Neither COVID nor canceled visas: SF International Arts Festival returns

Weeklong festival at Fort Mason spans continents, genres, styles

By Richard von Busack

Special to The Examiner

As the San Francisco International Arts Festival nears its 20-year mark, Executive Director Andrew Wood is adamant that no hurdle is too high to stop the indoor-outdoor, online-offline, multi-culti and multimedia extravaganza slated for Oct. 20-24 at Fort Mason.

“I think as we try to re-emerge, falteringly, as a society, we’ll get people comfortable about being around each other again, and re-engage… at a respectable distance,” Wood says. “We’re doing our best to get artists back in front of audiences. They haven’t seen each other in a long time.”

In addition to COVID, visas have been an issue. Entry problems forced cancellation of a play by Bon Tempos Theatre Co., “Qaddafi’s Cook” — a fictional story of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s personal chef that starred Mexican actors from Mexico Cityand London. A tie-up with visas for a Russian troupe means director Semion Aleksandrovskiy will be directing a performance over Zoom on St. Petersburg time, 10 hours ahead.

From Russia, with raging intensity

One of the highlights of the festival is Aleksandrovskiy’s “” This word salad is an acronym of a Leo Tolstoy line, written in chalk on a card table for the love of his life, Sophia Behrs, which reads: “Your youth and the need for happiness remind me cruelly of my old age and the impossibility of happiness.” Tolstoy later used a variation of that thought in “Anna Karenina.”

On the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, an audience of 40 will split into two to walk with actors Megan Trout and Caleb Cabrera of Shotgun Players as they perform the play in different corners of the green. “We don’t know how busy the Great Meadow is going to be that weekend,” Wood notes. “That’s part of the charm of it, dodging the part of the crowd that isn’t the audience, with your audience.

Woods says it’s easier to do international rehearsals now, since everyone is used to Zoom. Still, working with Russian theater directors is not for the faint of heart. “The Russians are fanatical about theater, and theater directors are treated there as major sports figures are here,” Wood explains. “We have to get people who can stand up to Russian directors! Our stage manager Phil Lowery is like a boxing referee. He’s very detail-oriented and keeps a record of the directions in case there’s a dispute. But they’re all very professional people. Respect grows through the process, even though they’re remote.”

American Conservatory Theater’s Mark Jackson helped with the casting of the piece; he performed in Russia, and Trout went to school in the country. Flash-mobbing and public performances are part of contemporary Russian theater, as is navigating government censorship. Woods says rumors abound that one group was evicted from a theater because authorities thought the players were referring to President Vladimir Putin as a cockroach.

“So pop-up theater is a form of theater that goes without government subsidies, or hopefully interest from the police, in site-specific spaces such as bars,” says Wood.

Bali, puppets, percussion

On the evening of Oct. 23, at Fort Mason’s Parade Ground, SFIAF will host Larry Reed’s ShadowLight Productions. It’s an hour-long show of “wayang” — Balinese shadow puppetry with a live gamelan ensemble. The percussive, jangly-tinkly music of Indonesia is hammered out on brass instruments. A single lamp illuminates a 15-by-30 foot screen from behind as Reed wields his puppets and does the vocal acting in English, one of several languages he speaks.

Founded in San Francisco, ShadowLight Productions is almost 50 years old. No one seems exactly sure of how ancient wayang is, but there’s evidence the Balinese puppetry artform goes back to 900 CE. Over the centuries, puppeteers performed tales from Hindu epics, in open air, midnight till dawn, entertainments occasioned by everything from political to ritual events.

Female hip-hop, and more

Among the 40-plus performances at SFIAF is everything from capoeira to body percussion. On hand will be Jenay “ShinobiJaxx” Anolin and Samara Atkins’ all female hip-hop ensemble Mixd Ingrdnts and Latin street musicians Los Nadies (“The Nobodies”). There’s a set of Brazilian-inspired music from Homenagem Brasileira, as well as a slate of online performances curated by Nola Mariano, interspersed with poetry selected by Kimi Sugioka.

This year, New Orleans-Oakland musician Michelle Jacques and her band CHELLE! and Friends are previewing a work in progress. Jacques is working on an upcoming project titled “Daughters of the Delta.” It’s about forgotten blues and jazz women: performers whose music accompanied the mass movement of Black people from the rural South to the cities of the North and West in the 1920s and beyond.

Among Jacques’ subjects is Louis Armstrong’s one time wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, a musician and band leader. This Memphis Music Hall of Famer died 50 years ago last August. She’d been working on a memoir, but it vanished after her death. Hardin Armstrong also composed her husband’s early hit, “Struttin’ to Some Barbecue.”

“She helped create the image of Louis Armstrong… making this man who he was,” Wood says.

Edgy, ragtag, parochial busting

SFIAF is experienced with vagaries of live streaming. Last year, the SFIAF’s coverage was described by Wood as “a single camera held by a gentleman laying on the ground.” Still, 2,500 watched, somewhere out in cyberspace. “By utilizing this dimension, we can switch back from being online to live in the field.”

Wood sees his festival as simultaneously curated, cutting-edge and ragtag, like a hybrid of the Edinburgh International and Fringe Festivals. “The festival came about because the U.S. is something of an insular place,” he says, “even though every type of culture exists in it. The difficulty of my job is trying to bring to town artists locals haven’t seen before. I need to stay one step ahead of the audience.”

He is proud of the festival as a cultural forecaster. He mentions a two-man play from Syria by the Al Khareef Theatre Troupe in 2010 titled “The Solitary,” which anticipated the Arab Spring, the wave of rebellions against authoritarian regimes that broke out from Tunis to Damascus.

For decades, Wood’s time in San Francisco has been all about activism and performance. He protested against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and was centrally involved in organizing the anti-Columbus Day Chasky in the Mission in 1992. In the 1990s, he worked at the Crystal Pistol at 842 Valencia, which had previously been a chic restaurant called the Fickle Fox, popular with gay folk who were just emerging from the shadows. (Today, it’s The Beehive.)

The Crystal Pistol was one of the hosts of Klubstitute, a moveable feast of club nights. Wood also worked at Life on the Water Theater in Fort Mason, where live shows ran Thursday to Sunday. On weeks when there was no tech rehearsal, he and Klubstitute presented queer theater on Monday and Tuesday nights. From there, he worked with the Ethnic Dance Festival and ODC.

“That’s when I first started traveling to see artist performances in other parts of the world and realized how few artists came here,” he says.

A native of England, Wood says that his trips back home remind him of something quite special about San Francisco.

Reflecting on housing affordability during the 2012 Olympics in London, “you’ve either got the money, or you’re gone,” he says. “But here in San Francisco, there is resistance because of community organizing and rent control, and because we’ve fought for every single block. Nobody knows what the future is going to bring, but here there’s still a sense of activism and holding the torch. And there’s just an energy you get when we’re all in the same room together. We can do it here — we can inspire others.”

IF YOU GO: San Francisco International Arts Festival

Where: Fort Mason, San Francisco (and online)

When: Online Oct. 20-24. Fort Mason: Oct.22-24

Tickets: $12 and up for individual events

Contact:,, 415-399-9554

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