Bindlestiff, an Experimental Space for Filipino Artists, Is a Fight Against Displacement

Three decades after its founding, Bindlestiff leaders reflect on what it took to get here.

Bindlestiff Studio is more than a theater space for Oliver Saria, its managing director. Bindlestiff, a SoMa-based Filipino-American performing arts space, is a fight against displacement. 

“We’re grappling with the same question that a lot of arts organizations in the city are asking,” Saria says. “In particular, how do we continue to be a community-based arts organization when our community no longer lives here?”

The South of Market used to be a different world, according to Lorna Velasco, a former Bindlestiff artistic director. This was when you could pay $400 a month for a two-bedroom, when there used to be eight blocks of Filipino immigrants in the neighborhood, and when Bindlestiff Studio was just getting its start as an experimental blackbox theater, Velasco says. 

This was the 1980s and ’90s. “But because of the first dot com boom, a lot of families started to get evicted and kicked out of the spaces,” Velasco says. 

One of the big changes to SoMa’s landscape during that time was Bindlestiff. Chrystene Ells and Chris Brophy founded Bindlestiff in 1989. Ells was actually how Velasco found the space — she was brought over for an after-school theater program for at-risk youth, and went on to create her own one-woman show with Ells as a teenager in 1997.

The show was called Babae, and it was the “First Filipino-centric show” the space ever hosted.

“When I Googled ‘Filipino women,’ a lot of information about mail order brides came up,” Velasco says. “And I thought, ‘We’re more than this.’” Velasco’s show was a way for her to understand her own identity in America. Babae centered around womanhood and resilience amid centuries of colonialism.

“It attracted a lot of Filipino attendees, Filipino immigrants wanting to see a show about Filipino women,” Velasco says. It also marked a turning point for Bindlestiff, which soon became a hub for Filipino American performing arts. Allan Manalo’s comedy troupe Tongue in a Mood (wordplay on a Filipino phrase that “basically means ‘motherfuck you’”) performed there later that year, selling out shows with some aid from some San Francisco State professors who assigned the show as extra credit, Manalo says. 

The show was so successful that they ended up doing a Christmas version of it called “Merry Tsismis.” “We sold that one out weeks before it even started,” Manalo says.

Material Support at Aklasan Fest, a Pinoy punk festival. Photo courtesy of Myron Fung

The following year, in 1998, Manalo was named director of Bindlestiff. “Ells gave me the keys and the checkbook,” Manalo says.

But the success was short-lived. In 1999, Manalo says he got a letter from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency that was planning on tearing down the building Bindlestiff was in — a “dilapidated two-story SRO called the Plaza Hotel” — to build affordable housing. Affordable housing is a very good thing, Manalo acknowledges. But it left Bindlestiff out of a home.

“All of a sudden we were homeless. There were no plans about building out the space to build a theater space there,” Velasco says. “So of course, we fought back. Over the years we built a community, and we worked hard to create a permanent artistic space for ourselves.”

What came next was approximately a decade’s worth of negotiations and construction for Bindlestiff to move back into the newly-built space, with financial support from the city. A 99-seat blackbox theater was carved out in the basement of the new apartment complex.

“We were surprised — but we shouldn’t have been surprised — that our community was willing to fight hand and hand for our space,” Velasco says.

Bindlestiff moved back in their old space in 2011. In 2019, they celebrated their 30th anniversary. There’s a whole slate of programming in 2020 that builds upon Bindlestiff’s legacy: a revival of The FOB Show; the 20th anniversary of their workshop series, Stories High; Tagalog 2020, an annual show performed entirely in Tagalog, produced by Joyce Manalo; and more.

Bindlestiff also hopes to launch a membership program that allows members to stream Bindlestiff performances — for the international community of Bindlestiff that has either been pushed out of SoMa, or isn’t able to see the performances live. 

“We recognize that having a space is more than a luxury, it’s a responsibility,” Saria says. Saria believes that while Bindlestiff is an arts organization, it’s also cognizant of the broader issues working-class communities of color have to face.

“A collection of nonprofits aren’t going to change those broader economic and demographic forces,” Saria says. “But we’re doing our damnedest to try.”

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