The Performant: Adrift on survival riffs and life rafts

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Recent trends on the arts and culture scene

As long as there has been art, I imagine that the phrase “starving artist” has been in use. I like to imagine prehistoric cave painters stopping halfway through a particularly thrilling rendition of a successful buffalo hunt to halt operations and hold a fundraising party. “Grod, your donation of three chunks of limestone and a sharpened flint chip will help to fund the portraiture of no fewer than five renegade buffalo heading over the edge of the cliff.” But it helps put the sacrifices made in art’s name into perspective when confronted with art created on the very fringes, where “starving” can be more than just a catchphrase but a grim reality.

Friday night at the Redstone building I attended a performance at LaborFest — a month-long celebration of organized labor, worker’s rights, and solidarity. A POOR Magazine project, “Hotel Voices” was written by and about the denizens of SROs — those reviled bastions of affordable housing. Co-directed by Allan Manalo of Bindlestiff Theatre, and Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia of POOR the performance touched on themes such as institutionalization, infestation, violence, racial profiling, death of loved ones, and yes, starving, with a bite of humor provided by the flamboyant “El Bedbug” (Charles Pitts), a charismatic harmonica interlude played by “Nightmare Joey” (Dennis Wilmot), and a suckerpunch of survivalist wisdom from “Supertenant” (Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia).

Told in a series of short vignettes, like scenes of a documentary film about the often unsavory conditions “enjoyed” by the occupants of residential hotel rooms, “Hotel Voices” raised a collective voice against the daily marginalization of its principle characters. More importantly, it underscored the basic tenet of artistic expression that’s so often overlooked -- that the need to create isn’t dictated by economics, education, or public demand. On the contrary, it can be an impulse as deeply ingrained as the need for food, shelter, or companionship. In other words, an act of survival.

A very different aspect of survival in the arts occurred to me Sunday night, while watching a shaky staging of “Gillian’s Island” which hadn’t quite found its sea legs. But at least it was at the Garage, a favorite low-key venue where the anything-might-happen vibe pulsates like a club beacon in the SOMA night. Which seems especially important to acknowledge now that three of its neighbors have either shut their doors or announced a pending closure in the last few months: the Climate, Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory (which closed Saturday), and the Off-Market Theatre (scheduled to close January, 2011).

Yes, it’s been a bad year for black boxes, yet the Garage, despite its non-existent booth, minimal grid, and limited seating, remains a competitive player in the performing arts community with a full calendar, focused curation, and an array of artist-in-residency opportunities. And just as “Hotel Voices” helped to remind that the creation of art is an essential aspect of our collective survival, hanging out at The Garage reminds of the importance of maintaining a space for those arts and their creators to survive in.

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