Women Who Kill: Comediennes of San Francisco

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Words: Molly Sanchez

Loren Kraut, Mary-Alice McNab, and me: All women who know what it feels like to kill.

“It’s exhilarating,” Kraut says, her small face breaking into a large smile.

“It’s f***ing magical,” concurs McNab banging a fist on the table for emphasis.

Personally I feel like Mary Poppins after a good kill, like I could float all the way home.

These women and I aren’t murderers, we’re comedians and it’s the high of laugh lust we’re constantly chasing.

It’s a Tuesday night at a dark bar where people get onstage one by one and try to remember what to say. The bar is called “Amnesia”.

Amnesia is trendy. It’s illuminated by tiny red candles glowing on tables against the wall. The tentacles of what appears to be a paper mache sea creature reach out at patrons from the bar ceiling. It’s so dark one can barely read the names on the beer taps and is reduced to grunting vaguely at the bartender “I’ll have the one with the fish on it.”

Against the back wall of the bar is a stage. It’s lit by pink theatre lights from above and is cluttered with black microphone stands. None of these mics ever seem tall enough for any of the comics that ascend the small set of stairs to the stage so that the first few minutes of everyone’s set is spent adjusting it to fit their needs.

Tuesday nights at Amnesia are the brainchild of comedian and producer, Rajeev Dhar. I met Dhaj at the SF Comedy Burrito Festival earlier this year and he encouraged me to come check it out. “ I used to hate open mics ,” he confided “ I hated waiting around all night just to do 4-5 minutes.” “ Then I realized it’s part of the process, you know?”

I’ve never been to an open mic before, unless you count the times I barged into the music open mics on campus. I don’t really consider those days of doing penis jokes between acoustic guitar renditions of “Wonderwall” to have been very helpful in the way of developing my process. In my four years of doing standup I’ve mostly as an opener for my friend’s improv group. They did monthly shows at a bar downtown and every month they would dutifully smuggle my under 21 self in to do a 10 minute set. A long set, people who loved me and laughed at me, the occasional sneaked sip of beer? No wonder I loved this gig! When they stopped performing at the bar and my gig dried up it felt like a divorce to leave a comfortable loving space and venture out into the great unknown.

Amnesia is terrifying. It’s a bar filled with comedians that already know and like and talk to eachother. It only takes two sets for me to realize a crushing truth: Comedians rarely laugh at other comedieans. Some of them barely look up from squinting at their notebooks to even acknowlege at person is onstage . Some comics that go up at amnesia get flustered at the lack of response. “These are called jokes, folks,” one guy in a grey hoodie heckles into the void. He’s rewarded with at feeble chuckle from the back of the bar. “ I really wish I was white so I could say white things you people would laugh at,” barks a Native American comic. The crowd laughs uncomfortable. One guy at the door mutters “well he sure got us!” sarcastically into his beer.

McNab, sitting at the bar’s corner rolls her eyes at this. She hates when “ people think open mics are shows,”. “This is practice, this is training wheels,” she says to me later. “This is something you can only learn onstage,” she says “If you don’t get on stage you’re not a standup comedian.” She shrugs “ I don’t know what you are then.”

McNab has been on the comedy scene for 15 months now but she’s always been funny. Growing up she went to catholic schools and eventually made the move from Colorado to California when she was in her late twenties. At the encouragement of other comedian friends McNab enrolled in the Comedy College and started going to open mics. Some places she go to even let women do longer sets than men “ because there are so few of us in the industry.”

That’s how I’ve always felt, even in my limited experience, that I was a lone lady in a boys world. Yet at Amnesia some nights, women comics make up about a quarter of the performers.

“It’s an uphill climb,” says Loren Kraut a diminutive comic with glasses and brown hair. She shakes her head “ we’re not really wanted.” She adds “ I hate to be introduced as the ‘lady comedian’” she says scowling slightly “I want to punch someone in the face!”

Kraut has been doing comedy for 6 years. Before that she lived in new york trying to be an actress. Like McNab , Kraut is also a graduate of the Comedy College. “ I always wanted to do it,” she says of comedy “ but I didn’t have the nerve.”

And it takes nerve for Kraut to climb the stairs to the stage and do her set, especially considering what she talks about.

She sidles up to the mic, takes it off the stand, blinks languidly at the crowd before saying “ Over the years I’ve written a small, and I think well written , pile of suicide notes.” The crowd giggles awkwardly, Kraut continues “ I’m always loath to throw out anything I might need someday.” She’s deadpan even about death. “It’s ok to laugh,” she coaxes gently “ I’m still here.” The rest of her set ranges from her time in an anorexia clinic, her title as “most pathetic lesbian” and her OCD. The  last one is evident by her stooping down in the middle of her set to pick a speck of glitter off the stage floor.

Her matieral, deep and uncomfortable though it may be, gets laughs. She smiles as she walks off stage and sits back down at her table. Later she tells me “it sounds corny but I do it for freedom of expression.” She says she talks about the kinds of things that she talks about because “if I make fun of it, I get to work out the kinks.”

McNab concurs “ You can work out your shit if it’s funny.”

She says it’s hard for women sometimes to access this method of catharsis and even get onstage. “ Women are trained to be pretty and smart and together,” she says . “Comedy is so much about self deprication that if you’re trying to maintain that façade, you’re fucked.”

Kate Willet is the next to go on stage. She’s the only comic I’ve ever seen in a dress. It’s mauve and she pairs it with brown boots. She could be any other girl, and the beginning of her set sounds about as incendiary as any girl slagging off her friends. “ All my friends are married, and they worry about ‘where should I buy a house’ and things like that,” she says. Then the façade drops and the comedian in her kicks in to full, filthy gear. “ I think about ‘how am I going to pay rent’ or ‘is this really the guy I want to get HPV from?” The crowd bursts into shocked laughter and she smiles innocently “Because you want it to be the right person, you know?”

The second comedian I’ve ever seen in a dress is also at Amnesia. Her name is Casey Grim and as she mounts the stairs to the stage one audience member says “ ooh look Katy Perry” under their breath. Grim looks the part with her dark black hair and bright doe eyes that peek out coquettishly from behind square eyeglasses. Her cuteness is why it’s so alarming to hear her say, in a fairy voice that is high and bubbly “ I’m like any other girl in that I’ve been sexually assaulted.” The crowd laughs, again somewhat uncomfortably and Grim continues to recount her story. She says she woke up in a strange dorm after a night of drinking to find a man with his hand down her pants. In the middle of this assault, she says campus police burst in and start to arrest the man. She says while he was being handcuffed “ I got to say the one thing that every girl who has ever been a victim has wanted to say.” “You suck at fingering!” she chirps gleefully. The crowd roars.

Talking openly about things not acceptable in “ polite discussion” is important for women Krout says. She has come to feel “ the need to express myself is greater than the fear, and it is fulfilling .”

I remember a time, a while before my night at Amnesia that I felt fulfilled. I was in the midst of a grand maul breakup, broken totally on the inside and constantly having to change direction every time I saw my ex in a crowd. I was onstage doing a set when I saw his sidle in the back and stand staring by the door. I took a deep breath and began .“ I want to tell you a story about my ex boyfriend,” I begin, my heart pounding furiously in my chest, “ and because some of you may know who he is I’m going to change his name slightly so that you’ll know who I’m talking about but you won’t know who I’m talking about.” I see him roll his eyes but I continue “ so shmasshole and I were dating..” The rest of the set killed and I had the crowd laughing uproariously at several other jokes that skewered my still present ex. “We’d have sex, snuggle, and I was obligated to like his friends but he said he wasn’t ready for a relationship,” I said at one point before grimacing and saying “ that’s like saying ‘I like marshmallows, I like chocolate, but I’m just not ready for a s’more”. I killed and with the audience’s laughter I sauntered off stage thinking “ this must be how it feels to be Taylor Swift.”

Back at Amnesia McNab is about to go up. As the previous comic finishes up their set she nurses her dark beer and squints down at her set list . She scribbles something on a coaster before getting up onstage. I look at the coaster as she goes  up. “Camel Toe/holiday/muffin top” is scrawled in black pen around the coaster’s border.

“Does my camel toe make these pants look weird?” she asks the audience, pelvic thrusting slightly. She goes on to elaborate that she’s concerned about her body, namely her “muffin top.” She rubs the small fold of skin above her waist affectionately and says “this is a specialty muffin made out of whiskey and ice cream.” She laughs slightly saying “ It’s my job as a comedian to share these awkward tidbits with you.” Later on in her 4 minute set, McNab forgets what she was going to say. “Think, think” she says doing deep squats onstage, scrabbling for the rest of her set. It’s painful, as a performer and as a person that likes her, to watch the struggle. She snaps up from the squat and grins “Fuck it, I’ll end it here,” she says walking off the stage. When she sits down she mutters “I can’t drink before I go up, that’s the problem,” before leaning her head back and trying to remember the part she’s forgotten. This set is a perfect example of something she told me earlier “ it’s better to do a short, good set than a long rambling one.”

It’s hard to see a comic stop short like that but bombing is a right of passage we all need to pay at some point. Kraut recalls her worst time onstage, “ I was heckled by a dog!” she says. According to her a woman went to the bathroom during her set and the dog barked  the entire time. Bombing, Kraut says, “ feels like all the terrible things.”

All the terrible things are in my head as I too ascend the stage. After McNab’s set I’ve taken only tentative half sips of my own beer so my mouth tastes sickly of IPA and fear. The applause is lukewarm and as I start my set the room becomes so quiet I can hear almost perfectly the conversation of the smokers just outside the door. During my set, which garners only a few laughs even on material I know works, it occurs to me that doing standup comedy is like trying to play fetch with cats. Once in a while you’ll meet a great cat willing to lob something back to you. More often than not you get a cat that stares blankly at your attempt with a look that clearly says “ what do you a take me for, a fucking dog?”

Still even those who bomb are given a warm reception after their set at Amnesia and everyone is receptive to praise. Grim grasps both my hands in both of hers when I say I like her set and thanks me fervently. Willet comes over and places an affectionate hand on the small of my back saying she’s so glad I could make it out. McNab acts as a sort of one woman Little League receiving line, offering a high five to everyone as they walk past her offstage. She envelops me in a bear hug and says she can’t wait to see me again.

Even on days when I don’t do my best I am so glad to have comedy as a release and as a way to meet other women brave enough to do it too. They inspire me to get back up again.

All of us are chasers of the same feeling. The feeling Kraut describes as “being in the exact right spot.”

Quinn Corey: Found Objects to Pop Culture Action Figures

By xpressmagazine

Words & Photos: Melissa Burman

Like any young boy who grew up watching television, toy advertisements made a big impact on Quinn Corey. Corey moved to San Francisco from the East Coast with his girlfriend, both artists now live in the Sunset district. Corey builds action figures using found object and used children’s toys. He finds most of his materials at SCRAP, a nonprofit donation based creative reuse center located in San Francisco’s Bayview district. SCRAP offers an ever changing selection of artist materials from glitter and toys to paper goods and fabric.

Corey uses his garage at home as his workshop where he mix and matches old toy parts and scraps of fabric to create his own action figures. Each character, like real toys on the market, has a complete dramatic back story be it villain or superhero. One action figure currently in Corey’s workshop is a buff ecstasy raver, originally a wrestler figurine, sporting blue leggings, yellow boots, neon shorts (hand sewn by Corey) and a child’s bracelet as a belt. The raver wears a blue crystal pointed hat and holds a water bottle in his jewel cuffed hand. Clearly Corey’s toy creations are pop culture commentary that take an aspect of modern life he finds funny and packages it in a playful art piece.

Once an action figure is complete, Corey sets his toy sculpture up in front of a backdrop that suits it’s story and takes promo photos mimicking those of exaggerated children’s toy commercials of the 1980′s and 1990′s.

Corey recalls that he was inspired as a child by the toy cabinet in Pee-wee’s Playhouse that held all the odd franken-toys that would come alive. He hopes to be able to recreate Pee-wee Herman’s toy cabinet someday.

 

 

Iris Butler

By xpressmagazine

Words & Photos: Virginia Tieman

Over eight years ago, Iris Butler brought her oldest son to Glide Memorial Church for the first time. Today, she works there helping community members in need of assistance.

“I’m a people person and I know how to talk to the people,” said Butler. “First thing I say to them is good morning. If you don’t say good morning, they don’t feel like they are welcomed. It’s important and I have to remind my co-workers of that.”

As Butler patrolled the lunch line preparing for the rush, she was constantly stopped with hugs and compliments. “She’s one of the best staff members here,” said one man. Glide’s efforts don’t go unnoticed and Butler has been on the receiving end of the support provided by the Glide community.

Glide Memorial Church is a staple in San Francisco for helping those in need. It is not uncommon that many employees of this facility once came to Glide to seek assistance and now are the ones providing the help.

In 2009, Xavier Gilette, Butler’s oldest son and Glide Church member, was shot and killed in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.

“Glide came to the funeral, the wake and even had a fundraiser for me,” said Butler.

Glide also gave her three weeks off, but Butler decided to come back after two. Never seen without a smile, Butler is a refreshing face and a reminder that one group can make a big impact on a community in need.

Tree Rivera Taking on the Earth One ‘CUUP’ at a Time

By xpressmagazine

Words and Photos: Alejandrina Hernandez

Veronica Rivera a.k.a Tree is an aspiring artist who has been made it her mission to spread environmental awareness through her art.

“My interest in environmental arts started when I was growing up as a child artist ;collecting materials like disposables, found objects and trash to use it in creating textures for my artwork,” says Rivera.

Rivera is currently working on the Clean Up Urban Pollution (CUUP) Project where she creates a variety of small to large sized paint boxes made out of acrylic plastics and disposable materials. Her goal is to bring attention to the amount of resources that society uses on a daily basis. Rivera states, “I’m looking to basically create public landfills where people could visually see the amounts of trash we generate but see it in a way where it’s a huge body of art.”

Part of the early process of the CUUP Project involved children from the Precita Valley Center in San Francisco to paint disposable cups that would later be incorporated into Rivera’s art installations.  “I feel very close to nature, really drawn to children because I feel like they aren’t really getting the awareness they deserve,” Rivera says. Rivera wants to give the children an opportunity to send environmental messages through their work.

Rivera boxes represent society’s consumption problem as it is “breeding” future generations to consume more than what the planet produces.

Vintage Stores for Charities

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High-end labels like Oscar de la Renta and Chanel are in abundance at the Helpers store near Golden Gate Park.

High-end labels like Oscar de la Renta and Chanel are in abundance at the Helpers store near Golden Gate Park.

 

Words and Photos: Kayla McIntosh

It’s a crisp winter afternoon in the Inner Richmond neighborhood and a small house on the corner of Fulton Street is reaching full capacity. The doorbell rings and the door is opened to a tall gentleman wearing black-rimmed frames and a warm smile.

His greeting is just as genuine as his grin, and he ushers guests into the main hallway. Three gorgeous gowns are draped on mannequins directly in front of the door. Each one is from a different designer. A backless, beaded John Galiano is the stand out garment amongst the three. Once inside, guests are offered water or white wine and told to dilly-dally into whatever they so choose. A small party is in full swing and several high profile clients are wandering around the apartment looking for anything that catches their eyes. Volunteers, some standing behind the glass classes that house one of a kind jewels and others wandering around the other rooms, engage in small talk with clients. Many of the exchanges express complete disbelief that a place like this exists.

At first glance, the place is shocking. Shoppers are immersed in a world of well-kept vintage and designer pieces. Several rooms in the home are sectioned off to particular areas: one for items priced $10-99; another for accessories and impressive jewelry; one for menswear; one for home goods; and finally, one full of high-end designers.

Joy Bianchi, a savvy lady, runs the whole joint. Wearing a metallic gold Chanel jacket with a matching head wrap, she walks around the place and encourages clients to buy whatever they love. Clients are spillng into each room fawning over the rare jewels and garments.

Helpers House of Couture is just one of the charity-based vintage stores in San Francisco. Bianchi, a veteran volunteer, has been with the charity since she was 14 years old. Now, 74, she is still finding ways to give her all to a charity so dear to her heart. Through donations from “grand dames” she has been able to create an exclusive boutique that is appointment-only for shoppers who love high-end vintage clothing. From Oscar de la Renta embellished boots, to floor length red gowns by Monique Lhuillier, all sales from each item sold goes directly back to the Helpers of the Mentally Retarded Charity.

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Bianchi converted a spacious home into an impressive vintage boutique with numerous rooms overflowing with vintage duds in impeccable condition.

These fabulously dressed women usually donate their clothes because they have bigger and better options in their closets. “These are ladies who shop for lunch,” Bianchi says.

Helpers also has a sister store located at Ghirardelli Square that sells items with smaller price tags. Juicy Couture and Polo by Ralph Lauren are just a couple of the labels that can be found.

Charity-driven vintage stores are a hot commodity in the San Francisco area. Another store, Seconds to Go, operates the same. Tucked away in Pacific Heights rests this do-good boutique. Labels like American Eagle and Banana Republic line the racks of the store. The general manager, Laura Lorton, says the stores sales all go to the Schools of the Sacred Heart.

“Every dollar that we take in goes directly to financial aid at all four schools,” Lorton mentions. “So they’re able to offer a wide variety of financial aid options.”

The store opened in 1974 and has been serving the Sacred Heart schools which include four different private Catholic schools. The store’s location is based on the fact that the school is located just up the street on Broadway.

Located on Fillmore’s charming street, Seconds to Go is surrounded by high-end stores like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Alice + Olivia. Once inside, variety of designer garments can compete with the likes of Helpers. Her store is full of threads with labels like Prada, Manolo Blahnik and Dior Homme.

“People are willing to buy something that’s been gently used if it’s quality merchandise,” she explains.

Which is quite true. The beauty of shopping at high-end vintage boutiques is that a shopper will stumble upon a rare piece of clothing at a decent price and in impeccable condition.

“There’s obviously a lot of options for second hand shopping in San Francisco,” Lorton goes on to say, but she wants to make sure that her store is held to certain standards in comparison to other stores like ThriftTown in the Mission or Held Over on Haight.

Price points are a huge thing for stores like these. Making sure that the pieces are priced at appropriate levels is critical to attracting the right buyers.

What makes these stores so great is that they are both volunteer run. At Bianchi’s brownstone-turned-boutique, each volunteer has joined on board because they saw how impactful of an organization that Helpers was and continues to be. Each have their own unique story with Bianchi and how they became affiliated. One met her while he was working at Saks Fifth Avenue and was asked to do her makeup for an event. While another was working at his vintage shop in Union Square and sold her a one of a kind haute couture Carden dress.

Volunteering and fashion are two unlikely pairings. Many can argue that fashion screams superficiality while volunteer work is the complete opposite. Either way both stores are promoting heartwarming agendas that seek to better the word one garment at a time.

Wii U Experience

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Video: Kenny Redublo
Music: 8 BIT PROJECT – Birthday Eve

Xpress writers Jennifer Sandoval and Charlene Ng venture to the Fort Mason center in San Francisco to see what this Wii U Experience is all about.

Find Your Flow

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flow

Brian Pollett, a local artist, is flowing and glowing using flow lights at Ritual Cafe in San Francisco. Photo by Julie Hannah

Words: Hassina Obaidy

Vibrant colors of light flow in the air as it dances to the rhythm of the music. Illuminating in the free air, the lights go through different modes from ambient lighting, to lighting that leaves trails while it’s moving. The spinner moves to the rhythm and uses the leash to spin around these bright, colorful lights in every direction.

This form of expressive art has caught the eyes and minds of many intrigued beings and has become a new form of expression, meditation, and movement. Flowtoys, an internet based company, specializes in illuminating toys that encourage the exploration of movement. Founded in 2005, Sean von Stade and Prisna Nuengsigkaplan combined their technical, engineering, design, and administrative skills to build this eco-friendly company, which is rapidly growing in the Bay Area.

“The constant challenge and satisfaction of finding my flow in movement has made me feel in tune and in flow with the people and the world around,” says Stade on his company website.

From flowlights to poi’s to flow wands and martial flow, there are a number of unique and durable designs created for amateur spinners and professionals. The Berkeley based company also sells accessories, gear, learning tools, and flow kits for the full flow experience.

The flowlight is the heart of the Modular System- an interchangeable pixel of light that fits in a wide variety of flowtoys, according to Flowtoys. The flowlight is a versatile, incandescent, rechargeable LED glowstick that runs on one AAA battery. Attached to a leash and sold in pairs, poi’s range from weight preference, styles, and light application. Their newest innovation, the podpoi, which has been recently sold out, are made of silicone and are indestructible.

Their current designs are inspired by martial arts, dance, fire spinning, and other forms of expressive movement. Despite the fun and entertaining aspect of lights illuminating and naturally flowing in the air, flow toys are used to challenge oneself with concentration, to help connect the mind and body through increased brain power, and self-improvement and meditation. According to the Flowtoys website, “by engaging in any new practice, you add networks to your brain, which increases your processing power.” In fact, flowtoys, also called flow arts, are also used to relax and clear one’s mind. Spinners put all their energy and focus on movement.

“The flow arts in general has been emerging since the late 90s and the Bay Area has been an important crucible for innovation and evolution,” says Nuengsigkaplan. “Several entities and events in the Bay have been responsible for that evolution: Burning Man brought fire dancing and spinning to the attention of many.”

After pursuing in live digital art painting, which is the creation of live art in a virtual space using modern media such as Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter, or other traditional mediums such as oils, or acrylic paints, Brian Pollet and girlfriend Jessalyn Dean began incorporating flowtoys into their art.

“Utilizing flowtoys is a movement art and dance that can bring a theatrical, ritualistic feeling to any space or event,” says Pollet. “We use flowtoys to bring a joyous expression of dance and celebration to our live painting, we add more of our spirit to a painting this way.”

During their “glow-ventures,” Pollet and Dean travels within the city after hours from one zone to the next and spins their flowtoys to a set musical playlist. They perform at events and small venues like Ritual where they collaborate on a single live painting. While one is painting, the other is dancing and glowing to the music.

Pollet’s choice of flowtoy is poi, which can be purchased from a small herb shop in Berkeley called Happy High Herbs and the Flowtoys Headquarters.

Pollet says anyone can begin spinning and flowing “whether you want to be a performer or you just like being surrounded by brilliant, fractalicious, colors, flow arts is a long process of infinite learning, possibilities, and fun,” he says. “People of all skill levels are more than happy to teach and share, which can make ones entire exploration in flow arts all the more encouraging.”

Drag Queens on Ice

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Mutha Chucka poses back stage before her performance to "Santa Baby" in the Drag Queens on Ice show.

Mutha Chucka poses back stage before her performance to “Santa Baby” in the Drag Queens on Ice show.

Words: Kelly Leslie
Photos: Melissa Burman

Kim Chichi dazzles hundreds of people in Union Square, with her A-line cut, fire engine-red hair, and matching painted lips. Dressed in an all-black, glimmering gown, she confidently moves her slim body to the beat of 2009’s hit song by Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”. Always on point, and never missing a mark, it is obvious that she has performed a time or two in her life. This is only the beginning of the show, and the crowd is already going wild.

Big hair, perfect manicures and twinkling, flashy outfits from head to toe set the scene… the drag queens, and kings of San Francisco hit the stage once again, but this time they’ve traded in their heels for skates. Families from all over the city have come to see them perform at this year’s show, making it the most memorable, annual “Drag Queens on Ice”, since the event started three years ago.
“Every city has drag queens, and every city has ice skating rinks,” says Donna Sachet, who narrated the event as this year’s MC. “Only in San Francisco will you see them put together.”

Naughty Lee Portman elegantly skates to a Black Swan number as part of Drag Queens on Ice in San Francisco's Union Square, Dec. 6, 2012.

Naughty Lee Portman elegantly skates to a Black Swan number as part of Drag Queens on Ice in San Francisco’s Union Square, Dec. 6, 2012.

The event, sponsored by Alaska Airlines and hosted by the Safeway ice rink in Union Square, was originally started for fun, but has become a great opportunity for the LGBTQ community to be visible within the community, according to Mutha Chucka, who performed as “Mrs. Santa Clause” at the show.  She wore a red dress and carried a black fur coat behind her as she lip-synced a version of “Santa Baby” to the crowd. “We’ve got the professional hockey team skating with drag queens,” she says. “Where else does that happen but in SF?”

It is true that the San Francisco Bulls professional hockey team also made an appearance at the event, and joined the drag queens and kings for a meet and greet on the ice.  Dressed in their signature colors, black and orange, they skated with people of all ages from the city.
“It’s a little more of a liberal atmosphere than my home [in Canada], but we want to help and support different cultures,” says Kris Belan, who plays for the bulls.

“Everyone here is very supportive,” says Ian Catindig, also known as miss Kim Chichi, who only had five days to prepare his routine.  “Everyone [here] just wants to watch and have a good time.  As a performer you want to give that to them.”

Catindig has been singing and dancing for fifteen years and ice skating for eleven, but this is the first time he has ever participated in a drag show, but it may not be his last.  “The energy of the crowd… ahh oh my god, I want to do it again!” he says.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence visited the VIP tent at Drag Queens on Ice.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence visited the VIP tent at Drag Queens on Ice.

Filled with holiday treats and top hits music, it was a night to be remembered by all, but perhaps the most memorable part about it was seeing all of the families engaging with the drag queens and kings, according to Mary Chirichella, who performed to a Justin Bieber mashup as Mary Minajet Trois.  “It’s great visibility for the LGBTQIQ community to be out in the middle of Union Square with a bunch of families,” says Chirichella.  “It’s important to get out and support.”

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Haight for the Holidays

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Words & Photos: Babak Haghighi

Money. Power. Free beer. These are the things that drive the human life force, the latter of which was in no short supply at the Lower Haight Holiday Art Walk. “Happy Holidays” is damn right.

Spirits were high, both in terms of mood and alcohol, at this makeshift block party. Free beer, free wine, free live music, free live art, and free good times. The handful of blocks that comprise the Lower Haight turned into the ultimate neighborhood holiday party on the first Friday of December. Shops, restaurants, and bars all had special events to celebrate the holiday season. Many boutiques invited people in for complimentary drinks, as long as they also enjoyed live DJs and local art. Idle Hand, a tattoo parlor, offered “get-what-you-get” tattoos for $60. Burger shops gave patrons free munchies. Every local business seemed to have something special going on. Some businesses took their parties to the streets with live music and art shows. Each store threw its own party, but it brought the neighborhood together in a very special way.

D-Structure, a clothing boutique and art gallery, is one of the hot spots of the Art Walk. The place is packed. DJ Oli spins vinyl upstairs while guests enjoy the showcase of new local art downstairs while sipping on free booze. Others bring their own booze. It’s like a house party, only cooler. D-Structure owner Devon Chulick mingles with the crowd as he enjoys his own party, perhaps the most popular on the block. Next door, a folk band plays some tunes on the sidewalk in front of their apartment. The crowd dances accordingly.

San Francisco State University student Wesley Deimling arrives at Lower Haight. This night isn’t formal by any means, but it’s one hell of an introduction to one of San Francisco’s hippest neighborhoods. Deimling grabs a six-pack from the local grocer and hits the streets.

“The only thing I didn’t like about the event is that I didn’t show up earlier,” says Deimling.

Deimling arrived at Lower Haight at around 10 p.m., towards the end of the Art Walk, which started at 6 p.m. Although things were supposedly “dying down,” the party was still in full effect. Shops stayed open late and there were plenty of after parties.

“The vibe felt a lot like a music festival,” says Deimling, “except a lot less expensive and in a cooler location. Each shop was its own stage, and each piece of art was its own song.”

Various shops’ walls were covered with local art of all styles, from oil paintings to stencil art to photographs, and everything in between. In all of these shops and on the street, everyone seems to have beverages in their hands and smiles on their faces.

Beer in hand, Deimling walks into P-Kok. On a regular day, P-Kok is a quirky fashion boutique. On this night, it’s a dark-room art show turned dance party. To the left of the entrance, a plastic table holds an abundance of beer, wine, and liquor for all to enjoy in typical house party fashion. A DJ spins her favorite beats in the back while people dance their feet off in the middle. Nearby, local artist John Benko puts finishing touches on a fresh painting that Deimling can only describe as a “panda on acid.” Benko insists it’s a polar bear. His art is displayed all over P-Kok’s walls. Impressed by Benko’s art, a man asks him to paint his face, to which Benko kindly agrees, as he did to many others earlier. “Do you accept tips?” the man asks. “Yeah sure,” laughs Benko. “I’d be glad to take your money,” he says as he pockets a lone dollar bill.

Nearby, a Seattle Seahawks fan does the unthinkable and shows his face in division rival 49ers territory. This sparks a heated but friendly debate between him and a Niner-loyal local. They flash each other with their team’s respective swag before realizing that they were both here for the same reason—to have a good time.

“There was a real sense of togetherness that this city doesn’t seem to ease up on,” says Deimling about the event. “It was easy to forget that we were walking along a busy San Francisco street and not some sort of eccentric museum grand opening.”

A few doors down, Nickies bar and restaurant holds the official Lower Haight Holiday Art Walk after-party, but it pales in comparison to the party at P-Kok. Regardless of the venue, the Art Walk provides good vibes to anybody looking for them.

Lower Haight holds similar events throughout the year, but the standouts are the Summer Art Walk and the Holiday Art Walk. These cherished traditions shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

“There’s nothing better than free drinks,” says Deimling. “Except when accompanied with free music, great people, and amazing art.”

It’s hard to imagine a better way to celebrate the holidays.

Artist Profile: Before the Brave

By

Words: Babak Haghighi
Photo: Cassie Palmer

The quintet takes the stage. The lights dim. The music begins. The sea of beanies that makes up the crowd starts to create waves as heads begin to bob. Jason Stevens’ powerful voice rips through the room and the voyage begins.

Stevens is the frontman, accompanied by Kyle Teese on drums, Nick Morawiecki on electric guitar and piano, Steven Binnquist on bass, and Beth Garber providing backup vocals as she plays the organ. Together, they are Before the Brave, an up-and-coming indie-folk band from San Francisco, and they take the audience on a journey of vast sound and emotion.

The band recently released their first EP, Great Spirit, a milestone that they celebrated by throwing a release party at the Barrel House, a hidden gem of a venue buried deep in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

Among the crowd, but without a beanie, is Spencer Haar, an San Francisco  State University student and fan of the band. He came for the music, but stayed for the free beer and cookies.

“I honestly think that Before the Brave makes great music and has the potential to pursue great things in the future,” says Haar, who is experiencing his second Before the Brave show. “Their sound is just generally appealing.”

What that sound is exactly is another matter entirely.

“The thing that I like so much is that our music doesn’t neatly fit into any one genre or sound,” says Teese, an S.F. State student and drummer for Before the Brave. “I might generally describe our music as folk-rock, but it doesn’t capture the band completely either. I hear traces of the Avett Brothers and Head and the Heart in our music. But then we also sound like Arcade Fire at times, or Ray Lamontagne, or even Ryan Adams in more folky songs like ‘Holy River.’”

The dynamic on-stage presence of this mostly-bearded group of San Francisco residents is not characterized by energetic stage moves or gimmicky crowd pleasers. Rather, the music, as well as the passion the music is seeded in, speaks for itself. The acoustic riffs range in style, which the rest of the instruments complement accordingly. Catchy folk-rock anthems are followed by sentimental ballads, upbeat blues tunes, and everything in between. The music is alternative and honest, and the audience expects the unexpected in a show full of musical surprises, all of which are met with success.

“Before the Brave is not the kind of band that is going to cause a riot,” says Haar. “But their shows can be equally exciting as those of higher energy bands because their music and their performance creates a lot of tension. It’s almost meditative in a sense.”

It is clear that the band emphasizes the importance of a truly well-crafted song. These young musicians are not here to show off their chops on their respective instruments. Instead, they focus on creating engaging melodies and crafting a cohesive musical experience. Every person, every instrument, every sound is there for a reason, and together the pieces fit together perfectly. The only thing that could be argued to stand out on its own is Stevens’ voice, but this is due only to the sheer power of his vocals. Stevens sports a set of vocal cords that would put a majority of successful vocalists to shame. His harsh, deep voice aims for impressive notes and never misses. His lyrical belts are both soulful and enchanting. Depending on the song, his leading vocals can either soothe or excite.

Garber’s background vocals only make things better. Her subtle yet profound vocal presence goes a long way in supporting Stevens’ dominant voice. Garber’s soft vocal touch adds an exciting element of on-target harmonies. Before the Brave’s lyrical prowess truly stands in a league of its own. But this doesn’t detract from the band’s overall sound, nor does it steal the spotlight away from other members of the band. It is just one of several parts that makes Before the Brave’s unique sound the endearing entity that it is.

As the band prepares to wrap up its performance at the Barrel House, Stevens thanks the audience for coming out before leading into a crowd-pleasing encore of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” “This amazing city has brought us all together for a reason,” he says to the crowd.

The band members met each other at RealitySF, a church in the Castro.

“Our songs express different aspects of what it has been like for each of us to live as followers of Jesus here in San Francisco,” says Teese. Lyrical themes include reconciliation and looking for hope amidst suffering, while others lyrics deal with the inward struggle involving purpose and meaning of life. “And other songs are just about joy. Plain and simple, they’re celebrations of the lives we’ve been given.”

The band as it is today, however, formed years after the members met at RealitySF.

“The band started in a bedroom, actually,” says Teese.

He and Stevens were roommates for two years, during which time they jammed casually and wrote songs. “From there, Jason [Stevens] met Nick [Morawiecki] through work and the three of us began to play together,” says Teese. “It took another year or so before Steve [Binnquist] and Beth [Garber] joined us. It wasn’t until last Spring that all the pieces really came together.”

Since the band’s formation in 2011, Before the Brave has made a name for itself thanks to consistent practicing and playing shows. “Those two things are essential in creating a polished live show and developing a following,” says Teese. When the band was away from the music, however, they looked to social media to expand their audience. “Facebok, Twitter, and Instagram are simply the best way to communicate today,” explains Teese. “So that has been essential.”

As a result, Before the Brave has gained a well-deserved following, which has contributed greatly to the atmosphere of their shows.

“The vibe at our shows has been so incredible,” says Teese. “So many of our fans sing along throughout the set, which is probably the coolest feeling ever for a musician. There’s a definite ebb and flow of energy throughout our set, which gives the audience such a variety of experiences. It’s almost cinematic.”

It’s been an undoubtedly great year for Before the Brave. Great Spirit is now available for download on iTunes and can be streamed through Spotify. But the up-and-coming band has high hopes for the future.

“It’s a pretty exciting time for us,” says Teese.

Before the Brave’s 2013 plans include a tour the West Coast during the summer, and the band has already been invited to play at the South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals in Austin, Texas in March.

1vinyl

Hipster Holiday Gifts for Under $10

By

Words: Barbara Szabo

1. Amoeba Records

Amoeba Records has an entire section with discounted vinyl, with records for as little as $1. That means you could buy your favorite hipster as many as ten records! (Amoeba Records, $1 and up).

2. Academy of Sciences

Academy of Sciences holds an event called Night Life Thursday nights. There is usually a band or DJ that performs throughout the night, as well as a bar, and some weeks focus on a theme. For example, earlier this year, a Night Life was devoted to all things bacon: vendors from around the city served bacon treats, there were scientific illustrations of pigs for viewing, and of course a vegan pig roast. Hipsters love bacon and veganism. (Academy of Sciences, Admission is $10 for members and $12 for everyone else)

3. Finger Tattoos

Cameras, black-framed glasses and mustaches are universal symbols of hipsterism. Make those into tiny, temporary finger tattoos and you have the perfect hipster gift. (Therapy, $8)

4. Hip Book Selection

Hipsters love reading books, especially works of writers such as Jack Kerouac or ironic books like “Understanding Rap: Explanations of Confusing Rap Lyrics You and Your Grandma Can Understand.” Vinyl Coffee and Wine bar has an entire corner dedicated to books from Green Apple for cheap. (Vinyl Coffee and Wine bar, $5 and up)

5. Refreshing Beverages

Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice: It’s not just a Lana Del Rey lyric, but also a of hipster lifestyle. (Fred’s Liquor Store, 12 pack: $7.99)

6. Printed Goods

Taylor Reid and Erin Fong are two local San Franciscans who recently opened a studio called Western Editions. They design and create printed goods, such as fun cards to give or mail out during the holiday season. (http://westerneditions.wordpress.com, $5 and up)

7. Penguin Socks

Hipsters are cool all-year-round, but during winter they literally get cool. What better way to warm their feet than with penguin socks with grippers on the bottom? (SFSU Bookstore, $10)

8. A New Ornament Style

Back in June, The Head and the Heart played three sold-out shows at The Fillmore. They looked good on stage, and their faces look just as good on an ornament. (http://zeitgeistmanagement.com, $10)

9. Cool Nails!

Nail art is really trendy among hipsters these days. These jeweled stick-on nails are easy to put on and look really good when holding a PBR. (Lucky Supermarket, $6.99)

10. Mustaches

Put a black mustache on a white mug, and there’s really nothing more to say about that. (Urban Outfitters, $8)

View locations: 10 hipster holiday gift ideas under $10 in a larger map

A More Human Experience

By

Words: Kenny Redublo 

Waking up in the back of a crashed police car is never a good situation. Lee Everett crawls out of the wreckage, disoriented. The driver is gone and a shotgun is left unattended. Two shells left. It’s enough for now. Lee hears voices from every direction. Unfriendly voices. The cover of the woods should provide him enough time to figure out his bearings.

Lee finds the driver, but something’s not right. His eyes are white and look at Lee with an animalistic hunger. Lee knows he’s just been arrested by this cop, but this is inhuman. The cop has a broken foot but he shows no concern. He keeps stumbling toward Lee.

Lee cocks the shotgun. If he shoots, he’ll be in worse trouble than he already is. If not, he’s dead. It’s life or death. What should he do?

With a push of a button, the player decides Lee’s fate. This is the beginning of the Walking Dead video game, an episodic title by Telltale Games for most modern video game consoles, even mobile devices like the iPhone or iPad. The video game is based on the Robert Kirkman comic, which has also been adapted into an AMC television series. The setting of the Walking Dead is of any zombie fiction, but what it does differently is its focus of the human condition. It questions the acts of humans when civilization crumbles. What Telltale’s video game adds to the Walking Dead experience is giving the players a bigger sense of weight to their own decisions. This is the aspect of a video game that comics, film, or television cannot provide. Visuals can get more lifelike and sounds can get clearer, but the importance of this moral interactivity is what can evolve video games as a serious medium and provide something film, books, or television have not before.

The Walking Dead is about Lee Everett. He was arrested for the murder of his wife’s lover and was on his way to prison when the zombie outbreak occurred. Lee’s past is put on the backburner in order to focus on the choices the player must make throughout the game. It’s less of a distraction and more of a foundation for players to build their image of Lee or themselves in the situation. The player’s interpretation of Lee is developed further with the addition of Clementine, an 8-year-old survivor Lee encounters in the first episode. They are dependent on each other, even if they are strangers. But in this desperate time, strangers are vital to survival, for better or worse. The inclusion of Clementine provides the player with a sense of duty and consequence. Are the choices made for Lee’s or Clementine’s benefit? It plays around with the conflict burden versus attachment. As many other survivors met throughout the course of the game, Clementine is a constant. Her innocence as a child conveys the feeling of care over mistrust, which the other survivors may have ulterior motives.

Player choice is primary to gaining that sense of involvement. It gives in to the idea that the player’s actions greatly affect and manipulate events in the world, either socially through character interactions or how characters react to your actions. It creates the difference between staged and reality. Games differentiate themselves with this concept from other narrative media.

A Gut Reaction

The use of player choice in games opens a way for games to affect gamers as people. The presentation of choice disregards the concern for points or rewards, but to immerse players into a character’s situation.

“It comes down to personal preferences in those situations,” says Ben Janca, gamer and Twitch.tv broadcaster. “I don’t try to think if [the choice] is good or evil.”

The choices come less from a perception of morals, but more from a gut reaction, especially in the case of The Walking Dead. Early adventure games like Grim Fandango or text adventures didn’t have a limited time window to make a choice. There was a no negative outcome for taking time out to look at the choice objectively.

“You just have to do it,” says Hayes. “The time mechanic keeps you subjective.”

One of the first major choices is when Lee must kill the zombified babysitter. It is a life or death choice but it matters in the way it is carried out. The player can approach the situation brutally, mashing the button with instinctual fear, but what comes out of the situation is all in front of Clementine’s eyes. It’s an exercise of instinct over logic or survival over innocence. Are the player’s motives to ensure safety or preserve the innocence of a child? The surprise of the outcome is the notification that Clementine will remember everything that took place. It’s a reminder of how these choices will impact the rest of the game. Be it major or minor, these choices have impact.

A Universe of Choice

One franchise that capitalized on player attachment is Mass Effect. Mass Effect is a science fiction epic trilogy for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, and now the WiiU that kept every choice recorded throughout the series. The main character, Commander Shepard, is portrayed physically and morally by player choice. Shepard can be male or female, and a noble or brash commander. The player can choose whether or not to punch a nosey reporter in the face, or calmly talk his or her way out of the situation. Players can choose to pursue romantic relationships with fellow teammates or keep their distance. Each choice has their benefits in gameplay, like new abilities or equipment. The Mass Effect series exercises choice on an epic scale in a literal universe. The sense of fictional scale is on par with the Lord of the Rings series, or Star Wars.

As with those literary and film series, there is a barrier of entry and can cater to the most loyal fans. Mass Effect is expansive and uses moral choice as supplement to its universe but it’s one bullet point on an expansive list of features.

One Life, One Choice

One titles that made that bullet point into a defining feature is Heavy Rain. This PS3 exclusive adventure game is boasted as more of an interactive film, due to its heavy influences from noir, crime scene television shows, and films like Seven. Heavy Rain asks “how far will you go for someone you love?” The question is posed to the player and the four interconnected characters controlled. Each character has their different motivations when faced with the overarching plot of the Origami Killer, a child murderer connecting each character.

The game presents its moral choices like Mass Effect and the Walking Dead, through its dialogue. In contrast to Mass Effect, Heavy Rain is a singular focused narrative. There are no side missions or extraneous worlds to visit. Heavy Rain stays within the sphere of the character in a guided experience. This may take control away from the player but it exercises the pressure of each situation and reliance on instinct. The Walking Dead did take inspiration from Heavy Rain with its quick time events.
Another taut feature of Heavy Rain is how the player’s choices can kill the character for the rest of the game. Choices and mistakes can lead to extreme consequences. The player can even have all four protagonists die and the endings can vary wildly. It mirrors how real life is singular. You only get one shot, according to the writer and director of Heavy Rain, David Cage.

Immersive Attachments

Spencer Hayes, community manager at Destructoid.com and philosophy major at SF State, initially felt Lee as an established character was going interfere with the immersion into the narrative.

“I came into the game detached,” says Hayes.

After more of the game, he felt his decisions as Lee became extensions of himself. It dissolved this line between him and Lee. The easiest way to get over the initial hurdle of immersion into a fictional world is for the player to make themselves, a virtual avatar. The Walking Dead has Lee’s story to tell so creating a character wouldn’t work in the game. Other games, like the Fallout series, have players create an avatar of them in the post-apocalyptic future but there is an established backstory written out for their character.

“Creating a character is an immediate way to gain player investment,” says Hayes. “Players buy into what they made.”

Though the experience may seem contained within the confines of the player’s world, at the end of each episode, the player’s choices are compared with others in the form of percentages. It’s a sociological experiment that helps the player reflect upon their own morals. When this is presented at the end of an episode, it alleviates the social pressure that would exist if the choices of others were presented throughout the initial experience. There is a sense of confidence provided when the stats are shown. It provides the player’s choice with solidarity among the community.

The Grey Area

In games like the Mass Effect series, choices are blatantly labeled good or evil. Good and evil in Mass Effect is more labeled as talking calm or brash measures in a situation. The actions of the player character are never morally evil. In the Fallout series, choices are more black and white. The situations that arise are either setting off an undetonated atomic bomb for a large sum of money, destroying a town and its inhabitants, or defusing it for good reputation among the townsfolk. These decisions have great effect later in these games like future characters referencing and judging the player on their decision.

Games like Mass Effect and Fallout are classified as role-playing games, which The Walking Dead is an adventure game. The concept of player choice works better in certain genres.

“I wouldn’t want to see a moral choice decision in Halo,” says Janca.

The Walking Dead is modern exercise in moral choice in video games. Video games have historically presented this concept back from the early days of PC gaming and onwards onto the original Nintendo. The concept isn’t new since morality is fundamental in gauging human nature but how it has been implemented in video games is a new exploration.

Nobunaga’s Ambition was the first instance of moral decisions in video games. It was originally released in 1988 for the PC. This feudal Japan strategy game used moral choices like resource management to affect troop morale and loyalty. This innovation led the series to a now 12-game franchise on multiple systems.

The difference of moral choice in Nobunaga’s Ambition and modern games is the implementation to progress a narrative. The concept leads to a greater sense of character development and player attachment.

What the Walking Dead does differently than the other modern examples of moral choice is the selfishness vs selflessness. Heavy Rain doesn’t have that group survival aspect and sociological analysis like the Walking Dead. It doesn’t pose the choice of what’s best for others. The characters’ motivations lean toward selfishness. There’s a sense of who lives or dies but it’s mostly if the player’s character lives or dies.

An Age Gate

Video games may be hard for the general public to perceive it as a serious medium due to its name. Video games have the word “games” in it, along with the association of kids’ toys and playgrounds. Hayes says there’s a movement to rename video games to “interactive entertainment.”

“It’s not the medium to be concerned about, it’s the message,” says Hayes.

Video games have barriers of entry and one is the generational gap. There is an issue of complexity of video games. Controllers can be intimidating, rules and concepts can be confusing for some and understandable for others. Hayes feels that this barrier can be broke with time.

“As the current generation gets older, technology gets less scary to them,” says Hayes.

As for other media, the act of immersion is what video games have an advantage in, but it’s still a fresh concept.

“Putting yourself in the role of another person is alien to people,” says Hayes.

The Walking Dead is also an example of modern accessibility of the medium over Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. In addition to being on every accessible video game platform, its episodic format is a comfortable length to play casually and not in long binges. The shorter experience is easier to approach and more focused. Its readiness to be downloaded directly onto the system of choice contributes to its accessibility. The barrier of entry of going to buy a physical disc is eliminated with downloadable titles.

Hayes says The Walking Dead is a good place for newcomers to start. It deals with fundamental human ideas and emotions, making the game easier to relate to than other titles like Call of Duty.

The blockbuster games like Call of Duty are still needed in the industry but the success seen by The Walking Dead, as developed by a smaller team and has reached more than one million sales, has shown that the adventure genre is still relevant.

“The player choice is still a financially viable concept in the near future and beyond,” says Hayes.

The smaller titles are accessible to a wider audience, but in The Walking Dead’s case, the content matter may turn a few away. The game is gory, like any other zombie film, television show, or game. It deals with death in a mass amount and in a personal sense. The themes of desperation in an apocalypse are usually the worst of human nature and some audiences don’t want to see that or it’s not appropriate for them.

A Human Experience

Narrative is what mostly what drives the game. It’s progressed through player choice but what keeps the player engaged is the character development. The Walking Dead isn’t particularly a difficult game. The learning curve is low and it gives the game a more accessible chance for its characters to shine.

“I love playing games for the interesting characters and settings,” says Janca. “That’s what drives me to continue with the game.”
With its small package, The Walking Dead packs in enough characters for it to be manageable, unlike other epic series like Mass Effect or Fallout. The small group of characters gives way for more player attachment and as much death as there is in the Walking Dead universe, the weight of any of the characters is immense.

The Walking Dead is an important video game. It takes risks and succeeds where previous attempts failed. It’s important to the medium. Video games still have the stigma for being as young as its audience. The Walking Dead’s exercises in the concepts of morality and choice give the title a deeper meaning other than being just a game. The Walking Dead is an experience, a human experience.

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