Interior of PianoFight Oakland (photo by Duncan Wold for PianoFight) (1)

An audience of none at PianoFight. (Courtesy photo)

Like many Bay Area theater companies, PianoFight rode out the pandemic in a state of uncertainty. When the city’s mid-2021 vaccination rates were high enough that San Francisco was predicted to be “the first major U.S. city to hit herd immunity,” PF planned to celebrate big with a program they called “Blessed-Of-PianoFight”— a month long showcase with a rotating roster of in-house performers (Chardonnay Comedy, Mission CTRL) and local troupes (Awesome Theatre, Killing My Lobster) performing at PF’s Tenderloin bar and theaterplex.

As the July 23 opening date drew near, tickets sold out fast.

Then, a few hours before doors were to open, PF announced the cancellation of all opening weekend performances due to a positive COVID-19 test within the company. Four days later, another test came back positive and the entire show was scrapped.

The past month has been a tumultuous time for Bay Area theater. On Aug. 11, two of the most prominent regional companies — the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Magic Theatre — announced they’d be postponing their season-opening shows, both planned for September, on account of the Delta variant. That same day, EXIT Theatre decided to cancel the world-renowned San Francisco Fringe Festival, also scheduled for September. These followed the Oakland Theater Project calling off its latest show before opening weekend.

On Aug. 12, Mayor London Breed held a press conference mandating masks and proof of vaccination for all indoor events starting Aug. 20. That’s a far cry from mid-June, when restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and one major theater (S.F. Playhouse) welcomed back crowds with open arms.

But due to a variety of factors — including unvaccinated locals, the “vaccine vacay” crowd, and a rapidly mutating virus — San Francisco saw its largest increase in COVID-19 cases since the winter surge.

Every theater planning its return season suddenly had to hit the brakes. After more than a year of Broadway-stream fatigue and Zoom performance exhaustion, theater companies are again turning away the audiences that are their lifeblood. Bars and restaurants have delivery services and outdoor parklets; the movie industry already had streaming; schools and offices have (reluctantly) embraced working and learning from home.

Theater is different. The presence of a live crowd is half the experience, both for those on and off the stage. In the face of a virus that makes laughing, crying, shouting, and singing in a crowded theater a risky proposition, what hope does this already-underfunded industry have?

Checkhov’s Gun

The pandemic is not over. Despite promising local vaccination rates, one must remember San Francisco’s numbers only apply here. Delta made its presence known when it became clear the nation as a whole would fall short of President Biden’s vaccination goal of 70 percent by the Fourth of July. Yet, California reopened June 15.

At the risk of asking the obvious: was it too soon?

“Yes!” Meg Elison says very directly. The Oakland-based playwright and poet-turned-award-winning author had become a fixture of opening night galas, pre-pandemic. “I understand the economic panic that pushed people to reopen and I see the optimistic desire to believe we were on our way out, but knowing what we knew about the low vaccination rates of the state — let alone the country — we should have known this is where we’d end up.”

Vaccinated since mid-March (Johnson & Johnson), Elison and her husband, John Elison (Pfizer vaccine), have spent most of the year driving and flying around the country to support her literary work. While photos and videos of their travels certainly made for enviable social media posts, it appears to have come at a cost. When contacted for an interview, Elison was caring for John, who — in addition to having a preexisting compromised immune system — is fighting a breakthrough infection. Days later, Meg would confirm her own breakthrough infection.

“I will say that everywhere we visited was very serious about the mask mandate,” she says. But “it’s easy, being here [in the Bay Area] to forget that our vaccination rates are much higher than everywhere else. We get used to everybody being vaccinated.”

As we talk, she mentions she’s been following historians and epidemiologists who compare the coronavirus epidemic to the Great Influenza of 1918 (colloquially known by its pejorative moniker, the Spanish flu). As with COVID, the 1918 pandemic saw San Francisco leading the country with a coordinated public health response — legally mandating masks and shutting down social gathering spaces. Then, as now, the response was met with a very vocal, and sometimes violent, contingent of anti-maskers.

Still, the mandate worked so well that by November 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle boldly declared “The Epidemic has Passed,” and the local mask mandate was lifted. It turns out the fall of that year was merely the eye of the storm. By January 1919, San Francisco hospitals were once again beyond capacity and daily deaths climbed to record heights. In a 15-1 vote, the Board of Supervisors quickly restored the mask mandate to an apoplectic populace ready to get back to normal.

Fast-forward to July 2021, when PianoFight Co-founder and Executive Director Dan Williams was eagerly awaiting a triumphant return to the before times. “I was the first to test positive,” Williams says, referring to the spate of breakthrough cases that caused PianoFight to postpone its plans to bring back in-person shows.

Williams says he now realizes a post-vaccination surge was always a threat — even before the Delta variant landed in the United States. The problem, he says, was binary thinking. “Everybody was pushing this vaccine as if [when] you had it, [it would be] highly unlikely for you to get COVID. … Not talking like, ‘Actually, it’s gonna keep you out of the hospital.’ … We now have a lot more information and just happen to be part of this grand case study that has hit America.”

He and Rob Ready, PianoFight’s co-founder and artistic director, were making final preparations for opening their doors to the public when staff test kits revealed Williams’ results. A week earlier, a private preview had been held for close friends and family.

“Because it was largely friends and family who came to that event, over the course of the weekend, we heard back, ‘Yup, I tested positive,’ or ‘No, I didn’t,’” Rob recalls. “Hearing back from all those people was, ultimately, why we decided to can the rest of the run.”

And they aren’t the only ones concerned. For companies like Crowded Fire Theater — which is moving ahead with its September opening of Isaac Gomez’s The Displaced, postponed from 2020 — the thought of shutting down again hangs over the calendar like a guillotine blade.

And yet, for Mina Morita, artistic director of Crowded Fire, the idea that her company should avoid live performances until COVID-19 is vanquished is unrealistic.

“I know we are doing everything we can to keep our people safe — short of closing — and I know that so many artists are suffering from not being able to do the work of their heart for so long,” Morita says. “But it feels to me like we’re starting to enter a time when the pandemic will simply be a risk that we all have to weigh for ourselves as we walk through the world. What does this mean to live theater in the long run? How do we pursue our chosen art in a world that may be forever changed? It feels like it’s time to start addressing those questions.”

The Great Influenza of 1918 did not truly end until the spring of 1920. Then, unlike now, the world did not have access to an effective vaccine — let alone numerous effective vaccines — and the pandemic wound down only after impacted populations reached herd immunity the old-fashioned way: Either by dying or surviving and carrying on with the requisite antibodies to fend off future infections.

Given how much more we now know about COVID-19 — especially compared to what was understood of the influenza virus in 1918 — San Francisco Mime Troupe Artistic Director Michael Gene Sullivan says it’s infuriating to see rumors winning out modern-day epidemiology. It’s like being trapped in a burning building with fire skeptics, he quips.

“[I]f everyone grabs an extinguisher, we can save ourselves,” Sullivan explains. “But some group of whack-nuts question the science of extinguishers, some think the fire is a hoax. … These people are so paralyzed with existential fear … that they’ve followed psycho-pathetic leaders back to the safety of the Middle Ages… I’m less concerned about the pandemic of the 21st century than I am trying to live through the 14th century!”

Meg Elison, in spite of all that’s happened, sees a silver lining. “I continue to be optimistic that by next year, more people will have been, if nothing else, frightened into taking the vaccine,” she says. “And that terror will motivate people into actual quarantine. … We can’t be here again next year. We can’t!”

Hitting Your Marks

As Bay Area theater waits for the curve to flatten, companies and performers mull over the most logistically safe (and financially feasible) ways to practice their chosen craft.

For live performance, which thrives off the exchange of energy between performer and audience, the road to online productions has been rocky. Modern viewings of archival production videos often expose the limitations of old video technology. Today’s virtual audiences may still struggle with low bandwidth and dead links. And the Zoom production has been defined by awkward pauses negating chemistry between actors. Successful experiments took full advantage of video as a pre-recorded medium, such as Berkeley Rep’sThe Waves in Quarantine, ACT’sCommunion, and all of Cutting Ball Theater’s output from the past year.

Ariel Craft, Cutting Ball’s artistic director and shepherd of the company’s streaming productions, says moving online was both a way to reach wider audiences and a testament to theatrical ingenuity.

“The pandemic raised a lot of questions: ‘What is theater and what isn’t theater?’ ‘At what point is it a play, at what point is it a film?’ — and I hope that we can let the rigidity of these definitions go by the wayside and appreciate that art-making can be fluid, that the best art often transgresses boundaries of genre or medium, and that artists are much more expansive in their skill sets than we give them credit for.”

Producer and director Sara Staley isn’t a fan of virtual theater — “I’m probably still a ‘theater should be experienced live’ die hard at heart” — but she appreciates any chance for the art form to literally think outside the box.

“There is a jazz band in Oakland called Garuda Blue, and two of the guys who live together a block away from me started playing free shows on their balcony for neighbors every Friday at 6 p.m., right after the pandemic started, and ended up playing for like 30 or 40 weeks straight or something. I thought, ‘Yes! More stuff like this from artists, please? How do we turn this moment into a big, free, weird, outdoor, ongoing Bay Area arts festival!? Let’s go!’”

Staley says she pitched the idea of outdoor performances to her colleagues at PianoFight, who weren’t receptive to the idea.

“That’s one of those things that the numbers don’t really justify unless you have really heavy volume; and even then, it’s quite a challenge,” says Williams. “One of our biggest moves [has] been to not lose any more money than we have to during this time. So, we’re pretty cautious about starting up a program.”

Ready adds that such a set up “would require an investment,” but “probably wouldn’t make any money.”

For actors, the opportunity to perform for far-off friends and family is great, but the experience is often a creative hindrance.

“I hate Zoom stuff,” says Jordan Don of Crowded Fire’s The Displaced production. “I did one show, a reading, and the workshop of this play and that was it. I had no interest in doing any more because for me, personally, it didn’t fill me with the same joy and creative spirit that being in a space together does. But I don’t do much film and TV yet, so maybe it translates more in that realm.”

That blurry line between theater and film or television becomes even more obscure when the question of equity comes up. After all, when everyone rushed to produce shows without tickets, no one in indie theater seemed to figure out just how anyone was supposed to get paid.

As Sullivan (whose S.F. Mime Troupe negotiated directly with theatrical union Actors’ Equity Association) explains, “Before the pandemic, theaters struggled with accepting the internet as a way of communicating with their audiences. Yes, some had a few interns entrusted with the mysterious world of ‘social media,’ but for most, it was baked into the foundation that without the ‘live’ part, live theater had no real place online. AEA had not updated its actors’ protections with regards to performances online, and it wasn’t clear which union even had jurisdiction… Now we’ve all had to adapt in order to survive.”

For Gypsy Snider of troupe The 7 Fingers, “adaptation” means socially distant rehearsals for the troupe’s upcoming circus show, Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story (the Club Fugazi production following Beach Blanket Babylon’s legendary run).

“We were able to do a very sheltered workshop in June,” says Snider. “We created a bubble with the cast — because doing a circus with a mask on is really kinda dangerous. So, we wore masks at all times, except for when we were doing the acrobatics.”

This was followed by workshops in Montreal before heading back to North Beach. They officially began rehearsals Aug. 16 at Circus Center. “[W]e’re going to continue to create a bubble and just work in times when the Circus Center isn’t open to students. And we’re just following every protocol possible. Obviously, [it’s] having a huge effect on how we plan… which is also costly and — to be honest — we are already creating this whole thing on ‘a shoestring and a prayer.’ … There’s ‘everyday challenges’ and then there are ‘COVID challenges.’”

Character Study

Even without COVID-19, there are other obstacles theaters need to overcome.

As the “temporary” lockdowns of March 2020 carried into the summer, America’s pandemic of racism reached a fever pitch. It first became noticeable with a rash of anti-Asian attacks, undoubtedly egged on by Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus. It continued with the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and the Louisville police murder of healthcare worker Breonna Taylor. But none captured the world’s attention as much as the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Floyd’s death pushed America’s long legacy of racism to the forefront. In the same way the #MeToo movement exposed institutional misogyny and sexual harassment, so too did the deaths of Floyd and others embolden PoC from all industries to come forward with stories of subtle and overt racism.

Theater was no exception — not even in the ostensibly progressive Bay Area.

Local actor Ely Sonny Orquiza compiled his experiences into a Google Doc, inviting Bay Area BIPOC theater artists to contribute their own stories. Orquiza’s “Living Document of BIPoC Experiences in Bay Area Theater Companies” soon contained hundreds of anecdotes naming (or alluding to) racially-charged incidents by local theater artists and companies of all stripes — including nearly all of the companies interviewed for this article. (Some declined to comment or even acknowledge requests.) Shortly thereafter, a similar document, “We See You, White-American Theater (WeSeeYouWAT),” appeared with a list of demands for dismantling American theater’s white supremacist power structure.

A few heads did roll (such as Jim Tobin, longtime director of the S.F. Movement Arts Festival), and every company’s website and social media boasted new mission statements with vague promises of greater inclusion, but one year in many wonder if anything has really changed.

Has Bay Area theater — which still boasts a nearly-all-white/nearly-all-cis-male establishment at every level — become any safer for people of color?

“The answer is no,” says Black trans actor Troy Rockett and Don’s co-star in The Displaced, “and I would like for these institutions to pull in the people who are experts in this. We need a shift in resources. These institutions will not be the ones with the answers, and these institutions will not be the ones known for ushering in the change. There’s never ‘enough’ work that can be done.”

Sullivan, a Black man, agrees, decrying white liberal theater’s habit of congratulating itself for minimal work.

“So many theaters were founded by passionate artists who wanted to change the world for the better,” he explains. “Of course, many theaters were also founded by power-hungry, sexist, racist, ‘upper-classholes’ who lived to abuse and for self-aggrandizement. But in either case most of the theaters fell into a complex mix of ‘We’re doing all we can!’ [and] ‘Don’t criticize us or we’ll die!’ — and that position allowed them to focus on stories that reinforced a worldview that kept them at the essential center.”

Dawn L. Troupe, a Black actor and director, recently had directed Oakland Theater Project’s The Dream Life of Malcolm X before an OTP’s staff member’s breakthrough COVID infection forced the show’s cancellation. She says she sees new commitments to diversity as slow progress, but progress, nonetheless.

“Theater as a whole is still very much in the working stages of change and therefore it’s difficult to speak to this in its entirety,” she says. “I will say it’s wonderful to see more BIPOC colleagues being recognized and hired in more traditionally white male-dominated positions and yet we still have such a long way to go.”

For Snider, a white performer who has worked with S.F. Mime Troupe and Oakland’s Prescott Circus Theatre, the diversity of Dear San Francisco came easily from the diversity of working with circus performers. She hopes her show’s “wonderfully diverse cast,” (consisting primarily of PoC) is meant to serve as “an incredible shining light for circus arts in San Francisco.” 

She says she and her collaborators have been actively reaching out to low-income neighborhoods and audiences to promote the show, hoping to foster “a much more diverse community in circus. Circus has not always been the most accessible art form — and I think all art forms suffer from that.”

Many of the companies interviewed for this article boasted of diverse casts and collaborative companies with whom they’ve joined in light of last year’s revelations. Not all of them had comprehensive administrative policies.

Morita, the Asian-American artistic director of Crowded Fire (whose website features an “Anti-Racist Toolkit”), appreciates the question of racial (and gender) equity not being lost in the urge to reopen live performance venues. As she also boasts of her company’s administrative steps, she stresses the issue is more than one of political correctness.

“As we rush back to produce live theater, it’s easy to get distracted from all the vital work we’ve been doing in the last year,” she says. “And yet, these are the same concerns, they are all questions about safety.”

Sullivan puts the document’s impact bluntly: “The Living Document was and is a revolutionary act of creation, telling the powers that be to their faces that their organizations are defined not by their expressions of solidarity or mission statements but by their actions. Talk is as cheap as a comp ticket. ‘We See You WAT’ is not a plea for understanding or just a request for a place at the table, it is a statement of fact and an attempt to flip the table completely. Will it make a difference? It better, because if it doesn’t the industry will become the Museum of Sad White Liberal Intentions.”

Curtain Call

In his 1958 collection of essays, Once There Was a War, John Steinbeck writes, “The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for 4,000 years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”

On Aug. 13, BroadwaySF sent out a press release explaining its integration of Breed’s new vaccine mandates. The release ended mentioning that tickets were once again on sale for their local production of Hamilton. Incidentally, Breed’s press conference found her mentioning Hamilton and how delighted she was to see tickets selling and audiences lined up again. This happened days after the conclusion of the Delta-ridden Tokyo Olympics.

Even with protocols in place, the future of Bay Area theater looks hazy. The S.F. Playhouse is one of the few theaters operating without a corporate owner, but recent days have seen the company less praised for its eclectic roster and more under scrutiny for its lackadaisical mask enforcement policy.

Craft is keeping a close eye on headlines ahead of the planned reopening of Cutting Ball (a small black-box theater) in January. Ready and Williams of PianoFight say they’d created “vaccine-only” access to rehearsals and the show, but no mask requirement. Still, they insist the show would have had patrons seated at least six feet apart at all times. Sullivan tells me the S.F. Mime Troupe had to cancel its 2021 season when they couldn’t guarantee six feet of distance between patrons for their traditionally outdoor performances.

Add to all this the question of money. Whether nationally-renowned or local underground, all theater needs some form of income to produce work. After four years under an administration that gutted the National Endowment for the Arts, that income is now harder to create. PianoFight, Cutting Ball, and Crowded Fire all successfully petitioned for local and federal funds, and nearly every company has upped its fundraising efforts.

If money is truly the deciding factor as to whether change is implemented, it’s easy to look at the COVID-wrought devastation of theater in the ever-expensive Bay Area and be ready to lament.

Yet, the most common sentiment among all interviewed is one of forward-looking optimism. All were asked whether the past year-plus had strengthened or diminished their faith in the Bay Area theatre scene.

“I think the Bay Area artists proved themselves amazingly resilient,” says Sullivan. “The political demand that theaters represent the community rather than be the playground of the economic elite is an ongoing and essential revolution. … If we can avoid the pitfalls laid by both the reactionaries and the conservatives in sheep’s clothing, the Bay Area could reclaim its place as a pressure cooker of revolutionary art and artists.”

Craft adds, “I have been inspired to see artists pivot and create during the pandemic. I am more confident than ever in the strong creative spirit that fuels our local arts community. I have also seen the strain that these closures have placed on individual artists when jobs disappeared and how fragile arts organizations are, how we — as an industry — are unsteady against the unforeseen. I hope that, moving forward, we all prioritize the people who are instrumental in the creation of our artwork.”

The same day BroadwaySF sent out its press release, the FDA announced it had approved COVID vaccine booster shots for those with compromised immune systems. A week earlier, San Francisco’s high vaccination rate was once again predicted to make the city the exemplar of COVID control.

For patrons like Meg Elison, this means an eventual return to arts-based soirées. I ask her what her ideal version would look like after the worst of the pandemic has passed.

“I can say this very clearly because I’ve dreamed it half a dozen times since lockdown began,” she says. “In my dreams, I’m in the streets of San Francisco. There are thousands of people in the street … every door is open, every bar is open, every window is open, every flat above these bars [is] open. There’s music coming out of every door and window, there’s people dancing in every source of light you can see. There are Chinese lanterns for New Year’s and pumpkins for Halloween and rainbow banners for PRIDE and Christmas lights; and it’s every holiday at once. And everybody dances with everybody else. And strangers put their hands on my face. And then we make out.

“That’s what it looks like.”

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.