Very live, from the Bay Area: Pop-Up Magazine returns with fresh new stories

A storyteller at Pop-Up Magazine. Photo by David Cerf

“Live is definitely its own medium,” says Anita Badejo, senior producer for Pop-Up Magazine—the marvelous, one-time-only, three-times-a-year live show that originates in the Bay Area and tours around the county. (This edition launches at Oakland’s Paramount Theater, May 10). “So just as a story comes across differently online, or in the pages of a magazine, or on a podcast or film, it lives differently on our stage.”

The stories told at Pop-Up Magazine, which garnered a Best of the Bay Editor’s Pick in 2010, range from in-depth character studies and spooky mysteries to hyper-contemporary flights of fancy and enthralling personal reminiscences. All have some intriguing multimedia aspect (projected Power Points with original illustrations, sound effects, puppets), and the whole thing is accompanied by house band Magik*Magik Orchestra, playing original music.

Pop-Up Magazine comes from the folks who put out California Sunday Magazine—but don’t expect the show to be documented in the pages of that publication, or online at all. Pop-Up is an intentionally in-the-moment experience: You just have to be there. Popping up for spring? Contributions from Queen of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield, New York Times Op-Ed editor Jenée Desmond-Harris, Found Magazine editor David Rothbart, New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner, style photographer Andres Gonzalez, and fantastic Oakland musician Fantastic Negrito, and more.

I spoke with Badejo about the mechanics and purpose of putting on such a briefly incandescent spectacle, and the allure of live narrative in our screen-glued times.  

Pop Up Magazine at the Curran San Francisco on Thursday, February 1, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

48 HILLS You always have such eclectic lineups at Pop-Up Magazine shows. With so much creative work and reporting being generated in the world, how do you choose what stories to tell?  

ANITA BADEJO We accept and receive pitches constantly, and we also reach out to folks whose work we admire to see if they’d be interested contributing. Usually the process starts with a phone call to see what people are up to, what they’ve been working on, what they’re excited about. Sometimes folks are debuting things in the show—part of a bigger project they’re working on that’s going to be released later, or a story that’s on its way to being published. 

Other times people come up with things whole-cloth just for the show, generating an idea that’s specific to Pop-Up, which has a live feel from the beginning. Sometimes journalists who have focused on one issue or character for a long time, that they may have published about before, will pick up a line or a paragraph in previous story and draw that out into something that really works great as a live presentation, and is its own amazing, revealing story unto itself. 

What ties all this together is that the work is new, it’s never been published before as a podcast or documentary. 

48H I assume there’s a lot of dramaturgy and stage magic that goes into transforming some of these stories into “pop-up” forms of their own—the lights, the music, and really just having writers and presenters actually perform their works for a big audience, rather than just read something off of a monitor. 

AB It’s funny because when we start out working with people, our thought process is ‘we’re a magazine, we’re a magazine, we’re a magazine!’ And then at some point our thought process completely turns and then it’s ‘we’re a theater production!’  

We work very closely with them to help craft them in a way that makes sense for live. No one’s ever producing stuff on their own that we then just plug in, it’s pretty much a collaborative effort. We draw upon all the resources we have in addition to the script or the text, or the films or the photos. We’ve commissioned opera singers before to help tell the stories, dancers, original photography and animation, interactive elements with audience participation. We’ve glued things into peoples’ programs that the have to take out during the course of the story. And we have an original score by our house group, Magik*Magik. 

We like to play and experiment with what’s the best and most effective way for people to take in the story, and really understand the information that’s being conveyed. 

Pop Up Magazine at the Curran San Francisco on Thursday, February 1, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

48H Can you share a particular highlight of this upcoming show?

AB Jenée Desmond-Harris, who’s coming on tour with us—she grew up in Mill Valley, lives in Palo Alto, and was a Knight Fellow, so she’s a Bay Area person through and through. Her story is really incredible. It takes place in San Francisco, and is about a “sex therapy institute” that existed in the 1970s, and has a ton of twists and turns in it. It should really be made into a movie at some point. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the people who ran the institute are people that she is very close to. 

48H Pop-Up Magazine defines itself again the Internet by emphasizing the “you have to be there” element. It’s very experiential: Nothing goes online afterwards, there’s no recording, etc. How do you feel that’s important? 

AB It’s true, our show is intentionally ephemeral. You do have to be there to see it, and that’s something that’s always been a core of our philosophy and how we put together a show. I think it’s more important now than ever. We’re in an age when we’re all just inundated with information all of the time. I wake up and my phone has 20 notifications on it, and then I get online and I read 15 Facebook posts with different pieces of information, and then I go on Twitter … I think when people have so much to consume and parse though, it’s really important that we create space where we can put our technology aside, and take in stories in a way that we can just focus on who is telling a story and what they’re saying—without any distractions.

This is even more powerful in a communal atmosphere where everyone is focusing on this one particular moment in time. It can be really magical. 

May 10, 7:30pm, $38-$42
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
Tickets and more info here

A ‘Timon’ for our times? Cutting Ball Theatre transfers Shakespeare to SF

'Timon of Athens' at Cutting Ball Theatre

ARTS Rob Melrose first read one of Shakespeare’s least-produced plays, Timon of Athens (through May 6 at Cutting Ball Theatre), in a contemporary English version his teacher at Yale had produced. 

“Usually when you first read Shakespeare, it’s a lot of looking down at the notes. And this way I was just able to enjoy the beautifully poetic speeches,” Melrose said. “It has so much humor and sarcasm.”

When Melrose and Paige Rogers founded the Cutting Ball, one of their first projects was a staged reading of Timon of Athens for the Bay Area Shakespeare Marathon. Melrose wanted to use his teacher’s translation, but the organizers wouldn’t allow it. They told him he could cut as much as he wanted out of the original, though. So Melrose slashed most of the first three acts, getting to the poetry, powerful speeches, and cynicism that comes later in the play.

It’s a concentrated approach that suit the contemporary staging: Timon has been transformed into the “hottest CEO this side of Market Street: he’s young, he’s rich, and there’s nothing he likes better than hosting a wild party and spreading wealth amongst his flocking friends.” Athens is San Francisco’s “near-future: a city marked by radical gentrification and sweeping economic disparity.” 

In Timon, which Shakespeare wrote with Thomas Middleton, the protagonist can’t do enough for his friends. When he loses his money, his friends are nowhere to be found and he ends up living outside the city, under a tarp. Now seems like the perfect time to do Timon in San Francisco, Melrose said. 

“The theater is in the Tenderloin and all these tech companies are moving in and things like exclusive speakeasies are popping up where you need a password, and then you’ve got people living in tents,” he said. “There’s a line in the play about The middle of humanity thou never experienced, but the extremity of both ends — and that seems like San Francisco right now.”

Usually if a theater company has committed to doing Shakespeare’s canon, by the time they get around to Timon, the actor who plays the lead is often the same one who plays King Lear, Melrose said. He changed that to make it more familiar to San Francisco. 

“In most communities, a rich person is an old person,” he said. “Here a rich person could be a 20-year-old who created an app.”

Melrose wanted to make the wealth and poverty feel familiar to contemporary San Francisco so, using ideas from the cast members as well as his own, there are iPads, Google maps, and ostentatious parties. And when Timon retreats from the city and lives in poverty, his house is a tent and his face is burned by the sun. 

“Hamlet says that we should hold a mirror up to nature,” Melrose said. “It’s always more interesting to see ourselves reflected onstage, to see a life we already understand, and that makes the play much clearer.”

At the end of the play, Alcibiades, the military commander, marches on Athens. This feels different and more profound since he did the play in the late ’90s, Melrose says. 

“Especially during time of Trump, having a guerilla army come and throw you out of power has a lot of potency,” he said. “Since we did this, there’s been Occupy Wall Street and the WTO in Seattle and the Women’s March, and it definitely feels like Alcibiades’ occupation is speaking truth to power more than it did 20 years ago.”

Through May 6
Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco  
Tickets and more info here

Jump into the SF International Film Festival midstream!

'Minding the Gap'
We know, huge film festivals can be overwhelming and intimidating—something it feels like you have to prepare for weeks in advance. Don’t miss out because the SF International Film Festival seems like a monster! Grab the second half by the tail and see something swell with our  recommendations below. 

Minding the Gap
My favorite documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and winner of the US Documentary Competition Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking is a downright must see. Bing Lu’s epic first time feature (reminiscent of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams) follows three best friends, who’ve made skateboarding home movies for years. This Rust Belt tale will hit every viewer straight in the gut due to its honesty about finding ways out of volatile and broken homes. Do not miss director Bing Lu IN PERSON on Friday, April 13, 2018 9:00pm(Creativity Theater) & Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 3:00pm (BAMPFA). Also screens Tuesday, April 17, 2018 at 8:45pm (Roxie Theater). More info here.

Nathaniel Dorsky

POV Award: Nathaniel Dorsky
This year’s “Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award” honors Nathaniel Dorksy, one the most interesting experimental filmmakers of modern times. His transcendental journeys seem simple but in fact are some of the most breathtakingly unique and eerily difficult movies I have ever experienced. As the guide says, “for more than 50 years, Nathaniel Dorsky has been illuminating minds with silent short films in which light, nature, and everyday surrounds are carefully captured and combined to prismatic, alchemical effect.” Do not miss Dorsky IN PERSON with these rarely screened (only available in 16mm) films: Autumn (2014), The Dreamer (2015), Abrahim (2016), and Intimations (2016) – Sunday, April 15, 2018 at 5:45pm(BAMPFA). More info here. 

‘Night Comes On’

Night Comes On
Jordana Spiro’s debut feature is a poetic expedition that does a remarkable job at allowing space and time to affect its two young characters as they track down a man from their past. Lead actors Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall deliver such moving performances that you may find yourself thinking about them days after. Much like the melancholy movies of the early 1970s, this cinematic experience is a major standout and should not be missed. Do not miss the director Jordana Spiro IN PERSON on Saturday, April 14, 2018 7:30pm & Sunday, April 15, 2018 5:30pm (both at the Roxie Theater) Also screens Tuesday, April 17, 2018 8:30pm (Victoria Theatre). More info here

Shorts Program 4: New Visions
SFFiLM programmer Amanda Salazar curated this incredibly daring program of excitingly nontraditional cinema. Led by Kevin Jerome Everson’s brilliant Rams 23 Blue Bears 21 (8 min, 2017) updating on Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory (1895), this gaggle of shorts by Jem Cohen, Maya Erdelyi and Hope Tucker and more are worth taking the chance. Screens Monday, April 16, 2018 4:30pm (Roxie Theater). More info here
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Gus Van Sant’s return to form is based on the memoir of the controversial Portland-based cartoonist John Callahan. Utilizing mockumentary techniques via To Die For (1995) and emphasizing straight forward, Oscar worthy acting ala Milk (2008), Van Sant gets back on solid ground, giving Joaquin Phoenix yet another show stopping performance (See Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here) and especially Jonah Hill, who will both be surely two of the most memorable achievements of the year. This closing night is sure to be a special one with director Gus Van Sant and composer Danny Elfman expected to be IN PERSON on Sunday, April 15, 2018 at 7:00pm (Castro Theatre). More info here
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at the Castro & Roxie Theater. He is also a member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills (aka SF Bay Guardian).
Keep your eyes open for a post festival wrap up!

‘The Wolves’ kicks up young women’s power, rage, and sheer joy

'The Wolves' at Marin Theatre Company. Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE Morgan Green grew up in Marin and went to Redwood High School. Now she lives in Brooklyn. So directing Marin Theatre Company’s The Wolves (through April 15), a physically lively Pulitzer Prize finalist about a girls’ indoor soccer team, is a kind of victorious homecoming for her. 

Green first saw the script when the playwright Sarah DeLappe, who she knew socially, showed it to her. Green directed some early readings of it, and she says she found it thrilling.  

“I loved how realistic the speech patterns were and it actually sounded the way young women talk to each other,” she said. “They’re not stupid, but they don’t have a lot of knowledge yet, and they’re trying to figure out what is worth their time and what isn’t and what is cool and what’s not.”

In the play, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, the scenes all take place before a game while the girls, identified by their jersey numbers, are doing warm ups. And talking. And talking. The play is all about the dialogue between the girls, which covers all sorts of things including their periods, their friends, snake-handling, China censoring the Internet, their (unseen) coach being hung over, Harry Potter, and the pronunciation of Khmer Rouge. The play has a great structure, Green says. 

“It’s an elegant way to track time and it’s quite masterful to write a play with no main character—yet you feel you get to know all the characters at the end,” she said. “That’s quite rare. Most artistic directors are pushing for a strong, single protagonist.”

To have the actors speaking their lines while they’re doing lunges and hamstring stretches and kicking the ball back and forth adds something too, Green says. 

“It’s like they’re acting and simultaneously doing a dance,” she said. “The text tells a story and the body tells another story, so it’s more complicated, which is more interesting. Theater has to do a lot to hold an audience’s attention, and this makes it more dynamic, putting that physical layer on top.”

Shane Kennedy, coach of the girls’ soccer team at Mill Valley’s Tamalpais High School, is responsible for that physical layer. He worked with the cast several times a week training them and going through warm ups and drills. 

“I think more than anything, we wanted the actors to have a team experience,” he said. “We wanted them to be able to pass and receive to show it’s a play about a soccer team.”

DeLappe has said that she thought of the girls on the team as warriors, preparing to go into battle, and Green took her cue from that. When you’re a teenager, the stakes are high, she said. 

Photo by Kevin Berne

“If you’re 16 years old and something bad happens, it’s the worst thing in the world and it has never happened to anyone before,” she said. “That’s why the first betrayal in the play is so intense.”

In soccer, you have two teams pitted against each other, fighting to win. That’s pretty rare in a teenage girl’s life, Green said. 

“For women, there’s not a lot of opportunities to express rage and competitiveness and sheer joy,” she said. “If you score a goal, you can scream and dance.” 

Girls are often taught to accommodate others and to apologize, Green says. Not during their training with Kennedy. 

“Sometimes they were passing and the ball would go haywire, and they would say ‘sorry,'” she said. “The coach would say ‘There’s no sorry in soccer!'” 

Through April 15
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley 
Tickets and more info here

Mama (with Vicki Lawrence) comes a-callin’ at the Castro

Two of a kind? Thelma Harper and Vicki Lawrence come to the Castro Theatre, Sat/17

“I was about to go on for the Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special on CBS back in December, and I was just so nervous! For some reason everyone was nervous. I don’t know what it was.”

The great comedian Vicki Lawrence was telling me tales over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “But my hairdresser just looked at me in the chair and said, Vicki, what the heck are you doing? These people are coming here to see you. Knock that shit off right now and get out there!”

The 50th anniversary show was a huge hit, and the cast still pulled it off beautifully. So what was the deal?

“I don’t know, even the guests made me nervous. Harry Connick, Jr. My kids grew up listening to him when I played the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack in the carpool on the way to school. Tracy Ellis Ross, I just love her! But then when I met them they said they were nervous, too, and it was like, OK, we’re all nervous, let’s just do this. And it all somehow came together.

“You know, Marke, I’ll tell you a funny story. This isn’t the first time we were a case of nerves. When Sir Laurence Olivier was on set, Harvey [Korman] had to pop a couple of librium just to go out on stage with him! We still all feel like we’re just this regular bunch of people having fun.”

Lawrence herself is just as much of a straight-talking, if much more personable, delight on the phone as she is in her most beloved and enduring guise, Thelma Mae Harper aka Mama. You can see both hilarious sides of her personality when she comes to the Castro Theatre Sat/17 for Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show

Famously plucked fresh from high school during the Miss Fireball of Inglewood pageant by Burnett, who had a genius eye for talent, Lawrence was an integral part of the legendary comedy team that defined a generation. Mama was introduced in a 1974 Carol Burnett Show sketch and went on to a life of her own as the matriarch of NBC’s Mama’s Family sitcom in the 1980s, which then became a pioneering first-run syndicated show that lasted for what seemed like forever, at least in television years. Mama’s family’s still running their mouths today in reruns on MeTV.

Mama’s highly dysfunctional but lovable family of trashy American schemers and dreamers was a hilarious, low-brow riff on Tennessee Williams histrionics, as if he had written something called A Street Car Named Tramp Stamp. The show also helped spawn The Golden Girls—both Betty White and Rue McClanahan starred—and so deserves a Nobel Prize in my estimation.

Beyond Mama, Lawrence has done almost everything else. She had a huge smash hit with song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” She’s been nominated for several Emmys and Golden Globes. She’s even recorded a pretty damned good disco album. (“Oh I can’t believe you listened to that!” she said.)

But the foul-mouthed, beer-can-forever-in-her-hand Mama has been her signature character for more than 40 years. “She really crosses a divide, she’s popular with so many different audiences,” Lawrence told me. “We all know her. We all have her in our family. She’s that one relative at Thanksgiving, the one you may try to avoid but can’t. She’s like Archie Bunker. We all have to deal with him, but at the same time we’re all going through the same things on a broader level.” 

Vicki Lawrence and Mama is partly autobiographical: “I love telling the stories I know people want to hear—how Carol and I met, how I married my hairstylst on the Burnett Show, how I made that one hit record. I laugh a lot about what I’ve gone through, because if you don’t laugh as you get older, you’ll slit your wrists.”

She even sings the juicy, long-suppressed lyrics to the Mama’s Family theme song. “I knew I had brought them a theme good song,” Lawrence told me, laughing. “And they told me, ‘we love the song, but hate the lyrics.’ And that was that.”

The Mama’s Family cast

And then Mama comes out in all her musty-wigged glory. “I just have fun with her,” Lawrence said. “I been pushing her into the 21st century, having her deal with the technology.” She says many young fans have discovered Mama through YouTube, and have learned her comedy history backwards from there. “And the politics. Oh, the politics. She had a lot to say when Hillary was running,and she even wanted to be Obama’s running mate, so it would have been Obama-Mama 2008. 

“Right now it’s so weird, because you cannot really write anything crazier than what’s actually going on in the White House. And there are definitely parts of the country where I have to watch what I say about him,” Lawrence said, referencing the current president, who might fit right in at Mama’s wobbly kitchen table. “So I just hang tight and see what mama will come up with next.” 

‘You know, as I’ve grown older, the line between me and Mama has definitely dissolved. When I first started doing her, I figured she was around 65 years old, and she held steady at that age for decades. But now that I’m older than 65, I’m like, Mama must be so incredibly old now! And yet she still looks the same.” 

Lawrence has been touring the Two-Woman Show since 2002. “Harvey and Tim had done a two-man show, and told me I should do a touring show. ‘You’ll have so much fun, because it’s completely yours, and you can do whatever you want,’ they told me.

Vicki Lawrence

“Well, it turned out we had done the first Carol Burnett reunion show right after 9/11, and the ratings were huge. We suddenly had this whole new generation of fans, maybe because of the Internet and Mama’s Family staying in syndication. But mostly I think because people really needed to laugh. America was seriously depressed after 9/11, and my writing partner and I knew it had to be Mama who went on the road, because so many different kinds of people love her. And the crowds that came out to see her really appreciated that. It felt very healing.”

Vicki Lawrence and Mama is being co-presented by drag club Oasis (there’s going to be a Mama look-a-like contest, natch), so of course I asked about Mama’s gay following. ‘You know, I never knew mama had so many gay fans until Dorothy Lyman, who plays Naomi on the show told me. She was reading fan letters in a corner one day,  and remarked about how she was very big in the clubs with the drag queens. And I said, you’ve got to be kidding me! And she looked at me slyly and said, ‘Sweetie, so are you.’ Well, I couldn’t believe it at first, because Mama’s not exactly glamorous. But then I saw the pictures and started noticing more and more.

“But people do love to dress up as Mama. I suppose she’s perfect for that, in a way, because it’s so simple to look like her. So if you ever need a quick, on-the-go drag outfit, Mama’s your gal.”  

Sat/17, 8pm, $30-$100
Castro Theatre, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

A spirited walk through incredible queer history in ‘OUT of Site’

OUT of Site cast

Consider the case of Milton Matson. Arrested for check fraud in 1895 in Los Gatos, he was placed in the men’s section of the San Jose county jail—until a telegram arrived addressed to Luisa Matson, which threw his case into disarray. Milton had been living as a man for 25 years (he was arrested in the home of his female fiancée), and had been arrested for endorsing a check made out to the very same “Luisa,” aka himself.

This situation, of course, caused much turmoil in the local legal system (can you be charged for impersonating your former self?), but that’s not even the most fascinating part of the story: Along Market Street in San Francisco at the time existed “dime museums,” kind of a milder form of freak shows, where citizens could ogle at all sorts of entertaining oddities. According to one report:

While the press was debating whether he would be re-arrested under the local law against cross-dressing, Milton was offered a position in a local dime museum to exhibit himself in male clothing. He stressed that he found women’s clothing completely uncomfortable. The show was so successful that a few other local freak shows also introduced a male impersonator. He later appeared in the public library as S. B. Matson.  

Milton was released; but the price of being transgender in the 1800s was a form of public display, a striking proposition for anyone who had to live through the oppressive-in-a-different-way 20th century, where any alternative gender expression was mostly forced into shadows. Oh, and the police chief at the time of Milton’s arrest was the legendary Jesse Brown Cook, himself known to dabble in drag. (He kept a huge stash of drag memorabilia in his home, and a well-known cartoon depicted him in drag next to the mayor).

Milton is just one of the characters queer artist Seth Eisen discovered while researching for OUT of Site, a pair of “performative walking tours” through North Beach (Sat/10, Sun/11 and Sat/24, Sun/25) and the Tenderloin (May 12-May 27) with his company Eye Zen. The tours promise “Two-spirits! Gender Benders! Forgotten Pioneers of Sexual Liberation! Rediscover lost gay and lesbian bars, speakeasies, and dives, long demolished and buried!”—which may sound like its own version of a dime museum, but with the purpose of  sparking awareness rather than exploitation.

Eisen has been entwining queer history with multimedia art projects for years: In 2012, he revived the history of the Pansy Craze and Buffet Flats of the 1920s and ’30s through a series of slow food meals, and in 2016’s “Rainbow Logic” saluted recently passed local queer arts hero Remy Charlip. But this is the first time he’s taken on a walking tour—and a collaborative, performative one at that, created with a large cast of local artists, performers, and drag queens. (They’ll bring to life an impressive array of characters throughout the tour route.)

“The inspiration for OUT of Site came from a recent National Parks Survey, which took a look at queer heritage sites and theme,” Eisen told me. “That project brought together a huge amount of research and writers; and pointed up that fact that there’s only like 19 explicitly queer heritage markers out of something like 19,000 national sites.”

Eisen was particularly blown away by a paper researching San Francisco’s queer history by Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson. “There was so much I didn’t know, that I think has been so forgotten—they went back like 200 years, to Ohlone practices. Reading all of this, I was like, ‘Oh my god.'” He was also inspired by the historical researches of local scholars like Clare Sears, Amy Sueyoshi, and Nan Boyd.

“There’s really just so much queer history that’s been erased. People may kind of remember that North Beach was once a gay haven, and places like Finocchio’s, the Black Cat, and Mona’s may ring a bell. But there was so much more. One block of Broadway alone had 10 gay bars, and just up the way on Grant Street it was lesbian heaven. There was queer activism happening more than a century ago.” 

Eisen wanted to find a way to bring that history to life. “The Park Service survey was astounding, but I didn’t want everything to boil down to just a plaque on a building somewhere for these stories,” Eisen told me. “Don’t get me wrong, I love a good plaque. But I see the Rainbow Walk plaques on Castro, say, and while it’s incredible that they are even there, so many people just walk over them. I wanted to make the stories of these people more immediate, really bring them face-to-face with people.”

Some of the OUT of Site cast

“Yes, most walking tours sound kind of boring. How can we activate this history in an engaging way? The spark really ignited when I was able to collaborate with Shaping San Francisco, an organization which has done incredible work excavating subversive local histories. I realized there was a way to visit the actual site of some of these bars, restaurants, and street corners in a way that really enlivened the history without being tacky. I’ve done street theater with Keith Hennessey and Circo Zero, and am very familiar with site-specific work and sculpture, so we can bring an artistic element to it that really involves the audience.” 

Some of those characters on the two tours, each of which lasts about two hours, include pioneering jazz dancer Zack Thompson, who launched African American dance troupe Black Light Explosion and danced for Aretha Franklin and Maya Angelou; Babe Bean, a 19th-century trans man and writer who served in the Spanish American War; Jeanne Bonnet, a sex worker rights activist from the turn of the 20th century, and Gladys Bentley, renowned African American blues singer who performed at Mona’s in the 1940s.  

An archival photo of men in the Old West dancing during a Stag dance.

OUT of Site walkers will also visit sites like that of the Monkey Block, at one time the largest building in the nation, which housed a plethora of queer artists and activists, and learn about phenomena like the Gray Line Bus Tours, based infamous 1945 book Where to Sin in San Francisco, which brought straight tourists and the curious through the queer scene of North Beach (and led to some of the raunchy drag acts dropping their rougher edges in favor of more glamorous “gender illusion” to snatch more tourist dollars). 

“These stories are beautiful, and we are hoping to ‘presence’ things that don’t exist anymore. The intention is that in embodying them, more people that get a physical sense of what happened, and what queer people were up against. We have a great cast, and the tour is full of surprises—at one point we visit the original sea was in North Beach, even,” Eisen said. 

“If you give people a lived experience, they’re more likely to keep telling the story.” 

Queer history performative walking tours
North Beach: Sat/10, Sun/11 and Sat/24, Sun/25
Tenderloin: May 12-May 27
More info here   

What’s going on with the Armory?

10 years ago, an almost unbelievable, incredibly San Francisco thing was happening.

A thriving online BDSM/fetish empire,, was taking over the 200,000-square-foot San Francisco Armory, its owner Peter Acworth transforming the century-old fortress into the ground-zero of the streaming porn revolution. Enormous leather and gay pride flags flew from the top of the turreted beauty, and where once the National Guard armed themselves to violently put down 1934 Longshoremen Strikers, gleaming eroto-bots and costumed Kinksters now pleasured multiple genders on any one of dozens of online channels like,, and, most interestingly in a city feeling the hot squeeze of tech “disruption,” Fucking Machines.    

This glorious fairy tale may not have been meant to last, but it certainly was magical for a time, lewd and jaw-dropping in a moment of growing conformity and toothless civility. Like the naked men of the Castro, before they were cock-socked into oblivion by Scott Wiener, the Kink Armory became a tourist favorite and a point of pride—something good-natured, naughty-feeling yet civic-minded: a thing that stuck out. 

Kink impressario peter Acworth all tied up on the cover of the Bay Guardian in 2008.

Trouble started around 2013—by then the gusher of free porn and amateur sites on the Internet were carving into Kink’s subscription model. (A clever gambit at a potential pivot was the opening of the swanky Armory Club bar nearby, with an eye towards franchise.) But legal battles against porn were raging, with fusty old orgs like the AIDS Health Foundation fighting stale battles against studio-made porn with the force of some new Moral Majority. In Los Angeles a mandated porn-condom law was voted in, and AHF and others aimed to make it statewide. That failed, but the damage against an already panicking industry had begun. Most porn companies fled to Nevada, where the laws were looser, the costs way down, and a population of eager young actors springing up. 

A sign that Kink was succumbing to economic pressure was when owner Acworth attempted to transform the Armory to hold more office space (which required the expensive Proposition X on the SF ballot), and again when Acworth announced that Kink would no longer be producing porn at the building, turning its immense drill court, once the site of sprawling Public Disgrace bondage exhibitions, into a party and concert venue. 

I visited the drill court a couple years ago, as it was going through the incredibly costly process of soundproofing. (I also saw some astounding shows there, including Black Watch.) Legendary promoter Audrey Joseph of 177 Townsend fame and her team had taken over production of Armory events, which included huge corporate events and all-night raves. As she notes with her typical homey bluntness, “The Armory is the only 4,000-seat venue in the city besides Fort Mason, and that’s in God’s country.”

One of the massive parties in the Armory.

Now, the Armory saga seems to be taking yet another turn. Rumors ran rampant in November that posh member’s only club and hotel chain Soho House was buying the place, but those were vociferously quashed by insiders. It turns out the rumors were truth-adjacent, however. Reports surfaced Tuesday afternoon that the Armory had sold for $65 million and that the purchaser was a Chicago-based developer closely associated with Soho House

“All I know is that the Armory has been sold to a developer and I and my team are out,” Joseph told me over the phone Tuesday afternoon. I had arranged to call her a couple days ago because a flurry of bondage events had been posted to the Armory’s Faceboook, including one called “Our last days at the Armory” and I wanted to know what was up. The news that the Armory had been sold actually broke while we were on the phone together.

“It’s strange because we have huge events coming up here,” Joseph said. “Lil Uzi Vert, Erykah Badu on Valentine’s Day, the Opel party, a bunch of corporate events. We’re working our asses off. So really, I cannot say I know anything exactly that’s going on, other than the last week of March we’re out. 

“There may be a large concert promotion company angling to take over the space,” Joseph then added mysteriously. “I can’t say who it is, but they have definitely been around. But for very specific reasons, they would only be able to contract the Armory for a year. I just cannot say who.”

Joseph can’t say, but I can guess: LA-based music promoter giant Goldenvoice is producing at least two major shows there. Goldenvoice is growing, recently “partnering” with Slim’s and Great American Music Hall, which program Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, much to at least one outspoken club owner’s dismay over the growing corporatization of the local music scene.

An alliance between Goldenvoice, despite the rightwing associations of its parent company AEG, and Soho House (basically an upscale globe-trotter hostel) in the Armory might mean a slick, crowd-friendly venue rather than more luxury condos or dreary start-up incubators. But it would certainly mean a different kind of chain rattling around the Armory.  

PS The Cats of the Castle need a home! Audrey Joseph and her team will land on their feet when they depart the Armory, but Rudy and Lala, the bodega cats of the Kink Armory, need a home. “They’re a bonded pair and delicious and wonderfully loving,” Joseph told me. “They’re 11 years old and fabulous. If you are the lucky winner of these cats, you’ll get a year’s supply of cat litter and food, and a discount card for Pet Food Express. You may have to let our employees come pet them.”  If you can take the Cats of the Castle, please email Audrey at [email protected]

Rudy and Lala

What does marriage sound like?

One couple, two times: Will Marchetti, Carla Spindt, Andrew Pastides, and Zoë Winters in 'Reel to Reel'

ONSTAGE John Kolvenbach wanted to tell the intimate story of a long marriage. So in his latest play at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, Reel to Reel (through February 25), he used the most intimate medium—sound.

“Sound is meant to be a conveyance to portray a relationship and really get at what it’s like to be inside that thing,” said Kolvenbach, who is also directing the play. “I’m leaving rehearsal now and it’s crazy what we’re doing. We’ve got plungers dipped in glue and hammers breaking things inside a pail. It’s fun. Or right now, it’s kind of a pain in the ass, but it’s going to be fun.”

In the play, which uses recorded conversations, arguments, and household noises, all four of the actors will be on stage the whole time, portraying a couple at 27 and 42 (Zoë Winters and Andrew Pastides) and in their 80s and 90s (Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt). All of them have worked at the Magic before: Marchetti has a particular long history with the theater, having appeared in some of Sam Shepard’s plays there, including the 1983 premiere of Fool for Love. He and Spindt have played each other spouses and adversaries, as have Winters and Pastides, which Kolvenbach, who wrote and directs Reel to Reel, thinks adds to the feeling of intimacy.

Like the actors, Kolvenbach has a relationship with the Magic and artistic director Loretta Greco. Reel to Reel is his fourth play there, following Goldfish, Mrs. Whitney, and Sister Play, in the last 10 years.

For this play, Kolvenbach started with the idea that you can never really know what anyone else’s marriage is like. He remembers hearing people say that during the ’90s about the Clintons when Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky was in the news. And it made sense for him personally as well. His dad is from Wisconsin and his mom is from Minnesota, and Kolvenbach thinks maybe it was their midwestern reserve that meant their marriage seemed totally private and not something they talked about.

‘Reel to Reel’ playwright John Kolvenbach

“I have five sisters, and we all never understood their relationship,” he says. “There was the kid world and the adult world, of course, but we had no idea what was going on in their relationship.”

Kolvenbach says Walter and Maggie, the characters in Reel to Reel are not based on his parents or anyone else he knows. In the play, Walter and Maggie have both work as artists their whole lives, and Kolvenbach says he wanted to explore that—the idea of artists being able to get a crappy, affordable loft downtown—something that is disappearing in New York, as well as a lot of other cities, he says.

The relationship between Maggie and Walter starts in 1995 and goes into the future to 2050 but doesn’t unfold sequentially in the play.

“We get a taste of what they are when they’re together,” Kolvenbach said. “We get a peek into when they first met and see how they are connected, and what parts stayed and what evolved.”

What he’s trying to do, Kolvenbach says, is make the private life of a couple manifest—and to do it without relying on plot devices like affairs. He describes the play as a sort of collage and said when he first did a reading of it with some friends at his apartment in New York, he wondered if it would work. At Magic’s Virgin Play series it came together, and he looks forward to it being produced there with these actors.

“It will be a little bit of a mystery. It’s not all laid out for you. We’re not going to take you by the hand,” he said. “We’re just going to fill the theater with this one relationship and hopefully, these people’s hearts and souls.”

Through February 25

Magic Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here