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.

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.

 

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

This is the 40th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.

[[[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.]]

 

summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

When theater attacks: S.F.’s Popcorn Anti-Theater troupe carts its audience around in style for an evening of site-specific performance art in the urban jungle.

by Summer Burkes, 03.30.99

 

Popcorn Anti-Theater has a refreshing approach to a medium that often gluts San Francisco: take it on the road. The troupe tosses highbrow art and snobbery out the window and piles into a bus — along with its audience — to prowl around the urban jungle on weeknights, performing anything that strikes their fancy.

For the claustrophobic (and indeed Mamet-phobic) theatergoer, this gonzo hybrid of street theater and road tripping comes as a welcome surprise.

Around 8 p.m. this past Sunday, several youngish, attitude-free urbanites mill around the Mexican Bus, waiting to board as an acoustic band called the Amazons plays peppy tunes and a curious woman hands out fortune cookies taped to shish kebab sticks.

A tour guide in a straight skirt and running shoes who identifies herself as Diane Longshlongski brushes past me; I see that her muted-tone scarf, her bright pink lipstick, and her faltering rhinestone-studded glasses have all been applied without a nod to symmetry. “I like wine in a box, I like big penises, and I love Casual Corner,” she confides to me, winking.

The band boards the bus first, singing three-part harmonies in the back as ticket holders jockey for seats. The troupe takes a vote to see if we mind cramming a few more eager patrons into the sold-out vehicle; we don’t, and the ayes have it.

Our official host, Louis Petitchienfou, dapper in his red tailcoat, top hat, bad French Canadian accent, and even worse monobrow, introduces himself and announces that “zees ees zhe evening of Popcorn’s first anniversaire.”

As we rumble through the dark side of Potrero Hill, hyperactive poet Atta Boy, zany in a coffee-shop way, regales us with tales of passing buckets of spit around at rock concerts. Louie warns that if the cops stop us tonight, we should be nice and do what they say. He then tells us to be sure and touch his bottom on the way out at the first anti-theater site.

The bus is indeed pulled over by the “San Francisco Hipster Police” on a desolate part of Third Street; one of the cops relishes screaming, “What we have here, people, is a failure to accessorize!”

After the crowd is called out (each touching Louie’s bottom) for favoring baseball caps over chipped black nail polish, we all file through a hole in a chain link fence, walk along the canal leading out to sea, and discover a rumpled, dejected office nerd lying in the grass in a suit covered with paint, schizophrenically singing along to Marilyn Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” Annnnnd we’re off.

During the three-hour journey (it doesn’t seem that long), the actual performance pieces — mostly hits with a few misses — occur both on and off the bus. We’re plied with poetry, live music, and a scary, verbose monologue. Louie announces that he shaved in between his brow “for the sake of public decency,” and a newscaster called Haywood Yablowme makes SNL News look like a community college comedy class.

A few more monologues, a skit about a superhero named Excellent Man and the rewards of not masturbating, and a lecture on how to tell if you’re an alcoholic (“You might be an alcoholic if you’ve ever had a sunburn on the inside of your mouth”).

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

Advantages of Popcorn Anti-Theater over real theater: It’s a different show every time. Even if one of the dozen or so skits sucks, you know that at least it’ll be over soon, and instead of squirming uncomfortably in a dark room, you can wander off to stare at the water or go play in a deserted alley. Some of the sketchy terrain, only advisable for visits in large groups like this one, is quite beautiful at night.The scene changes are literal, and natural settings are used to maximum advantage. And the troupe usually stops at or near a liquor store somewhere along the way. Disadvantages: only one. There’s nowhere to pee. But we’re creative.

For the finale, we visit the Ferry Building, where, Diane Longshlongski tells us, the first theater district was located during the Barbary Coast years. A perplexed news crew, having chosen the placid Bay Bridge as the ideal site to drop some bad news about Kosovo, asks Louie and crew if we could be quiet.

Not likely, since the SanFranPsycho Sideshow is next: a horrific character named Scabby the Clown swallows swords, David Apocalypse breathes fire and shoves an ice pick up his nose, and Molotov Malcontent walks on knives and broken glass.

On the way back to the bus the crowd stumbles on a couple of homeless hecklers, and as “There’s No Business like Show Business” starts up on the sound system, the pair fling back their ratty blankets to reveal top hats and tails. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Broadway, and I haven’t seen a dance routine like that since Cabaret.

We file back onto the bus for the last time, a little bit drunker and friendlier, and head down the eerily abandoned Market Street at midnight.

After Louie introduces and thanks all the evening’s players, the Amazons launch into a cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” which seems appropriate: “It’s so exciting here with the skyscrapers in the dark / I feel in touch with the modern world / I feel in love with the modern world.”

That is, until Atta Boy screams out a few more poems. For some people, it seems, the show never stops.

 

 

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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