palpable than San Francisco. As with the Stud Collective, a group of artists, activists, and nightlife veterans who purchased a 50-year-old SoMa gay bar last year and turned it into a space for a wider range of subcultures under the larger LGBT umbrella, CounterPulse exists in its current form only because of dedicated people who knew how to work with the system to keep it alive. It is a theater of resistance, in terms of the political content of many of its shows — but also in its siting, and even its very existence.
Founded in 1991 and originally known as 848 Performance Space, a 2005 merger with the Bay Area Center for Art and Technology led CounterPulse to adopt its current name. Inhabiting a 95-seat theater at Ninth and Mission streets until losing its lease in 2013, the organization subsequently moved out of the suddenly in-demand Mid-Market area and into the Tenderloin, by purchasing (and renovating) 80 Turk St. Buying a building sounds like a dance with the devil — or whichever malevolent demigod tugs on late capitalism’s strings, anyway — but it’s not quite as simple as that.
“CounterPulse owns the building — but we don’t own it yet,” says Executive Director Julie E. Phelps.
Using CounterPulse as its pilot project, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) worked with two separate foundations to “supply the up-front capital to get 80 Turk off the market and renovate it,” Phelps says. Initially, CounterPulse had to cough up about $1 million as a down payment. CAST acts as a holding company while the theater raises the full $6.7 million. With about $4.5 million banked in less than three years, Phelps is on target.
“I’m trying to set ourselves up to be too-big-to-fail in terms of the borrowing machine,” she says, elaborating on the tangle of tax credits, individual donations, and grants that have collectively dwarfed any fundraising campaign in CounterPulse’s history.
It’s not altogether unlike the language we heard regarding AIG and Bear Stearns in 2008, or text Goldman Sachs might use when assembling a prospectus for an initial public offering. But there’s the rub, as theater’s most famous soliloquy has it. When Twitter moved in around the block from CounterPulse’s original home and a giant pit in the ground became the luxury development NEMA, the choice was either to use the tools of capitalism to put down roots, or vanish along with so many other artists and institutions — a fate that would necessarily mean one fewer place to produce work for those who remained.
Phelps chose the former, and in her fundraising, she makes a point of talking about givers fulfilling their personal values.
“If you approach money like you’re begging people to help your struggling little black box, you’re not going to raise money,” she says. “If you act like you’re giving someone the opportunity to manifest their own values, then things start happening.”
What that translates into is a virtuous cycle. Establishing a home for experimental, queer, or political performance art and theater attracts people with the resources to let that work continue. As a result, Phelps resists calling CounterPulse a theater, preferring venue instead. (Purnell calls it “an island.”)
The word venue is “qualitatively different,” Phelps says, as it speaks to the organization’s multimedia approach. But perhaps more importantly, it better illustrates an organization that’s an order of magnitude smaller than the opera or symphony, yet larger in scope than the other operations scattered around town whose programming might overlap with it.
“I term it as both scrappy and punching above our weight,” Phelps says. “Straddling that gap is actually a core strategy that’s making CounterPulse work right now in that I have, intentionally and sort of shamelessly, borrowed from corporate models of efficiency where it serves us. We left the rest at the door.”
Fundamentally, Phelps says, she sees no shame in “going out and getting the money and recycling that into the community.” But another issue is that many of CounterPulse’s immediate neighbors struggle with day-to-day survival. With considerable justification, Tenderloin residents may regard a highfalutin cultural institution with wealthy benefactors as an accelerant for street-level gentrification — even one that relocated from only six blocks away. So Phelps and company hit the pavement.
“We hit the Police Commission’s meetings, we hit the tenant meetings at the SROs, asking what people wanted,” she says, the idea being to create a “positive contribution to the neighborhood that people who lived here were excited about.”
CounterPulse had an advantage in that its building had sat unoccupied for 20 years, so it wasn’t as if a beloved long-term neighbor had been forced out to make way for it. Using funds from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, CounterPulse holds a “Block Fest” every first Friday, and it collaborates with the nearby Tenderloin Museum from time to time, most notably on an evening of oral histories and portraits of local residents. Whereas scalpers sold Hamilton tickets for hundreds of dollars over the list price, necessitating anti-bot software, CounterPulse prides itself on accessibility, with pay-what-you-can nights for most shows.
While much experimental art battles the misperception that somebody threw a fistful of dollars at some art-damaged weirdo to go be inaccessibly pretentious for inaccessible pretentiousness’ sake, CounterPulse’s programming is rigorous — and a lot of events run on volunteers. Take Raegan Truax’s silent, 37-hour durational performance: Citation, staged in late September. If CounterPulse’s eight-person staff had worked consecutively and in pairs to keep things running smoothly — and being open to the street at 4 a.m. on a Saturday is not without risks — they would have had to put in more than nine hours each.
Phelps swears that staging a 37-hour show the same weekend as the final two chapters of Taylor Mac’s 24-hour-long show at the nearby Curran was pure coincidence. But filling the seats for something like Citation requires more than just putting it on Facebook.
“People think that CounterPulse is a presenter when really, we’re a coproducer with artists,” Phelps says. “It’s negotiated every time and responsive to the resources at play. … We sell tickets by telling a compelling story, and by trusting an artist to reach out to their network.”
More importantly, it’s about having solid enough financial footing to display or produce art that isn’t afraid of causing unease. “Intersectionality” has threatened to become a hollow buzzword, tossed around in online flame wars to signal one’s membership in the arch-progressive in-group. But the value of critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term is real. Intersectionality, as a framework for understanding injustice and crafting a politics that addresses it, doesn’t matter only to the people whose lives and experiences are marked by more than one form of oppression (whether that pertains to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever else). It’s also crucial to the creation of works that get audiences to be receptive to the idea that good art should make you a little bit uncomfortable; intersectionality is largely what keeps things from falling into that preaching-to-the-choir trap.
“It’s not, ‘Everything at CounterPulse you come to is a cabaret about the current political situation,’ ” Phelps says. “That’s not what we mean — although that might happen. It’s that you come into a space where you don’t understand. Having an experience that’s irritating for you or confuses your values — that’s a very relevant experience.”
It goes for both sides of the stage, too — for the audience and for the creator, who may have been repeatedly told that they’re a troublemaker or too obsessed with identity politics, or who just assumed that institutional prerogatives meant their work was verboten.
“Doing something discomforting, having your idea be supported, changes your idea of what resources are available to you and how your ideas are important and valued in the world,” Phelps says. “To give an emerging queer artist the idea that their voice is valued and that you’re going to get the resources to tell your story — that psychic switch is the seed that CounterPulse is planting.”
Javier Stell-Fresquez, a “two-spirit Chican@” who is one third of a (gender)queer collective along with Ivan Monteiro and Davia Amerasu, will bring a dance performance called Mother the Verb to CounterPulse in December, via its Performing Diaspora residency. Using gendered pronouns interchangeably, Stell-Fresquez wants to change our understanding of San Francisco’s place in the coming-out narrative. It’s no longer the “rural flight narrative” of fleeing your family to find a sexually liberated mecca, she says, because queers of different backgrounds don’t necessarily discard their biological parentage.
“A lot of us have been sort of stuck with our families and choose to stick with our families, or don’t, depending on the level and degrees of the smothering we experienced. … We have to deal with what it means to be metaphorically sucking from a teat that is also feeding us toxins.”
In other words, Mother the Verb wants to take the popular idea of San Francisco’s place in queer history and make it queerer. That wouldn’t happen just anywhere.
“Every person I know who’s any type of performer,” Purnell says, “at least once or twice, has been on that stage.”
Referring to a neighborhood or institution as “the heart of the city” is a cliche of urban boosterism. And at the turn of the last century, urban beautification pioneers referred to public parks as the “lungs of the city.” While the image of centralized organs pumping life-giving blood and air to everything around it has a certain resonance, the better metaphor for something like CounterPulse might be that less sexy but no less vital anatomical part: the liver. It filters out the toxins that daily life introduces into your system and keeps you alive after a crazy night out.
Queerness — understood in a broad sense as an articulation of otherness rooted in the erotic body — has often been compared to a moral contaminant, and the panic sown by the HIV/AIDS crisis offered plenty of fodder for metaphors of illness and disease. But given its history as an LGBT mecca, a healthy San Francisco is a queer San Francisco — and a healthy queer San Francisco is one that labors to make space for queer people of all genders, races, ages, and ethnicities. However easily artistic labor gets bowdlerized, co-opted, or turned into a talking point in a marketing presentation, there must always be a space for it to be raw and unmediated, free to be controversial without jeopardizing perilous livelihoods.
We can’t all move to Berlin. And from the used syringes we sidestep from time to time to the policies enacted in City Hall that make or break a struggling person’s ability to stay here, there is much in San Francisco for a venue like CounterPulse to metabolize, to break down and digest. It gives us life.