Mar 28, 2017
Please contact us
or breaking news
Dancing into Docs
by Tom Mayer
Austin Forbord, Oakland-based dancer, videographer and now art historian. photo: courtesy A. Forbord
The first documentary to fully cover the Bay Area's fecund post-World War II theater scene is "Stage Left: A Story of Theater in the Bay Area", directed by Austin Forbord. A former classical dancer transitioned to video artist, Forbord founded
in Oakland in 1996 and had a striking success with his 2000 outing "Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco"
" premiered in October 2011 at the Mill Valley Film Festival and will air on Sunday, November 11 on KQED-TV. The documentary is a brisk and exhilarating look at the sometimes chaotic world of theater in the Bay Area.
"Jen Rainin from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation came to me with the project in 2009," Forbord told us when we ran into him recently. "She saw my 'Artists in Exile', which detailed 50 years of dance in San Francisco, and wanted me to make a similar film about the theater community."
"[Rainin's] foundation was new and would be funding both theater and dance locally. She felt that 'Artists in Exile' provided her with a context for giving. [She] hoped that a film about theater would be equally educational and interesting to her board, other funders, and anyone interested in theater. Since I was a dancer for many years, and had founded Rapt Productions in 1995 for dance productions, then expanding into documentation of dance and theater, I was a good candidate."
"Stage Left" and "Artists in Exile" are both films that help to contextualize unique artistic communities, the way SF-based artists are particularly interested in politics, experimentation, issues of sexual and gender identity, and multi-disciplinary work. They certainly cover the significant impact local artists have had on dance and theater in the national and international context, while sometimes being ignored by history and the critical establishment which tends to focus on New York.
"Stage Left" covers the vibrant period from 1952, when Herbert Blau and Jules Irving of San Francisco Actors Workshop staged works by the avant-garde playwrights of the day. Blau expanded it to include musicians and dancers. Their productions included work by artists who would go on to have major mid-century careers, including choreographer Anna Halprin, composer Mort Subotnik, and designer Bob Levine. Friends and contemporaries of the Beat poets, Blau, Irving and associates produced some of the very first multidisciplinary performance events in the United States.
Promo shot for Austin Forbord's Rapt Productions. photo: courtesy A. Forbord
In 1959, their colleague R. G. Davis, Assistant Director of Actor’s Workshop, founded the SF Mime Troupe which began provoking audiences with political themed shows, many performed on the streets of San Francisco. The troupe cemented its radical reputation with "A Minstrel Show" (1965), a to-close-for-comfort parody of the racist genre which forced liberal as well as conservative audiences to face up to issues of race in America.
The Mime Troupe also spawned other provocative and political companies such as Teatro Campesino, the first Chicano theater, and The Pickle Family Circus, with its traveling circus. Indeed, the SF Mime Troupe continues to engage its audience with plays that address social issues of our time.
"Most everyone we spoke to about being interviewed for the film was agreeable, with the exception of Whoopi Goldberg and George Coates," continued Forbord, although, "[Coates] did allow us to use his footage and spoke with us off camera)."
"The majority of the archival footage and photographs came directly from people we interviewed or their friends and colleagues. We also sourced photographs from Museum of Performance and Dance and the Bancroft Library. Bernie Weiner, former theater critic at the Chronicle, and Ted Shank supplied many photographs and some footage that they had taken while covering the theater scene here. A very limited amount of footage was purchased from local TV stations."
In 1967, American Conservatory Theater then under the direction of William Ball moved from Pittsburgh to San Francisco. The early ACT was a leader in the American regional theater movement and established San Francisco as a serious theatrical city. This fostered smaller theaters like Julian Theater, Eureka Theater, and Magic Theatre, which rose to prominence through its prolific relationship with Sam Shepard, one author of "True West" (2000), "Buried Child" (1996), and "Fool for Love" (1984).
Indeed, the San Francisco counterculture spawned many experimental performance groups. The Cockettes in 1969, the spinoff group, the Angels of Light in 1971, and Theater Rhinoceros in 1977, with alternative and gay culture exploring sexual freedom and identity. These groups culminated with the Eureka Theater producing the premiere of the worldwide phenomenon, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" in 1991. In the 70s and 80s, George Coates, Snake Theater, Blake Street Hawkeyes, and Antenna Theater created new ways of expression in the theater, including multimedia, improvisation, and multidisciplinary performance.
And the great work continues at least for Forbord. "I just completed two dance films and will start a NEA-funded documentary about Kitka, an Oakland based music group. I am in the grant-writing stage of another feature doc about the history of experimental filmmaking in SF. " In addition, Forbord has filmed several dance shorts over the past year, and has a new film, "Well-Contested Sites" in production.
Posted on Oct 29, 2012 - 08:59 PM