Dilettante 41: Popcorn Anti-Theater

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This is it. This is the night the Cacophony Society cemented in my mind the future of surrealist entertainment.

Boarding a bus with strangers and obvious chaos agents — a bus which immediately turns off into the “bad,” “deserted,” “ugly” sections of San Francisco — doesn’t sound like the beginning of a good night out to many.

But this evening, and on a million Cacophonous evenings like it, we all had to first share that uncertainty and hesitation, then realization, before we could finally arrive at euphoria. Do-it-yourself everything. Trauma bonding with a happy ending. That’s Cacophony.

Clubs and basic nightlife seemed pale in comparison to this new joy of non-consumer interaction, this original spirit of good clean fun, this idea of going out at night but not to bars.

We felt so free, like kids raised on couch-locking video games who suddenly discovered the exhilaration of playing in the dirt with rocks and sticks.

Popcorn Anti-Theater cast, 1999, aboard El Volado the Mexican Bus

Co-founded by Helena Nolan and Hernan Cortez, Popcorn Anti-Theater was a Cacophony operation partially based on the concept of ‘80s queer SF art-punk group the Popstitutes, for whom Cortez ran sound at Klubstitute. Cortez enlisted his wife’s help, and together they produced a slew of Popcorn Anti-Theater events at the turn of the century.

Hernan Cortez is a Bay Area-based comedy magician, bubble artist, sideshow performer, sound engineer, and tent / circus / showmanship hardware provider. His yelp page shows he still makes entertainment his business, 20 years later.

Brynne Cortez worked in fashion design in San Francisco, and was one of maybe a dozen women who inspired Burning Man fashion to be what it was and is today. An aesthetic designer and co-producer of Pepe Ozan’s famous opera at Burning Man 1997, Brynne co-founded the Space Cowgirls, which turned into a clothing label so successful her partner took it to Los Angeles.

The Space Cowgirls produced many shows in the City, helming the aesthetic look of modern surrealism’s feminine side. At the risk of repeating ourselves, Brynne Cortez coordinated and officiated countless Cacophony Society events in San Francisco, which cumulatively led to the fashion look that is today’s American festie. In the desert at Burning Man, the Space Cowgirls wore fake fur chaps and rode around handing out tickets as the fashion police.

And I’ll tell you a secret: I was the Carmen in this flyer from another show. So yes, that was me seeing Popcorn once and then performing an opera aria with my housemates at the very next one … It’s immortalized in this quote from Silke Tudor’s article “white-trash renderings of Georges Bizet’s Carmen staged in the center of an auto dismantling operation” … and she gave me a sly shout-out in the first line of that same piece about a weekend trip on the Popcorn Anti-Theater bus, acknowledging I’d covered the event already the previous year. … Anyways I always felt weird about being Dilettante, the “other” nightlife columnist who was assigned to the beat at the SFBG after Night Crawler had already been nightlife-ing at the Weekly. I tried to cover different events and stay out of her way, and this is how she once winked at me in her column. Respect.

Here’s another Popcorn Anti-Theater article from SFGate in 2000. One can only hope the idea of theater bleeding over into the streets and abandoned places continues to spread like … well maybe there’s a popcorn metaphor in there somewhere but I’m too punk rock to finish it.

Also showing up in this piece is David Apocalypse, a sideshow legend and one-man repository of circus and carnival lore, since he worked for Ward Hall as a carnival barker (they actually hate the word “barker” and prefer the term “talker”). Then he made a career of escaping from straitjackets at punk shows and being shot out of a cannon and whatnot. He broke his back once and quit that afterwards but is still as quick-witted and hilarious a performer and physical comedian as ever.

Attaboy appears in this “Dilettante” column too, when he was a musical-slam-poetry duo with Ben Burke, and before Atta’ turned into an international lowbrow art star and publisher of the esteemed Hi Fructose magazine (subscribe here).

Basically the freaks are still at it, weird-turned-pro-style, and in this age of gentrification and widespread poverty, that’s encouraging. See kids? Do what you want and you’ll eventually find a way to get paid for it.

Click through to read “When theater attacks,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on March 30, 1999.

[[[p.s. we have absolutely NO pictures or recordings of the “White Trash Carmen” performance in the junkyard that night. I heard a couple people were taking video, maybe a guy named Beekeeper? It’s a long shot but who’s got Popcorn Anti-Theater footage from Ace Auto Dismantlers circa July 1999? holler.]]

This is the 41st entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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