1519’s Curtain Call: Pivotal Queer Art Performance Space Closes

By Maureen Walsh

September 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

THE LONG-RUNNING PERFORMANCE SPACE at 1519 Mission, in San Francisco, went dark at the beginning of August. Like many alternative art spaces, 1519 never held permits to accommodate larger audiences, and after a Fire Marshal inspection the space was restricted to 49 person capacity despite its growing performance season. Unfortunately for the artists who held this as a creative home, the news came at a time of management changes too new to accommodate these unforeseen changes. After much deliberation 1519’s supporters decided it was best to let go of the lease on the second floor spaces and focus energies on forging a similar queer activist performance haven elsewhere.

The space, older than most of its current organizers and renters, started in 1978 under conductor Jon Sims, as a home for the Gay Freedom Day Marching Band (now the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band) and the SF Gay Men’s Chorus, and is celebrated as the first publicly identified gay cultural arts institution in the country. During its storied history, many gay arts troupes, of all performance disciplines, made good use of its do-it-yourself performance and rehearsal space resources. Programs like the AIRspace residency (which now lives just down the street at The Garage) helped solidify it as an established queer arts mainstay.

After the Jon Sims Center for the Performing Arts closed in 2006, Dwayne Calizo and New College (the latter ceased operations in early 2008) took over the space’s lease, renaming it Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory. Calizo maintained the space as a hub for activist, queer performance until late 2009; he chose to step away from his managing role in December 2009, due to personal reasons. In the interim, artists collectively known as TheOffCenter have managed the space and will continue their programs while searching for a new location.

Wolfgang Wachalovsky, the technical director of Mama Calizo’s (MCVF) was originally drawn to working there by the mission statement and how Calizo “inspired people to think and explore queerness and expression.” Whereas many patrons, artists, organizers and volunteers identified as LGBT, the mission of MCVF was broader than that. The space has always carried deep roots of activism and queer community strength; it was a space for people to create outside the box, push boundaries of socially acceptable art, and challenge social taboos. MCVF showcased radical and politically charged work from people of color, trans people, and artist living with HIV/AIDS.

The programming that MCVF put on was of a special niche in the San Francisco performance culture. Ernesto Sopprani, as the marketing manager and now one of the main leads of TheOffCenter describes, “Our job was to make the space a home for many of the different families that constitute fringe queer culture in SF. [The space] housed the very first series of the Tranny Fest; we were home for 3 years of the Slam Poetry Team; we were bringing them together in our monthly QAZ (Queer Autonomous Zone). Primarily we are advocates of exploring identity though performance. This made us a fine home for experimentation and questioning the status quo.”

In the true style of their activism, Sopprani, Wachalovsky, along with Julie Phelps, Maya Orli-Cohen, Jesse Hewit, Jorge De Hoyos, Mark McBeth, and others organized a wake for the space. Instead of fizzling out passively, they celebrated their community’s accomplishments through performance, activity and togetherness. “We took a few hours to have people tell stories and share memories about the space dating back to when it was still Jon Sims Center,” recounts Julie Phelps, a past performer at MCVF.

The wake brought forth many artists who have contributed to the space’s more recent performance calendar: Eric Wilcox of the SFBuffons; the San Francisco Poetry Slam Team; past resident artists Hewit, De Hoyos, Evan Johnson, Orli-Cohen, John Caldon and Terry Beswick. The all-night event concluded with a drag performance, a participatory ritual of chanting, growling and trembling for 30 minutes, a movie marathon, karaoke and pancakes for breakfast. Mark McBeth, came away from the wake realizing “How important it is for each human community to have its own physical ‘club house’ in which to experiment with and incubate its own unique identity. While I find that the ghettoization of queer culture is ultimately disempowering in most contexts, there is also a real need to have a creative sanctuary space…Relationship-building happens breath by breath, in real time and in a real space; there is now a gaping hole in the continuum of queer performance art that was maintained for the nearly 30 years at 1519 Mission.”

As for those who are continuing on as TheOffCenter, efforts are being made to present queer performance in many other local, alternative spaces. Future projects include mounting a full evening production of Waiting for Godot September 16-25, at The Secret Alley (180 Capp Street, between 16th and 17th). Public interventionist performances are being planned for September and October, and venues are still being sought for both the continuation of the monthly cabaret “Queer Autonomous Zone” [QAZ], set to resume in September, and Mary Ann Brooks’ original production Fugitive Dreams: Queer memories of ancestors, ghosts and outlaws.

This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of In Dance.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.