Arts and CultureNews

What Bay Area Performance Artists Are Up Against

Sign up for the best newsletter EVER!

Guest post by Max Silver

Things are not good for artists in the Bay Area. In August, a collaborative space known as Moxy burned down in Oakland. The tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire continues to have rippling effects on the Bay Area community as a whole. The Mezzanine music venue closed down on New Year’s Day, due to landlords upping the rent by 600%, Beach Blanket Babylon will be shut down after 45 years, and Apple will not even pay a flat rate to the artists who perform at its stores. This is not the first time the arts have been taken for granted by the rest of society, but for Bay Area artists attempting to survive in a culture that draws near to the end of its decay, this may be the last time before live performances are wiped out by Netflix, Hulu, Google, Facebook, and the scourge of nobody going outside to participate.

I interviewed three performers and producers in San Francisco who are witnessing the crisis firsthand as the Bay Area art scene continues to dry up. Their names are Jim Sweeney, also known as Kingfish, Sgt. Die Wies a.k.a. Tyson Check-In, and Polly Amber Ross a.k.a. Peter Pansexual. Their perspectives shed light on some of the key issues that Performance Artists are currently up against, both in San Francisco and in the East Bay. Here are their stories based on the questions I asked of them:

Jim Sweeney (Kingfish)

Jim Sweeney, photo by Jeff Spirer

Describe yourself.

JS: “I’m the Producer and MC of the biggest Burlesque show on the West Coast, Hubba Hubba Revue, and I’ve been part of the Bay Area nightlife scene for 30 years.”

Is it the same city that it was 30 years ago?

JS: “No. It’s definitely different. The city 30 years ago was much more participatory… living here sort of implied that you were going to be part of the nightlife, part of the festivals and events… now, that’s become a subcategory of the Bay population whereas, a great deal of people live in San Francisco but don’t engage with it.”

What do you contribute to the arts scene in the Bay Area?

JS:  “…I try to give people opportunities to have an entry-point into the nightlife and live entertainment…Tonight we’re at Om-Nom-Nom-Non-Binary Burlesque [(Oct 14, 2019, the interview is taking place in the dressing room)] at Monday Night Hubba, I try to find opportunities not just for individuals but for groups….if I can help out a marginalized group like non-binary Burlesque performers, that’s something that I feel like is beholden upon for me to do. I always tell people, when you make it up to the tree house, lower the ladder down for the next kid.”

Do you believe there has been a gradual decay in the arts scene in the Bay Area over time, or a rejuvenation of that culture? What do you think is the cause?

JS: “…The Bay Area has always been a bit of a meat-grinder when it comes to performance and nightlife… while it has gotten much more challenging to do those things here, it has also honed the people who are here…So I think actually that the quality of nightlife and live entertainment in the Bay Area has gotten really, really good as a result of people being forced to up their game continually to keep up with the factors that they have to contend with…Examples: not just my show but Vau de Vire Society, Soiled Dove, and Tourettes Without Regrets… are evidence that people are really, really working overtime to create much higher levels of entertainment.”

Three Tiny Klowns at Hubba Hubba Revue. Photographed by Emily Ophidian, 2019.

What is the biggest threat? And what do you see happening in the foreseeable future?

JS: “…If, after living in San Francisco and seeing what’s all around them, that people don’t engage with it, don’t become a part of it, don’t incorporate it into themselves. If they treat San Francisco like a transitive place that they are passing through, if they treat it like it’s not part of their identity, than they’re going to systematically eliminate all the things that make it special and why you would want to live here. What I see coming, I actually do think that we’ll wear them down…you cannot possibly live here, see the freak-flag going past your window every single day, see the parade of people… and not want to at some point walk out your door and go ‘what is this?’ ‘How do I become a part of it?’… I think we will wear them down, I think we already have worn some of them down…you work 80 hours a week at Google and live in a dorm, well, maybe you deserve to have some fun, maybe you deserve to find out why San Francisco is a place that people wanna come to.”

Are there specific groups that are harmed by this decay? Who are they? What do you think will happen to them?

JS: “…All kinds of people have been displaced from the Bay Area, it… starts at the bottom of the income-economic ladder, where there’s a lot of marginalized people who’ve been forced out of the city and out of the Bay Area and that is too bad because…then we become this homogenized culture where everybody’s… mono-culture tech, mono-culture identity, race… and that is a terrible thing that will make San Francisco blander, and blander, and blander…”

What do you think needs to change so that we can support these groups and preserve our arts scene in the Bay Area?

JS: There’s people with money… who have private events… who have private clubs who are entertaining themselves and their friends…they need to engage on a public level don’t make everything closed, private…come to the shows that are already here, support events publicly and make your own events public. If you’re doing this, and you’re doing it on a private club basis, you’re just contributing to the end. You’re feeding off of what’s here and just waiting for your moment to pass. Make it something that everybody is involved in.”

What is your advice to art lovers in the Bay Area?

JS: “If you can make it work and you can stay, please do… network and contract people…if you have  skills in one area that could be valuable to another discipline like ‘I’m an artist,’ maybe you can make sets, ‘I’m a costumer,’ maybe [you can] make costumes…If you’re a circus performer, a singer… whatever it may be, network and combine and find other people in your city that you can work with, to create with.”

Sgt. Die Wies

Sgt. Die Wies, photo by Jellyfish Jones

Describe yourself.

SDW: “My name is Sgt. Die Wies. I’m a P.O.C. Performance Artist, specifically Burlesque Drag and [a] musician [who grew up in SF.]”

What changes have you noticed in San Francisco culture?

SDW: “The people, the audience members (if we get any at all) are… not as involved as they should…not that appreciative as they should be. I feel like they are getting lazier… when they come to shows, they are giving as little as possible, not even monetarily but like their attention, their energy, they are… getting lazier and lazier every fucking show.”

Is San Francisco the same city you grew up in?

SDW: “Hell no it’s not the same place I grew up in! The thing is, change, that’s inevitable. It’s always gonna happen… [At this point during the interview, Die Wies paused to order another mimosa from the bartender. We are sitting at the booth of Jolene’s Bar in SF, a queer-friendly space where Sgt. Die Wies produces #WOMANOPOLYSF (created by her and previous co-producer Elyse Elaine in 2012,) a Burlesque and Drag Brunch show on Sundays, however the rest of the interview takes place outside the venue on the sidewalk.]… The problem is that not only is it people…the whole thing about the art culture, it’s changing everywhere. I tour internationally, and the same problems we are having here in the Burlesque and Drag scenes, it’s happening in other countries and other places too. For instance, here in San Francisco… you get all these people who are not from here who are coming here… steamrolling and stomping all over the culture that was there before them. They don’t understand…I’ve heard more gay slander and racial slurs being thrown around… in the last five years… than I have in the entirety of living here. I’ve been here since I was a kid and these… people… from backwoods middle of America are coming here… bringing their nastiness here and… shitting all over this beautiful place… [These] people who are coming in here are not respectful, they are stamping on the culture we worked real fucking hard to build, and… they are bringing their shitty ass, racist, and bigoted attitudes here…they hide it real well behind their social ties, but really when they take all that shit off… get to drinking and partying on us they start letting shit slip… I’m just blown away that it’s happening… I don’t know if [it’s because] we are allowing it to happen in… society… The city doesn’t care as much… especially the local government… they don’t care as much because they are… letting them come here with their money… they live in these tech-companies and people give out these vouchers to live here and they are not doing anything to enrich or help culture… it’s like [they are] coming to the wetlands… a very delicate ecosystem and… shitting all over it.”

What do you contribute to the art scene in the Bay Area?

SDW: “Specifically, in the Burlesque community, the Drag King community, and the Performance Art community, I’m helping keep women of color (specifically Black women) inside those places and being seen, because a lot of people don’t know that we are out there…people make up their own minds about what they see on TV… what they see in the papers because they’re naive and they don’t know there are people like me out there that…put their asses… on the line to show that art is happening in our communities… being Black and Queer is… very faux-pas in the Black community unfortunately… being a Black Queer femme and doing the thing is… important to me, especially in the Drag King world where they don’t know that there are so many dark-skinned Black femmes repping male personas… as a Black Burlesquer… I didn’t really think I’d be making much of a dent but I actually do… from what people… have come up and talked to me about. They’re surprised to see me and that’s weird because I thought there were a lot of us but there really aren’t… As a Drag King being a…Black male has really changed my outlook on how I perceive the world and how Black men are treated or perceived… I got on the BART train when I first started doing Drag King (and it’s happened a lot since then,) this specific first time this lady grabbed her purse…she felt endangered, felt she was in peril because I sat next to her and when I put on my man-gear…I ‘pass’, I look… [like a man] and this woman was… freaked out…and I [asked her] ‘are you okay?’ and she was like ‘Oh my god, you’re a girl’…‘Wow that’s such a convincing costume,’ and I’m like ‘You need to check yourself’…”

‘You Are Safe Here’ Neon Sign at the entrance of Jolene’s Bar in SF, where Sgt. Die Wies produces #WOMANOPOLYSF: Drag and Burlesque Brunch every Sunday. Photo by Max Silver.

What do you think is causing the decay of the art scene in the Bay Area? 

SDW: “I don’t think people are investing in it as much as they should be. They are choosing Netflix. People are… putting their money into other things that are not supporting the arts… a culture without art is a poor culture… Not to mention the city, people are cutting the arts programs out of schools, not interlacing or interweaving different types of art into the public eye and showcasing it… Drag and Burlesque [are] such a huge part of San Francisco history and community…to not showcase that is such a bad look… such a waste of so much energy and time and money… that people have put to make this art community thrive… It’s still thriving but it could be doing a lot better…if these techies… these people who are more affluent one-percenters who are coming into the city would throw their money into the art community. That’s why I travel so much because… in Europe and in other countries… they actually still invest in art. They still care about the artist and know that histories aren’t told without art and music…I wish that America would get on the goddamn bandwagon, especially San Francisco since it’s one of the richest… cities in the world right now…”

What is the biggest threat and what do you see happening in the foreseeable future?

SDW: “The biggest threat is that they keep closing down venues… the more they jack the rent up, the more these owners are getting freaked out and needing these performers to be able to pull in numbers but people aren’t coming to the shows as much…it’s like a snake eating its tail…I came from the Metal community. I’ve been playing in Metal bands since I was a kid…now there’s… maybe like two [Metal shows] in the city and there used to be several…there’s hardly any all-ages venues so how are the kids supposed to eat? How are children supposed to learn if there’s no place for them to go see live Metal shows or go see live punk bands…[San Francisco] used to be home of the weird. It used to be San Franfreako…Now it’s become this… sterile ass, scraping-at-the-bottom-of-the-barrel to get people to come to… amazing shows, [because] people want to watch… Netflix…Another reason why… venues are closing… is because the artists that come from here don’t come back here and help turn the soil. They don’t cultivate by putting their people that have come from these places to watch them blow up. They don’t come back here and bring them to the underground subculture shows.

“People are like, ‘oh, we have RuPaul’s Drag Race!’ Fuck RuPaul’s Drag Race, they don’t even let…vagina-[owners] come on there and then they turn their backs on Trans people? You’re not a Queer show boo, sorry! You’re… excluding people when you’re supposed to be leading the goddamn way… You’re teaching people to do that to us in the subculture…thank goodness for shows like Dragula that are putting people on the spot that are welcoming women and people who are female-presenting who are also male-presenting and… taking the… strongholds off of gender…these performers… on… Dragula… are all over…I just saw Erika Klash in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania… we have Hollow Eve who’s here that’s always all over the underground scene. Where… do you think they get the queens from? They come from the underground…pay attention and act locally so you can see them globally.”

Are there specific groups that are harmed by this decay? Who are they, what do you think will happen to them?

SDW: “…in the Burlesque community there’s been a lot of… people doing ‘call-out culture’ and people behaving badly. There’s been a lot of shit happening to a lot of straight guys inside the Burlesque community who’ve fucked up and [have] made it very hard, both for people to welcome straight guys into coming into Burlesque and also making it hard for straight guys to feel like they have a place… We have very few straight guys inside Burlesque….We have a lot of Queer presence, overwhelming Queer presence and as a Queer person I love that but diversity enriches us. That keeps the theme going, and I feel like there’s a lot of reverse-ism happening.

“Excluding people is not the way that we keep it going…call-out culture…is hurting us more than helping us…Before you go calling people out online, before you go tearing people down, have a face-to-face conversation…people are way too reliant on their devices and computers…[have a] more restorative approach, more pragmatic approach to solutions…If the venues don’t have our backs, and I’m so grateful to have Jolene’s they actually have my back… [Jolene’s] welcomes all the different genders, non-binary, everything, any kind of Performance Art that’s top notch, they’re like ‘bring it on’… but if the venues don’t have your back, and they don’t… treat you like you’re valuable and all they want you to do is bring a bunch of people and put on a show, that’s not enough…We need to have each other’s backs and stop tearing each other down. Come from a place of love and understanding instead of immediate hate and anger. There’s so much hate and anger right now in the world, everyone’s… smearing it anywhere that they can on anybody and everybody…We gotta persevere and I don’t think [call-out culture] is the right approach.

“If you’re from across the world…How about Videocall?…I have a friend right now who’s under fire and I’m gonna probably call her tonight… [say] what’s…going on? Tell me the tea, this is what I’ve been hearing, this is what I think could be helpful… talk about solutions… People are watching us, some people I’ve been talking to who don’t know anything about Drag or Burlesque see the drama and don’t wanna get involved… That’s not good… in the future what’s gonna end up happening is that people…don’t wanna… deal with it, they don’t feel like it’s valuable…Just because an assload of people are not at your show doesn’t mean that your show’s not valuable. Just because… you don’t have all the support does not mean that you should not be seen or heard…Surround yourself with people who are gonna support you and uplift you. We should all be uplifting each other so that you can be able to get out there… and if you don’t do that, the culture, the scene, it’s all in danger, we’re gonna have less and less venues that are gonna take a chance on us…Also… we should open our own… venues, open our own spaces, look at Heklina and Darci, now they are doing the…thing and I think that’s… beautiful… because they were all out here in subculture doing their thing too next thing you know boom! They opened their own venue. Look at Jolene, she created Uhaul [SF’s premier lesbian queer party]…and now look at her she owns her own spot… she’s pushing the performers to get in there… so that they can have their own too. Owning our own show, doing our own thing, and also putting the dollar up… We should be paid for our art, we should not give our art away for free…Know your value, know your worth, get that cash so that then you can keep uplifting yourself too. Get better costumes, take dance classes… put value into your art.”

A sign inside Jolene’s Bar in SF, encouraging the bar’s patrons to drink their gay ass water. Photo by Max Silver.

What needs to change so that we can support these groups and preserve our art scene in the Bay Area?

SDW: “Be more welcoming, be more loving, give people chances, try to forgive, turn the other cheek… protect our scene, protect the performers, protect the spaces and don’t let toxicity come in, a lot of that has been happening, people coming in and contaminating. If you know something…having [an in-person] forum about it would be better…”

Do you have advice to those who work in the industries that contribute to the decay of live art in the Bay Area?

SDW: “Put your money in the artists, put your money in the music, go out, see live shows, stop watching Netflix. Stop watching fucking TV and… online shit, go out and see the shit in person because there’s nothing like live performance… there is an essence, there is an energy, there is a magic that’s happening live. Watching it on… Youtube, watching it on Facebook Live is not the same as being there. Give your goddamn money… people literally fight tooth-and-nail for a $10 show ‘oh, is there a guest-list?’…In this city you cannot get a… beer without spending $10. You can’t get a cocktail that’s under $10…Think of it as… okay that’s one less beer that I can drink, that’s one less cocktail I can buy… Throw your money at the artists… that is so needed right now. In this city the magic is being sucked out of it because people are not supporting the communities and the arts…”

What is your advice to art-lovers in the Bay Area?

SDW: “If you have a lot of pull in the community, go to spaces where there’s new and upcoming people and bring your people there…Wherever you see that there’s not enough people at the shows and you have pull take your community to the places… we really need to enrich these audiences, bring your coworkers, bring your family-members, bring everybody, give everybody to these…shows… I’ve been working with Velocity Circus recently… we’re going to be doing some… art-bombs throughout the city… wake people up to get people paying attention again to how awesome and magical this city used to be and still can be if people stop… paying so much attention to their goddamn phones…bring people who never go out, get them to come out to shows… Support local art, support local performance…”

 Anything else?

SDW: “I live in a school bus here in San Francisco, I work in the service industry and I’m a performer and it’s literally the only way I can be in this city…to be able to live here and to be able to keep creating art and keep being a part of this community, because the cost of living is so high they don’t want to pay service-industry people shit, people stiff you on tips and… the city is paying people minimum wage… this is the most expensive city in the world, why is there so much homelessness? Why are artists suffering so? People are constantly leaving this city because they can’t afford to live here…I have a space also in West Oakland that… is my place of creation but commuting back and forth is too expensive… and it sucks too much time out of my day to be working full time and be able to perform full time…there needs to be some kind of give, maybe the city can give out artist grants so that they can be able to afford to live here in the city and survive so they can keep enriching the soil of the community.

“It’s funny because you get these one-percenters who are looking at us… at people who are displaced, I know there’s a lot of people who have had to move into their vehicles because they got kicked out of their places or because they’ve turned to homelessness. Fortunately that is not my case, I do have a place it’s just too expensive to do both at the same time… I love my little school bus. Me and my partner live there and [one-percenters] look at us like we’re the shit on their shoe…what would happen if all the people who had to live in their vehicles to be able to stay here working to earn enough dough… in the city all left? Who’s gonna serve your… coffee? … Check your… privilege. Appreciate that there are people here still trying to keep society going. Be kind to your neighbors. We call ourselves ‘the Neighborhood Watch’ because we see everything that happens in the area. Being kind to us is probably a smart idea because we can see who broke into your car… we chase people out of here all the time who are trying to do shady things.

“People… don’t want to pay for art. People want to watch Netflix, watch Hulu… but you can’t get real live performance, even if you are watching it live-stream, you can’t get that energy, that feel that your body is doing when you are face-to-face… Your body is calibrating, your eyes are adjusting, your pheromones are exchanging, you are shaking hands, energy is happening and you cannot get that through a screen. You have to go and see live art… because sooner or later…it’s already happening! They are cutting the orchestras out of theaters. Now it’s recording… A culture without art and music and performance is a poor culture… I go to Europe all the time mostly because they pay me what I’m worth out there, they treat me well and they understand the importance of having art-involvement, of people… having interactions inside of art-environments… but America is getting worse and worse by the second…”

Help Sgt. Die Wies keep funding Bay Area performances like #WOMANOPOLYSF by supporting her on Patreon.

Poly Amber Ross (Peter Pansexual)

Poly Amber Ross, photographed by Nic Candito.

(The interview with Poly Amber Ross was recorded via phonecall.)

Describe yourself and the changes you have noticed since you first arrived to San Francisco.

PAR: “I am a Trans Queer Pansexual Polyamorous Performance Artist and a passionate advocate and dubious lover of Queer History and Group Theater. Even though I’ve been here less than a decade, I’ve noticed that the disparity between Queer spaces and more heteronormative spaces…seems to be growing. I’ve also noticed a few things about the personality of income, that there seems to be this… widening… trench between people that feel like they are allowed to live here and people who feel like they are getting pushed out…”

What do you contribute in the arts scene in the Bay Area?

PAR: “I just started a radical Feminist Queer political theater company (Poltergeist Theatre Project)…we just finished our first show and are already planning to do 2 more shows before the end of the year…I’m also a multidisciplinary Performance Artist in Drag. I have a Drag female persona, Poly Amber Ross, a Drag male persona Peter Pansexual, and play through that with… perverting traditional Drag themes, stripping, Burlesque …other than going to see a lot of shows.”

What do you think is causing the decay of the art scene in the Bay Area? 

PAR: “I’ve been doing a lot of talking about this with multiple people…I think the real sense is that when you have a place where there is a lot of young money and a lot of constant turnover and a lot of change, you lose the idea of patron-ship like we have in other established cities in the country, and by that I mean there’s nobody out here who, say, sponsors the newspaper enough for their families for generations…as my co-artistic Director Britt Lauer puts its very eloquently, it’s that people here are looking for event experience acquisition, so they’re like well I’ve already done that thing what’s new? And that means you don’t get this understanding that…involvement of the arts is a collaboration, and it’s an ongoing collaboration, and unless you have continual funding of the arts you can’t create foundation, you can’t grow.

What is the biggest threat and what do you see happening in the foreseeable future?

PAR: “The biggest threat to [Queer Artists] is our eradication. I mean, that feels like a very tangible possibility living in a… conservative political timeline and I feel like the biggest enabler of that is when people don’t work towards Queer visibility on a regular basis…people… aren’t having the hard discussions we need to have about what Queerness is within the scene…that kind of complacency pushes us a little bit closer to the next step past concentration camps.”

Peter Pansexual, photographed by Carli Dominguez.

Are there specific groups that are harmed by this decay? Who are they, what do you think will happen to them?

PAR: “Right now, racism is being exposed in a way that it used to be able to hide partly because of technology. One of the groups that is most in danger in this country and has always been is Queer Trans women of color, and unless we can start having discussions with people about what Queerness is and what Transness is and breaking down the barriers between biological determinism and gender, than these people are going to continue to be murdered… and those are also the people who always push the art forward. When we look at fashion, when we look at music, when we look at theater, Queer Trans people have always been the people who push the boundaries and the community then co-ops from their style, from their choices. If you continue to eradicate them then there goes all art really.

What needs to change so that we can support these groups and preserve our art scene in the Bay Area?

PAR: “If these people that have all of the money… start looking into ways to sponsor… art more tangibly instead of donating to large theater organizations, then that will be a major help. Right now we have… large theaters in the Bay… that are not creating new content…they’re being supported by techies…and if a tech-company were to… create a Drag scholarship, or… a Queer spoken-word event… it has to be as grassroots as it is large-scale.”

Do you have advice to those who work in the industries that contribute to the decay of live art in the Bay Area?

PAR: “… Yeah it’s the Bay, yeah we are all taking 40 hour + jobs, but when you have a free evening, go out and support Queer artists that are doing small work the same way that you would support the large-scale shows.”

What is your advice to art-lovers in the Bay Area?

PAR: “Find ways to be supportive to people tangibly whether that is by donation, whether that is having conversations with co-workers… Be supportive and subversive, look at the system, look at what’s being empowered. If you love it, show up…If you want the theater arts to continue, show up in every way that you can. Volunteer, donate tickets so that other people can see the show…show up, more than anything else.”


Special thanks to Frankie Foukette, who initiated the writing of this article, and who posed many of the original questions asked during the interviews, as well as to Polly Amber Ross, Sgt. Die Wies, and Kingfish for sharing their stories with me. Despite the opposition against artists such as these, those who wish to perform, produce, or contribute in some form to the live art scene should not feel discouraged from doing so…Rather, be aware of the challenges performers are up against, pay them (or at least show respect and gratitude) for their services, recognize that the culture that makes the Bay Area so unique is at stake, and if you are already a participant, persevere in your cause, stay connected, and support those who support you!

 

Contact info for producers/performers:

 

Hubba Hubba Revue, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/hubbahubbarevue/, Instagram: @hubba_hubba_revue

Jim Sweeney, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jim.sweeney

Jolene’s Bar, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jolenessf, Instagram: @jolenessf, Website: http://jolenessf.com

Om-Nom-Nom-Non-Binary Burlesque, Instagram: @omnomnomburlesque, E-mail: omnomnomburlesque@gmail.com

Polly Amber Ross, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chrissteelecreates, Instagram: @pollyandpeter

Poltergeist Theatre Project, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PoltergeistTheatreProject, Instagram: @poltergeist_theatre_project, Website: https://www.poltergeistproject.org/ 

Sgt. Die Wies, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SGTDIEWIES, Instagram: @diewies, Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Womanopoly

Velocity Circus, Instagram: @velocitycircus, Website: https://velocityartssf.com

 

 

Like this article? Make sure to sign up for our mailing list so you never miss a goddamn thing!
Previous post

Save Beetlejuice from Being Unjustly Booted off Broadway

Next post

Friends Distribute 50 Care Packages to Homeless People Over the Holidays


Max Silver

Max Silver

Max Silver is a writer, artist, illustrator, performer, and banjo enthusiast. He currently lives in Santa Cruz.

1 Comment

  1. April 20, 2020 at 7:22 am — Reply

    Or maybe people go to see entertainment, and not condescension, preaching and whining. Losing your audience? Try working for them, instead of telling them they need to work harder for you.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *