There's no doubt that in the coming months, many performing arts organizations will be fighting to survive in a COVID-19-ravaged climate. For some local luminaries, though, the fight is not about merely survival; it's about reimagining theater for the better.
"If Dragon isn't going to be able to make paying historically vulnerable and underrepresented people a priority, then we shouldn't survive it," Bora "Max" Koknar, co-artistic director of Dragon Productions Theatre Company said. "The point of a nonprofit organization is not to perpetuate itself, it is to serve, and now is our chance to serve."
When Koknar and wife Alika Ululani Spencer-Koknar stepped up as Dragon's leaders in early 2019, they knew they wanted to make the theater a vibrant community hub, more than just a space to stage plays. In Fuse Theatre, founded by Stacey Ardelean in 2015 with the mission of promoting social justice and education, they found a kindred spirit, and the two Redwood City companies joined forces for an annual short-play festival centered on timely topics. This year, they're adapting the festival — titled "Co-EXIST: stories of unlikely connection" into an ongoing series in a variety of online formats "in an effort to open space for important conversations around racism and to support BIPOC and Queer artists," according to the festival's press release.
In a recent conversation, Ardelean, Spencer-Koknar and Koknar discussed how they're coping through the current crises, and how they see their roles in reimagining community theater.
When pandemic-mandated shutdowns began to hit locally, "we decided that just because we can't continue running our show doesn't mean that people don't need what the theater and arts can provide," Koknar said. "The knee-jerk reaction is to do archival videos and Zoom readings — which we did! — but the question became, 'How do we move forward and not just pretend to do the same thing, but online? How do we create community through the arts?'"
The Dragon sprung into action in a variety of ways, not only by creating online versions of its popular "Live at the Dragon" variety shows, circus shows, and acting and writing classes for adults and kids, but also a dizzying selection of interactive, online offerings including late-night spooky tale-telling, morning storytime (complete with hedgehog puppet) for children, cooking lessons, lunchtime exercises, cocktail-hour discussions and more.
Fuse, too, was able to pivot, taking the three plays it was working on for the Bay Area Women's Theater Festival, filming them and putting them online, along with audience talkbacks. Developing original works, Ardelean pointed out, means not having to deal with onerous rights issues for filming and streaming. While it has several new plays in development, Fuse also offers "Fridays with Fuse": weekly interactive online programming that rotates between game nights, music nights, play readings, family activities and special guests.
"It makes our community engagement component very different, a little more intimate," Ardelean said. "It's been kind of interesting developing that."
Koknar has been able to harness his tech skills to help performers figure out Twitch, Zoom, Facebook Live and other platforms, as well as how to best utilize microphones, camera angles and more. Now that they've gained the skills, he and Spencer-Koknar are starting to hand off many of those projects to give other artists a chance to lead them.
"We didn't want to continue being complacent when we go 'back to normal.' We're really trying to reimagine what we can do. How we approach what we do. What on earth is the point of the theater company when artists have access to all the same tools of productions?" Koknar mused. "We're here for the audience too, but right now we're here for the artists."
That reimagining includes trying to tear down the elitist hierarchies and lack of diversity entrenched everywhere — the arts included.
"If we're going to survive this, it can't be about just surviving; it needs to be about coming out on the other side of this with a more equitable model for artists and making experiences more accessible to more people," he said.
Koknar doesn't have all the answers, but he's more motivated than ever to seek them.
"I spent the last decade ranting and railing about all the things that are broken about the system in theater; Dragon was an opportunity to slowly address those things," he said. "It's been a struggle to push against the economic realities, I don't know how to pay artists more than $300 for hundreds of hours of labor. But all of these things that have happened over the last few months are making it feel more urgent and critical that everything I've been railing against, I just act on."
Actively supporting and showcasing more stories from people of color and others from underrepresented populations will be key, and the "Co-EXIST" festival seemed a natural way to explore some of these issues.
"When Black Lives Matter came to the forefront, we took a step back," Ardelean said, adding that her group has been working on strengthening its "antiracism muscle."
"We've really had some in-depth conversations internally. How were we representing and giving space for the stories that need to be told? There's always room for improvement. We realized that 'Co-EXIST' could be a much larger platform," she said.
July Co-EXIST offerings include a July 17 reading of "GRIT" by Nick Malakhow, a July 18 panel discussion by queer artists of color (including Malakhow, J. Adán Ruiz, Ely Sonny Orquiza, Doy Charnsupharindr and Pear Theatre Artistic Director Sinjin Jones), and July 20 and 22 performances of "Lady and the Unicorn," by Emma Attwood, "inspired by medieval tapestry exploring a queer alternative history of the Lady," according to a press release. A July 21 short-play clinic, moderated by Peet Cocke and Ali-Moosa Mirza, will allow writers to submit and receive feedback on plays exploring intersectional and cross-cultural themes. Plans for August currently include a panel of transgender athletes. Dragon and Fuse have committed to running the programming through September and will be seeking funding to extend it all year.
Though times have been challenging for the organizations, the renewed commitment to diversity is one of several bright spots. Another is accessibility.
Offering interactive programming online means that it's open to people all around the world. Dragon and Fuse have gained not only new patrons and performers but also new friends, people who had never attended their live shows but found themselves hungry for human connection. They're also able to work with a greater variety of artists, writers and educators, no longer limited by geography.
"Live at the Dragon really exploded (since going online). It's made the most money it's ever made," Spencer-Koknar said. "Reaching out to artists that wouldn't be able to otherwise come to Redwood City is huge."
"We're now working with playwrights in Boston, New York, Ohio; it's really opened up our scope," she said.
Creating greater accessibility for people who wouldn't otherwise attend a show, whether for health, locational or economic reasons, is also key. This is something the trio hopes will continue even when the current restrictions are lifted.
As ever, making ends meet financially is tough, as is charging admission for programming that may not be up to the production standards of traditional theater. Most current offerings are pay-what-you-will. Koknar said the Dragon has been earning between $8,000-$12,000 a month in "unprecedented" donations, and the landlord has waived rent on their prime downtown Redwood City location for the time being (Fuse does not have a physical space of its own). In June, Dragon asked patrons to donate to social-justice causes, such as supporting protesters, instead of to the theater. But this month they've been hit with a $12,000 employment insurance bill, and costs will increase as they begin paying other artists to do what they were previously doing on a volunteer basis.
"It's been an uphill battle. We're not the only arbiters of what the Dragon can do, but we think that there is a way forward through people's generosity and creating innovative programming," Koknar said.
Ideas for the future include reaching out to more schools and working with senior centers to offer an "audiobook party line," with which elderly residents could listen in together to actors reading live, then interact and discuss the work with them. These types of programs are also more likely to receive grant support and could be another way of opening access to more communities.
Do they ever feel overwhelmed by the struggle to keep small arts organizations afloat while fighting for systemic change (in a pandemic, no less)?
"Some days I have all the energy to do it and some days I want to get up and not do anything," Spencer-Koknar said. "The more I'm reaching out to other people, the more hopeful I become."
"The idea is, being open to what comes next. For me, it's about collective vision. Being able to be nimble with that, and responsive rather than prescriptive," Ardelean said. "Yes it's hard, but now that we've got so much action we're going to take, it's much more hopeful. Everybody's ready to try."
"It's been like quicksand," Koknar laughed. "But it's good."