A Place to Explore: Mama Calizo

By Jessica Fudim

November 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

With its bright pink awning and front-door mosaic of CDs that sparkle like giant sequins, Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory (MCVF) is a bright spot in the South of Market district of San Francisco. At 1519 Mission Street, MCVF is housed in the former Jon Sims Center for the Arts space, which, after almost thirty years as a queer performance venue, closed up shop in 2006. Local artist, educator, activist and MCVF Executive Director Dwayne Calizo sensed the void that was left in their absence and decided to take action. He recalls, “I couldn’t see this city without a place that specifically focuses on the development of queer performance work.” He went out on a limb, took over the lease and enlisted his mother (the eponymous Mama Calizo, also known as Ma’Gyver for her costume and prop-making magic) and a group of volunteers to prepare the space for its next incarnation. Calizo believes that “San Francisco is the experimental capital of the world,” and, while his venue may have an “underground” feel, it is prominently placed on the experimental world map.

Ever since Calizo took the baton from the Jon Sims Center, he’s been twirling it around and hurling it high into the sky like a punk rock majorette. MCVF now houses three rehearsal/performance spaces of various capacities: a 100-seat main theater, a 70-seat cabaret space, a 30-seat black box, as well as a common area/visual art exhibition space and a foyer/alter space that is enough to make any kitsch collector swoon. “I wanted to add my own aesthetic, which has a sharper edge to it and is left-left of center. It’s a hodge-podge of realness that feels like ‘Warhol meets John Waters in a Buddhist monastery.’” It’s also a hotbed of opportunity for local artists who are interested in the fusion of dance, theater, music, social activism and queerness.

Asked for his definition of “queerness,” Calizo takes an open-armed approach. “Queer doesn’t mean sexuality. It means deviating from the norm, from what’s expected from you as an artist. It’s a daringness to be more provocative.” And if provocative, queer performance work is your thing, MCVF offers a number of opportunities to make your mark:

• The D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) Residency Program focuses on the creation of new works and provides the artist with rehearsal space, artistic mentorship, technical production support and publicity and marketing support. MCVF becomes the artist’s home for four weeks leading up to performance. As Calizo says, this program not only gives artists an opportunity to develop and present their work, “but to also have a good shot at making some money while they do it. We provide fundraising evenings for pre-production money and we have a very generous split at the door.”

• The Hazardous Waste Project is a quarterly event that highlights the performance work of HIV+ artists, transgendered artists and queer artists of color. The Hazardous Waste Project remarks on the treatment of marginalized communities in our society and the danger these artists pose to the mainstream, small-mindedness, stereotypes and the status quo.

• Crash Cabaret: Where Queers Collide (Heterosexuals encouraged to apply!) is a nuevo-punk variety show extravaganza of video, theater, dance and music collisions by local performance mavericks. Each thought-provoking and entertaining act clocks in at five minutes or less.

• Sunday Best brings 10 local performance artists together for an explosive one-hour show, followed by mobilization of artists and audience to distribute free meals to residents in the Mission Street area. Performance proceeds are donated to local non-profits working to help underserved members of the community.

• The Bay Area Queer Music Festival will premiere in 2009, featuring a diverse array of local, queer music artists.

• Rent Space for your next rehearsal, workshop or ongoing classes. E-mail voicefactoryspace@gmail.com for booking inquiries.

• Volunteer as an usher.

• Work-study and internship opportunities are excellent ways to pitch in, network and hone your art production or administrative skills.

Additional information and application guidelines can be found at voicefactorysf.org.

Calizo and his board of directors are especially interested in receiving proposals from dance artists who mix genres and make waves and he states, “It’s a very dance-friendly space. It has a great sprung floor, but it also has a kind of environment that gives choreographers license to do something outside of the box.”

MCVF has been busy on the outside of that box. Thus far, it has premiered close to thirty original works by emerging artists. Those who have developed or presented work at MCVF include Erika Shuch, Christy Funsch, Isabelle Sjahsam of ArtFace, Zari Le’oN, Lesley Braithwaite, Peter Griggs, Seth Eisen, Carrie Baum, Boylesque, Boathouse & Company, Malia Movement Company, and yours truly. Year-round resident companies are Guerilla Rep, the SF Buffoons and SF Slam and Experimental Mic and upcoming events include TrannyFest, co-produced by Sean Dorsey and Shawna Virago.

At this hub for artistic heretics, chances for cross-pollination abound. Seth Eisen is one of the November 2008 DIY Resident Artists. Eisen is best known for his exploits over the past six years with Circo Zero. When I asked him why he decided to present his solo show Black Bird: A Queer Vocal History at MCVF he said, “I had this piece in mind for a year and I really needed a place to make it. Dwayne said, ‘Honey, why don’t you come over here? This is the perfect spot for you and I have Jessica [Fudim] doing a show and Guerilla Rep and Erika [Shuch] is developing a piece in the space…’ It really attracted me to not be isolated and to be with other people who would get my work, it being of an outsider nature.”

Eisen’s show pays homage to queer singers from the 1930s to the present, particularly outsiders who experienced discrimination. When studying entertainer Danny Kaye, he found that, “There is so much queer movement and activity in what he did. He had a lot of fluidity between male and female and queer and straight genders. When I saw him as a mover, dancer, performer I was just so enthralled because I recognized what he did as crossing the boundaries between gender and the outsider voice without actually having to say it.” Similarly, audiences should expect to be enthralled by Eisen’s own boundary-crossing.

Opening the same weekend as Eisen’s Black Bird is Please Feed My Animal, a trilogy of fractured fairy tales by my company, The Dance Animals. The trilogy mashes up dance, theater, live music and video and asks questions like: Who are we without the ones we love, and how can they be gone when we think we see them everywhere? Why can’t a faux drag pirate and sailor fall in love on the high seas? And, what would happen if a Neanderthal girl defrosted, came back to life and communicated through rock music songs such as, “I Survived the Ice Age and All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt?” As an artist in residence at MCVF I’m determined to respond to the big and small worlds around me and to do so lovingly and brazenly. Seeing artists around me who are similarly motivated but unique in their approach inspires me to stick to my mission.

The MCVF mission states, “the process and product of creative activity have equal value, that all talent is worthy of development, and that artistic expression is essential to our community’s health.” Calizo and local artists see MCVF as a sacred space that makes people feel safe when they create. “I want people to feel like it’s their home; that it’s not a transient kind of environment. Come and hang out, create, feel comfortable and bring your spirit and energy here.” This is music to the ears of choreographers who know all too well that the development of a dance often cries out for more time than what’s logistically possible. The DIY Artist Residency program offers the luxury of four straight weeks of rehearsal space. It also provides long blocks of rehearsal time, helping to quiet the ticking clock that often pushes us to “hurry up and be creative.” Eisen concurs, “Something about this city continues to have fertile soil for intense creativity and for people who still care about nurturing artists amidst all the financial crisis in the arts. I feel so supported here.”

But outside the bedazzled door of MCVF there are other groups of people who are part of the bigger picture. The activism component of working at MCVF gives the artist the responsibility of creating social justice within the communities of the city. How many of us have talked about “outreach”? We try to diversify our audiences. We try to affect change through our art and the way in which we present it. At MCVF, this goal is actualized on many levels:

• Tickets For Angels requires artists to designate 10 tickets for each show to local social service organizations that deal with marginalized communities. The organizations who have benefited from the program area, Shanti, Baker Places, Walden House, Larkin Street Youth Center, Lyric and the A.I.D.S. Emergency Fund.

• NOTAFLOF: No One Turned Away For Lack Of Funds is a policy that MCVF maintains for all performances in order to make art accessible to all, regardless of financial means.

• ARC SF, a performance workshop for developmentally disabled San Francisco adults, meets weekly in the space. This group helps keep things real at MCVF and cracks open our ideas about what dance is and who gets to do it.

Calizo can often be heard encouraging artists to venture deeper into the city, especially the grittier areas that one might otherwise avoid. Collaborators Rowena Ritchie and Susie Hara must have taken that to heart with Boathouse & Company’s Lost & Found in the Mission. Developing this work while in residence at MCVF, they collected paper flotsam and jetsam from the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District. These scraps formed the basis of their dance, theater and music collage. And their cast is a collage in itself—culturally and generationally diverse.

Lost & Found in the Mission was recently voted “Best of the 2008 SF Fringe” along with another MCVF alma mater, Carrie Baum’s Exit Signs: A Rock Opera. Baum’s tale about a queer daughter, the loss of her father, and their quest to find the elusive “it” played to sold out audiences at MCVF. She credits Calizo’s mentorship as a big motivator. “I could never have done Exit Signs without Dwayne’s encouragement. He believes in the better part of you which gives you permission to do the same.” During her long tech week, she felt a resonant love for the space, noting that Calizo puts effort into keeping it clean and smartly set up. For Baum, making work at MCVF was a personal and spiritual affair. “It’s not just putting up a show or developing your work. It’s really about developing yourself. I’d have to write a whole other rock opera to express my gratitude!”

While Calizo has personally knocked the socks off of his audiences with his operatically trained, punk rock, Hawaiian singing voice, that’s not the reason why his space is called The Voice Factory. Calizo explains, “The ‘voice’ isn’t just the singing voice. The ‘voice’ is the voice of the heart and the voice of the soul, the voice of the pulse and the voice of the city. It’s the voices in your head, you know, it’s the thing that inspires us and the thing that can deny us.” When I look at all that he has manifested, I’m going to guess that the voices of inspiration in Calizo’s head are singing loud and clear.

Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory is located at 1519 Mission Street (at 11th) in San Francisco. Visit www.voicefactorysf.org for more information about their programs, events, rehearsal and class space rentals and upcoming performances, including Jessica Fudim’s Dance Animals’ Please Feed My Animal and Seth Eisen’s Black Bird: A Queer Vocal History, both running November 14-22, 2008.

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of In Dance.

Jessica Fudim, Artistic Director of The Dance Animals, has been performing and presenting dance theater work in the Bay Area for over 10 years. She was a co-director of The Experimental Performance Institute, recently performed with the ESP Project and EmSpace Dance and plays drums in the vaudevillian pop punk duo, Dreamboat, Where Are You?