Marissa Skudlarek voices what many of us are thinking.
The news about the massive cut-backs at Intersection for the Arts came out last Thursday. I had tickets to see the latest show at their resident theater company Campo Santo, Chasing Mehserle by Chinaka Hodge, for Friday night.
Before the news came out, I had been looking forward to the show with uncomplicated enthusiasm — I loved Hodge’s Mirrors in Every Corner, which Intersection produced four years ago, and Chasing Mehserle revisits the characters of Mirrors. After the news came out, my emotions became more tangled. Gratitude that I’d get to see one more show at Intersection before the organization changed forever. (Per press reports, Campo Santo will continue to exist, but will become an independent nonprofit organization.) Guilt that I hadn’t taken more advantage of Intersection’s programming — I hadn’t seen a play there since Halloween 2010, hadn’t visited their space since they moved from the Mission District to the Chronicle building downtown. The recognition that my feelings of guilt were slightly overblown — even if I’d patronized Intersection more, that wouldn’t have saved it.
There were sellout crowds on Friday night for Chasing Mehserle, and the audience was one of the youngest and most diverse I’ve ever seen in the Bay Area. It was all I could do not to buttonhole each one of these people and shout “How did you hear about this show? What brought you to the theater tonight? How could I get you to come see the theater that I make?”
After all, sometimes I can become cynical, and believe the doomsayers who tell you that young people don’t go to the theater anymore, it’s hopeless, we should just give up, we should become more like opera, we should realize that our core audience is old white rich folks. The audience that night proved me wrong — and proved right the counter-narrative that young people will go to the theater if it reflects their lives and their communities, presenting compelling stories that mainstream film and television don’t provide. (Chasing Mehserle is an artistic response to Johannes Mehserle’s shooting of Oscar Grant in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. It’s deeply grounded in the Bay Area, and deeply aware that it’s a piece of theater rather than a movie or TV show.)
The diverse audience I saw at Chasing Mehserle should therefore have given me hope for the future of the theater — except that, having read the news the day before, I was left with a feeling of increased hopelessness. This enthusiasm, this diversity, these people who want to see stories that reflect them, this community interested in Chinaka Hodge’s growth and development as a playwright… it wasn’t enough to make a difference. It wasn’t enough to create a viable, fiscally healthy organization. So what will ever be enough?
The full story of how Intersection got into such dire financial straits has not yet been revealed, but it looks like it might fit in with the “tech money is ruining everything” narrative that’s becoming prominent in this city. It would be oddly fitting, too: a major theme of Chasing Mehserle is the gentrification of Oakland, and Chinaka Hodge just published an essay about gentrification in San Francisco magazine (a magazine whose web address is ModernLuxury.com. The ironies, they pile up).
At the end of Chasing Mehserle, the actors come forward and declare their real-life identities: “My name is… I was born on… And I’m still here.” Hodge is well aware of the difficulties faced by African-Americans in our society, and the cast members saying “I’m still here” is a powerful statement of survival in the face of forces like gentrification and racism. Survival itself is a form of heroism, Hodge seems to imply. Perhaps we should celebrate the fact that an arts organization like Intersection survived for nearly 50 years (an amazing record for any institution) rather than mourning its passing. But it’s hard not to be sad about its loss, and feel guilty that we have not done more to create the kind of culture we want. It’s hard not to wonder “How much longer will I still be here?”
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer who plans to live in this city for as long as it’s physically possible. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.
The day after I wrote this, Intersection posted an FAQ that has additional information about the cuts and restructuring. Some of the staff, including Sean San Jose of Campo Santo, will be furloughed instead of laid off. Additionally, Intersection explicitly notes that they do not consider “tech gentrification” a direct or indirect cause of their fiscal problems. However, their situation still raises many questions about how an arts organization can survive in a modern, urban economy. A Facebook friend of mine noted that the key sentence of this FAQ is “A great deal of the funding Intersection receives is restricted to specific projects or initiatives, and very little of those monies can be spent on general operating expenses and salaries” — that seems to be a reasonable explanation for the trouble they are in. You can read the whole thing at http://theintersection.org/2014/05/interesction-for-the-arts-restructuring-update-and-faq/.