Counterpulse, Arts Fundraising and Down’s Syndrome


Capacitor dance photo via Facebook

Over the weekend I went to Counterpulse, a local arts organization that specializes in producing cutting-edge works of performance art. They have been in the same spot in SoMA for a decade but are moving to a new building in Tenderloin later this year. I had been there before and enjoyed the space and the mission of the place but hadn’t attended anything there in a long time. I didn’t realize that what I was attending was a fundraising event, but it ended up giving me a great perspective on the place.


I heard about the May Day event because of an email from Capacitor, one of the five groups performing on the night that I went. They’re an aerial-contortionist-dance group that I always find amazing and I look forward to seeing their work. They didn’t disappoint of course, sharing and excerpt from a longer work that will be at Fort Mason next year that I’m already looking forward to.

Capacitor has been working with Counterpulse for the past year. The other performances were a mixture of similar work helped along by Counterpulse and performances by other partner / sister organizations in the Bay Area like ODC theater. Both types of performance were interesting. There was a wearable technology performance where movement altered voice sounds in a captivating way. There were two pieces that had a humorous edge. And there was a solo dance performance using a oversized chair as an impressive prop. I loved the mixture of performances, the unique inspiration of each, the abbreviated look at the dance community in the Bay Area.

directors counterpulse

Counterpulse executive director Tomás Riley with artistic director Julie Phelps

What was interesting was that it was also a fundraising event. Before the show and during intermission was a silent auction where people could bid on items including wine, bodywork, art, bike tours, overnight getaways, book collections and more. Between the two final acts there was an “auctioning of the bills”. This was fascinating to watch. The directors of Counterpulse got on stage and shared a breakdown of the different costs of operating their new facility, asking people to take on a portion of the costs. They said it was a way for donors to let people really know where their money was going. And of course it helped to make their costs really transparent.

It was fascinating to watch what people would contribute for or not, something that seemed to be based on the item up for donation rather than the dollar amount. Someone who didn’t bid on anything else shot his hand up immediately to donate enough to cover one week of free yoga for community members. Another gave to cover the cost of one month of full health insurance coverage for one of the staff members. A few donated to help provide stipend funding for arts fellows. Three more each gave a month of rent costs to keep the doors open. Another wanted to give tangibly and offered her money to the cost of office supplies and toilet paper.

Sometimes it was uncomfortable, sitting there in the audience, waiting to see if anyone would give for something specific. There was a sense of pressure to give, even though the presentation of the process was congenial and friendly, and I was curious if some people were giving out of response to that pressure. It was also interesting, as an outsider who isn’t really familiar with this community, to see how much of the giving came from a combination of staff members, board members and longtime supporters that the staff knew by name. It made me think of how we are all so passionate about our own little communities, the niches we’ve found ourselves in that we’re willing to really give for. It made me think of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and how it’s so true that people really do want to give to others in so many different ways.

art of asking

One of the things that they were requesting donations for was the cost of maintaining the elevator in their new space. They mentioned that they were not required to include an elevator but wanted to do so as part of their ongoing commitment to full accessibility – not only so that people with disabilities can attend shows but so that dancers with varying accessibility issues can be welcomed to participate in the shows. This impressed me. I see a lot of live performances of all types and it made me think about how few have had visible disabilities of any kind.

writing with grace book

Right now I’m reading Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome, a book by writer Judy McFarlane who works with a young woman named Grace who has Down’s Syndrome and is writing her own book. Judy is starkly honest about her own preconceived notions as she first met Grace and how she had to confront her own biases. She delves deep into the history of Down’s Syndrome research and litigation, both in Canada where she is based and also around the world. One of the things she highlights is the way that Down’s Syndrome fetuses are frequently aborted. I have no opinion either way on this, other than to say that I think abortion is a choice that all mothers should have though it shouldn’t be taken lightly and always comes with pain even when it’s the right choice. But the idea of it struck me because I have always kind of accepted that this is a totally reasonable choice to have and McFarlane caused me to consider that perhaps the legitimizing of aborting an entire category of humans isn’t something that should be commonly accepted.

What it really has me thinking about, I suppose, is the many different types of people there are in this world compared to the small percentage of which we consider “normal”. People on the autism spectrum, people with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities, people with major learning disabilities, people with mental health issues … there remains so much stigma around all of these things, stigma I admit I work with constantly inside my own self to varying degrees. And how each of these is considered a disability that diverges from the “norm”. But with the percentage of people affected by any one of these things, can we really say that the “norm” is norm at all?

I’ve learned a lot about the thinking process of people with autism as well as the learning process of people with dyslexia. Now in reading about Grace’s journey, I’m seeing yet another side of the same coin. And what it forces me to look at is my own value system in regards to “intelligence” and “knowledge” and “being smart”. I’ve always been smart by the standards of society. I’ve always gotten great grades in school and been able to carry on intellectual conversations on a wide range of topics and enjoy being well-read. And yet, it’s only way of learning and interacting with the world, so what I cling to as “smart” for me excludes entire categories of people who learn and express in other ways.

I realize this isn’t a new concept by any stretch, that this is something that people with different learning styles have been telling us for a long time. And yet it’s somehow impacting me in a different way right now. It’s subtle. I’m not sure what it means or will turn into or if it’s just reorganizing my thinking a little bit, which will likely reorganize my perception of and experience in the world. It’s all in process. And where I am at today.


Burlesque is Art, Art is Burlesque


There are so many opportunities to see different types of burlesque performances in San Francisco. I’ve seen a variety of styles in different venues over the years. The group I see most often is Bombshell Betty’s group, which performs several times each year at The Elbo Room. The performances are generally themed and I’ve done ones that were for Valentine’s, Easter and Christmas. But my favorite as far as themes go was one I went to a couple of months ago that was themed around art history. Each of the performers based her piece on a famous artist or style of dance. So intriguing!


This was Picasso with his muse.


This one and the one above it was Dali and surrealism. It was actually really kind of creepy and reminded me of some of the freaky scenes in experimental films I’ve watched. But in a good way.



One of my favorites, although also creepy, was the Frida Kahlo piece. She burlesqued her way out of her cast.


This was a group performance of Warhol’s Marilyns.


SmartChick’s Reflections on 3 Local Performances

Last weekend I went to three different live theater performances as part of the SF Fringe Festival. This is a festival of local independent theatre performances. Several low-cost plays happen daily as a part of this festival. It’s an opportunity to see a varied array of plays. Each of the performances that I saw was very different from the others and I wanted to take a few days to let the experience of them sink in before I wrote about them.

Performance One: Dance

The first play was a dance performance called Cafe Lorraine. I rarely go to dance performances and always seem to forget in between them how much I actually do enjoy going to them. I find the combination of movement, song and poetry to be very powerful. This performance had a few different themes going on with a major theme of the dependence that we fall into (good and bad) when we are in relationships. One easy-to-explain visual display of this was through the use of collars and leashes to signify the push and pull of dependence in a relationship. (The one holding the leash may seem in control but cannot always go where they want without dropping the leash.)

The performance introduced the subject of shadows and that was something that I wanted to ponder more. I didn’t think that the play itself really conveyed what was intended by this theme although it was visually interesting. I felt like something was lacking. Over the days, though, I’ve thought about this shadow idea. Several things occurred to me relating shadows to this thought of dependence on others:

  • The people we are in close relationships with often bring out our shadow selves, the darker parts of ourselves that we do not normally need to confront.
  • One person is usually the stronger or needier presence in the relationship at any given time. The other person becomes a shadow of that person.
  • In relationships where we begin to get too dependent on another person, we may become only a shadow of our own selves.

As I said, the performance wasn’t totally clear on what it intended for the shadows so I don’t know if any of these ideas of mine were meant to be inspired but it’s something that I found interesting and appealing and that stuck with me after the play was over.

Performance Two: Subliminal Messaging

The next performance that I went to was a one-man show about the power of subliminal messages and the way that we can read body language to gain information about what others are thinking. I have to confess that I was disappointed with this particular performance. I found something off putting about the performer. And I had expected to be given more insight into how he actually performed the reading of body language whereas instead I felt like he was showing us some “magic tricks” and not really giving us the secrets behind them.

That said, it did provoke some thoughts about body language and how we can use it to influence others. I do think that people pick up on the subtle cues that we send out (such as defensive posturing – crossing of arms, etc.) and I think that it’s possible to use that information to send out the message that we want to send instead. This isn’t an area of studied a lot about but it’s something that I’m curious to learn more about. Anyone know of any good reading material on this topic?

Performance Three: Solo Performance Theater

Finally, the third play that I saw was a one-woman solo performance about the feeling of being invisible. This performance intrigued me because it managed to keep me mildly entertained and yet didn’t really do a anything thought-provoking for me in terms of its content. That fact interested me because usually live theatre does manage to suck me in. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like the performer because I did find her engaging, cute and funny. So how could I find the actress appealing but the play rather boring?

Ultimately, I decided that this to me was very similar to a sitcom or to a show that I’ve seen too many times before on television. Although there were things I could relate to and agree with in the plot of the play, I didn’t find anything new or challenging within the content. Essentially, the play was about the idea that if you don’t have a major tragedy to build your life around then you end up feeling invisible in the world and not really knowing what your place is. I think that we all struggle with finding our place in the world and the feeling of being too normal or too average is as valid as any other struggle with that. However, I didn’t feel like the play went to the next level of posing a theory or something thought provoking around that idea.

What would that theory be? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps something about how the feeling of invisibility affects your ability to move forward in the world – something about the idea that being too average prevents you from achieving anything because of the fact that average is inherently mediocre. Or perhaps something about how to overcome the fear of mediocrity. I’m not quite sure. And I think that the actress was reaching for something along the lines but just didn’t quite get there.


So that was my experience at Fringe Fest so far this year. The different plays provoked different thoughts. I was left hanging a little bit because of each of them but maybe that’s a good thing. It spurs me on to think more and explore the topics of them more on my own after the entertainment is over. Perhaps that’s really what good theatre is all about.

What was the last play that you saw? What did it make you think about?