Tomás and James Talk 80 Turk Street: an interview with our Executive Director

by James Fleming ~ August 20th, 2015


James: So the first question I have – what’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of our new home at 80 Turk Street?

Tomás: Potential – I mean, CounterPulse has the potential to transform the community; it’s something that’s so needed and necessary in the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin certainly has the reputation that it has, but it also has the highest concentration of children and families in the city. Our building is a tremendous resource and we want to be an asset to that community and honor the history that the Tenderloin represents to the city of San Francisco.

We also have the opportunity to bridge the income disparity that is represented by the fact that the Tenderloin is also just across the street from the central market tech corridor, and I think that’s a function CounterPulse has traditionally served – the opportunity to bridge disparate communities and bring them together over specific cultural contexts.

J: There’s a strong focus on addressing social impacts in the new move – how do you see these issues correlating with the type of art that’s going to be happening in the new space?

T: Well, I think CounterPulse talks the talk and walks the walk. What we’re trying to say here is CounterPulse believes in taking risks on the stage, and we manifest that as an organization. Leaving a home that we’ve been comfortable in for 10 years and making this tremendous leap into the renovation of a multi-million dollar facility is something that really can challenge the ideas of what it means to serve as a cultural institution on a scale like CounterPulse.

J: Challenges the idea of remaining true to the original vision of the organization?

T: Yea absolutely – I feel there’s a niche that CounterPulse fills; there’s a need in the arts community generally, and it’s a launching pad for artists that may not find a stage any place else, we really do represent a conduit in that way.

J: And for you personally, what excites you most about the new theater?

T: Well I definitely recognize the potential of the sheer square footage, I mean to have that much real-estate in that part of town means that you can leverage that square footage for an infinite number of opportunities to both serve the community in all of its manifestations and also deliver on a promise that we made to the community of artists we work with to provide a space that is really able to showcase what they bring to the stage.

J: In addition to the stage, there are so many new spaces to support different forms of arts presentation. CounterPulse will be able to debut artists interested in exhibiting work, for instance, in a gallery format?

T: There’s definitely opportunity for us to serve a larger and broader community of artists, and in different ways. There’s developmental spaces: the basement itself is a multipurpose workshopping space that can also serve as a venue for smaller sized crowds and audiences. The stage itself doesn’t really represent a big leap from what we currently have, so we get to continue that intimacy that CounterPulse provides for its audiences. But at the same time, the facility itself is just higher grade in terms of its technical capacity, and artists that don’t get to work in larger cultural institutions will have access to the same type of technology and production value that you would get in a larger venue.

J: Will we be seeing you on stage in the new building – maybe presenting some of your poetry?

T: I would love to perform on CounterPulse’s stage, but in a context that this is an opportunity for others to share the stage as well, and if a literary movement blossoms out of CounterPulse that would be a dream come true for me!

J: Lets make it happen!


for more about the 80 Turk Project, click here.


Exploring Engagement: CounterPulse & Violeta Luna in Salinas

by Erica Dixon ~ August 17th, 2015

An update from the field, with CounterPulse executive director, Tomás Riley.

With support from the James Irvine Foundation’s Exploring Engagement Fund CounterPulse recently celebrated the stage premier of Como la Tierra/Like the Earth in Salinas, CA. Presented in collaboration with the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts (ACFA), local artist collective Artists Ink and renowned performance artist Violeta Luna, the piece represented 8-weeks of intensive co-creation inspired by the provocative challenge inherent in bridging the perceived geographic and cultural distance between urban San Francisco and rural Salinas. More importantly we wanted to test the assumption that “distance” as a construct is a barrier to community building. Through carefully curated partnerships we are confident we buried that myth.

Artists on-site

Over the past few months we have worked with Luna as she envisions her next project El Piso 35/The 35th Floor, based on the life of Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta. Artists Ink founder Emily Morales initiated theater workshops to explore the themes of women communing with nature and their connection to the earth. Originally this communion was imagined as an opportunity to work with women in the agricultural industry, but response from women actually working in the fields was limited at best given their intense work schedules and often irregular availability. We redirected our focus toward the next generation of Salinas artists and developed a cadre of 8-12 participants in a series of workshops investigating the themes above especially as they related to Luna’s work in progress. Actual participation represents an inter-generational age range primarily comprised of Latina women inclusive of participants ages 22-60. Participants successfully completed the series and worked in consort with Luna as the master artist who visited their workshop space at the ACFA to conduct performance training exercises and advised them on the final performance as a way of showcasing their learning throughout the workshop. To execute the final performance Luna recruited the production support from dramaturg Roberto Varea, musician and sound designer David Molina and visual artist Lauren Elder advised on set design. Como la Tierra/Like the Earth now exists in dialogue with Luna’s El Piso 35/The 35th Floor effectively blurring the line between participant and audience member.

Violeta Luna Working with Theater Workshop at Alisal Center

A project long in the works

The Salinas project the culminates our more than two year exploration of innovative community engagement efforts. During that time, CounterPulse presented three performances by artists at the Catholic Charities, CYO (CCCYO) residences on our block. Each performance took place in a different public space in their facility. Joti Singh performed Bhangra at the Independence Day BBQ in the outdoor courtyard that bridges the two residential units, Dohee Lee performed contemporary Korean dance theater during the Thanksgiving Luncheon in the community room of the Edith Witt Senior Community, and Muisi-kongo Malonga performed Kongolese song and dance during Thanksgiving Dinner in the community room of 10th and Mission Family Housing.

Tableaux from Artist Ink workshop
Tableaux from Artist Ink workshop

Support from the Exploring Engagement Fund guided CounterPulse’s work in a variety of public settings that provided ample space to give shape to our experiment in program design. Initially we viewed the project we would undertake as an effort to generate a replicable model with a high probability for success in the broadest spectrum of community environments. In refining our process measuring community feedback against the observable program outcomes it has also demanded we challenge our own assumptions and hold generative conversations around deepening our impact. Through this work CounterPulse has developed the organizational experience to re-imagine community engagement and the manner in which we define participation in the arts.

From passive appreciation to engaged action

In its most traditional sense, arts participation has taken the form of a very passive experience. Audience members watch a performance. Gallery goers look at piece of visual art. This paradigm when applied in the community setting has similarly degenerative results. Community participants very often become receivers, and the art-making becomes service oriented. The conversation then turns away from art making toward program delivery. While CounterPulse has always inherently known this to be true, our experience over the course of the grant period has allowed this notion to surface in a different way and provided us the opportunity to call out one of our own best practices. Going forward we will hold ourselves accountable to program design that challenges deeply ingrained assumptions about the communities we engage as passive and/or recipients of “art,” and will strive toward co-creation.

All part of our future

This understanding is particularly timely as we prepare to relocate to one of San Francisco’s most challenged neighborhoods. When we open our doors at 80 Turk Street in the Tenderloin this fall we plan to do so as a community asset. The neighborhood is home to the highest concentration of children and families in the city and is also disproportionately impacted by San Francisco’s inequitable distribution of wealth. Conversely, our new space also sits on theedge of the rapidly changing Central Market Street technology corridor. Our best takeaways from our Exploring Engagement work leave us with the conviction that CounterPulse can serve as the connecting force that overcomes the resource disparity and cultural disconnect between those two communities to create art experiences that are engaging, accessible and relevant as we work toward social change.


Summer Rehearsals: A Visual Post

by Liz Tenuto ~ August 17th, 2015

Photo of Ben Juodvalkis and Rebecca Siegel at a music rehearsal in Rebecca’s garden.

Video of creating choreography in the studio:



CounterPulse Interviews: Artist-in-Residency Emily Hoffman

by Erica Dixon ~ August 5th, 2015


Julie Phelps: Is there a politic to the ways that the work you are developing in CounterPulse’s ARC Program with the Affinity Project is experimenting with duration, repetition and mutability? 

Emily Hoffman: It might be more of an attitude than a politic, but I do feel an impulse to disrupt certain structural tropes in performance. I’m wary of the structures of narrative theater even as they – the climax, the end – compel me. Even in more experimental work certain structures are replicated again and again – the false start, the delayed climax. Perhaps structures are always destined to become clichéd. But I think the Affinity Project is interested in finding new structural logics, of reorganizing how time might pass in the theater, or reconsidering how a fiction can function. We’re investigating what happens if you invoke an aesthetic that carries with it a certain structural logic – i.e. these are characters in a play, events will happen to them in chronological order – and then change or disrupt or halt that logic. This also has to do with disrupting certain rote paths to sentiment. There is a politic implicit in avoiding easy sentiment.

Julie Phelps: What’s the potential for the way this work exists in liminal space? How is this work negotiating the melding of traditional theater forms and experimental body-based practices? 

Emily Hoffman: In earlier iterations of the work, it felt very freeing to leave behind traditional theater forms almost entirely, especially because the work began as a proposition to adapt the short story Sleep, by Haruki Murakami. It felt very exciting to work as abstractly as possible. We worked with gesture and with task and with text, but only in sculptural ways. However, I began to feel that we were running away from ourselves – our extensive training in theater – and it seemed that it would be more interesting if we could work with our training as a sort of source material. So we’re now working with really traditional theater material, such as text from Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It’s been instructive and generative to see how and if 19th Century Realist drama can coexist with gesture, with symbol, with different states of being, with different modes of embodiment. This material is quite aesthetically dominant, and the challenge now is to conjure it in a way that does the material justice, but in a way that doesn’t take over. We are seeking a way that allows us to be transparent about the mechanisms of more traditional performance. We’re asking how to use it and more experimental body-based work without cheapening either, making a new kind of structural logic that might reveal something about ways of being, levels of fiction and fantasy, and maybe more.



The River

by Liz Tenuto ~ July 25th, 2015

Focusing on wellness and self help during the process of creating “This Year Is Different…” has been both illuminating and challenging. This morning I read “The River” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m sharing it here because it describes a process of self understanding similar to my personal transformation instigated by creating this piece for the Artist-In-Residence Program.


Once upon a time there was a beautiful river finding her way among the hills, forests, and meadows. She began by being a joyful stream of water, a spring always dancing and singing as she ran down from the top of the mountain. She was very young at the time, and as she came to the lowland she slowed down. She was thinking about going to the ocean. As she grew up, she learned to look beautiful, winding gracefully among the hills and meadows.

One day she noticed the clouds within herself. Clouds of all sorts of colors and forms. She did nothing during these days but chase after clouds. She wanted to possess a cloud, to have one for herself. But clouds float and travel in the sky, and they are always changing their form. Sometimes they look like an overcoat, sometimes like a horse. Because of the nature of impermanence within the clouds, the river suffered very much. Her pleasure, her joy had become just chasing after clouds, one after another, but despair, anger,and hatred became her life.

Then one day a strong wind came and blew away all the clouds in the sky. The sky became completely empty. Our river thought that life was not worth living, for there were no longer any clouds to chase after. She wanted to die. “If there are no clouds, why should I be alive?” But how can a river take her own life?

That night the river had the opportunity to go back to herself for the first time. She had been running for so long after something outside of herself that she had never seen herself. That night was the first opportunity for her to hear her own crying, the sounds of water crashing against the banks of the river. Because she was able to listen to her own voice, she discovered something quite important.

She realized that what she had been looking for was already in herself. She found out that clouds are nothing but water. Clouds are born from water and will return to water. And she found out she herself was also water.

The next morning when the sun was in the sky, she discovered something beautiful. She saw the blue sky for the first time. She had never noticed it before. She had only been interested in clouds, and she had missed seeing the sky, which is the home of all the clouds. Clouds are impermanent, but the sky is stable. She realized that the immense sky had been within her heart since the very beginning. This great insight brought her peace and happiness. As she saw the vast wonderful blue sky, she knew that her peace and stability would never be lost again.

That afternoon the clouds returned, but this time she did not want to possess any of them. She could see the beauty of each cloud, and she was able to welcome all of them. When a cloud came by, she would greet him or her with loving-kindness. When the cloud wanted to go away, she would wave to him or her happily and with loving kindness. She realized that all clouds are her. She didn’t have to choose between the clouds and herself. Peace and harmony existed between her and the clouds.

That evening something wonderful happened. When she opened her heart completely to the evening sky she received the image of the full moon – beautiful, round, like a jewel within herself. She had never imagined that she could receive such a beautiful image. There is a very beautiful poem in Chinese: “The fresh and beautiful moon is travelling in the utmost empty sky. When the mind-rivers of living beings are free, that image of the beautiful moon will reflect in each of us.”

This was the mind of the river at that moment. She received the image of that beautiful moon within her heart, and water, clouds, and moon took each other’s hands and practiced walking meditation slowly, slowly to the ocean.

There is nothing to chase after. We can go back to ourselves, enjoy our breathing, our smiling, ourselves, and our beautiful environment.