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Cutting Ball Theater is Too Wonderfully Weird to Just Die

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Photo of the Cutting Ball Theater’s Lobby by Estela Hernandez

by Charles Lewis III

My first time at Cutting Ball Theater was in the early-2000s. I hopped off the Powell St. BART, made my way past the chess tables, up the block past EXIT Theatre, and around the corner to the EXIT on Taylor. The play I saw was some forgettable dime-a-dozen fluff by an outside production company about the sex lives of twenty-somethings. I only went ‘cause a fellow acting student was in it. Thinking back to that cookie-cutter play, it’s amazing how it didn’t represent the experimental force that resided in that space.

A decade later, Cutting Ball and EXIT are must-go destinations for bold theatre by and for those who can’t afford the ACT a few blocks up. Co-founder and artistic director Rob Melrose seemed impressed enough with my self-doubting bi ass to have me take part in the company’s annual “RISK is This” developmental series. Rob wanted me to play and sing as “Tiger” in his super-queer, electronic musical adaptation of Ozma of OZ. The music was by Z.O.N.K. Bebe Huxley played the title role. We had such a blast putting it on that I swear, one of the biggest regrets in my life was losing the tracks from the album we recorded. To this day, the opening song “Danger is a State of Mind” takes up free real estate in my brain. This was what Cutting Ball was all about

(And you can donate to save Cutting Ball Theater right here).

Community Gathering following Skwatchers show Towards Opulence: The Opera. Photo by Cathryn Cooper.

A decade after that, the Tenderloin regularly sees tents pop up as affluent Union Square tourists sneer. It’s also home to a thriving indie theatre scene: EXIT; PianoFight (RIP); CounterPulse; and yes, Cutting Ball. New artistic director Ariel Craft (of the late Bigger than a Breadbox Theatre) cranks the company’s experimental reputation up to “11”. Shakespeare? Christopher Chen? Doesn’t matter, just make it so outlandish that the audience forgets they’re sitting in a plain ol’ black box theatre.

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When the pandemic hit, Craft wasn’t satisfied with the “Zoom play” standard everyone had fallen back on. No, she spear-headed projects like Charles M. Lee’s Utopia and the Mugwumpin collab Phantasmagoria, proving that being a feminist-heavy, queer-/PoC-/disability-friendly performing arts company can do wonders during an unprecedented worldwide health crisis. Cutting Ball drew the map of how to make great theatre in the streaming era.

Cutting Ball Theater and IN THE MARGIN present Exhaustion Arroyo by Fran Astorga. Photo by Ben Krantz

It’s now 2024. Tents still line the Tenderloin as Emerald Mine Space Karen (aka Elon Musk) destroys Twitter a couple blocks south. PianoFight is gone. EXIT is gone. Ariel Craft stepped down. And the pandemic is very much not-over. Leadership at Cutting Ball evolved from a single figurehead to a collective model. They’re one of the few companies to pay their collaborators fairly and stick to California’s AB-5 law. When they call for directors for Variety Pack Festival (the former RISK is This), I tell myself I’m now more critic than theatre-creator, so I’d be crazy to direct for the first time in years. But with all my years following this weird, queer, and COVID-safe company (opening night of last year’s Exhaustion Arroyo saw its entire Latine cast wearing N95s, which didn’t hurt their performances at all), I figure I’ll give it a shot. To my surprise, they take me on and I rediscover my love for creating theatre amongst my fellow masked collaborators – all of us being required to test before every rehearsal and show. And the audience loves our work! I’ve come full-circle at Cutting Ball.

It’s one week later. Before the public’s told, we collaborators are sent a high-priority e-mail: Cutting Ball’s in trouble. They need $45,000 just to make it through the month, with a total of $200,000 to make it make through the summer. They ask all of us boost the signal of their Emergency Fundraiser far and wide. They mention their history of work, but I think beyond that: I think of how the aforementioned Latine production was complimented by the unabashedly queer production of Sylvan Oswald’s Pony.

Cutting Ball Theater’s Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek. Photo by Ben Krantz

I think of how collective member and drag extraordinaire Chris Steele’s recent off-the-wall adaptation of Rossum’s Universal Robots.

I think of how the company spent most of our orientation proving that Cutting Ball doesn’t simply exist in the Tenderloin, its duty is to actively try to improve it and connect with its wonderful citizens.

I think of how the venue has embraced being a much-needed queer safe space.

I think of Elon Musk flailing as his crap ventures bleed money, meaning a fundraiser could possibly make Cutting Ball outlast Twitter of all things.

Most of all, I think of the past twenty-plus years I’ve spent with this company and venue – as a patron, partier, actor, and director. They’ve kept their word to support SF’s art scene and non-billionaire citizens. This support allows them to evolve into yet another wonderful form.

And if a single one of those things matters to you, then it’s about time for you to donate.

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, activist, and performing artist. He has written for 48 Hills, the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner and more. Dodgy evidence of this can be found at The Thinking Man’s  

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