While a bookish, hushed audience crowded The Lost Church this April for San Francisco’s monthly Word Performances series, they closed the night singing and dancing in their chairs.
Unlike a typical reading series, Word Performances offers attendees a variety show for bookworms and fans of performance art alike. Each program features an array of writers and actors alongside a medley of dance, comedy and live music acts.
The evening showcased performances by poets Jon Siegel, Tomas Moniz, Brynn Saito and Todd Siegel; dramatists Tina D’Elia and Ginger Murray; fiction author John Panzer; a lyrical performance piece by Word Performances creators and hosts, Todd and Cybele Zufolo Siegel; and a musical set by the Mark Growden Quartet.
A jam-packed two-hour program, Word Performances is reminiscent of early twentieth century vaudeville with a modern literary twist. A poet grips the crowd in a tightly wound cacophony of images, followed by an entrancing actor who fills the stage, then a dancing storyteller whose voice echoes across the room.
A longtime favorite of the Bay Area lit scene, Moniz engaged the house with a selection of poems that balanced a bellyful of humor with a deepened sense of humanity. The founder of Rad Dad and co-host of Lyrics & Dirges and Saturday Night Special, Moniz’s narrative poetry bears a unique musical signature. In each of the poems he shared, the rhythm of the lines imitated the living images and ideas inside his poetry.
In Redwoods, a poem in which Moniz writes about his discovery of how childish he feels under the wizened giants, he reads, “…even when they fall, even in their demise, new life, little things, take root, seek shelter, find a home in their decaying bodies.”
As he reads the poem aloud, one cannot help but feel the budding rhythm of the words, clause after subordinate clause. Likewise, in his poem, Spiders, a similar effect is created through a threading together of phrases and words into web-like sentences.
When he reads Spiders, the audience bursts into laughter at his comic opening line. “I fucking hate spiders,” he says aloud and with conviction, a wide grin on his face. But then, the poem quickly drops into a strange, complex world:
“…there is something about their mythology, the way it’s said that they build their homes day after day, from scratch or from the web’s tattered remains. String by string they construct a thing to dwell on, to hide behind, to capture their prey. How beautiful. How utilitarian.”
Like Moniz, Ginger Murray delivered a performance charged with both comedy and candid moments of illumination. The editor-in-chief of Whore! Magazine, Murray enacted an autobiographical coming-of-age monologue about goodness, the imagination, and sin.
Prancing on the stage in a white dress and sweater, Murray described herself as a girl drawn to the nun’s life who “loudly proclaimed my virginity regularly to everyone.” On stage, Murray gradually disrobed until unbuttoning her outfit she appeared transformed in a sleek, scandalous red dress, proclaiming herself, “Ginger, the great sinner.”
After taking on the role of a mistress in a local play, “something profound in me had shifted,” she said. “I fit into that role as perfectly as a leg slipping into a silk stocking.”
Her performance challenged a number of status quo assumptions of how sin and virtue are perceived in society. Murray said, only true sinners can grasp, “how deep and profound is the act of mercy and how needed that is in our lives.”
In a symbolic and literal gesture, she closed her act, walking among audience members, asking, “Who would like some forgiveness?” as she smiled, handing out lemons from a basket.
Outside literature, the Mark Growden Quartet closed the night with a half-hour set that blended a unique medley of blues, folk, soul, gospel and jazz. The founder and artistic director of The Calling All Choir, Growden alone could be considered a one-man band. Backed by an upright bassist, a saxophonist and a trumpeter, Growden sang, shared stories, played banjo, baritone saxophone and accordion.
The performance included slower, easygoing tunes such as “Floating Down the River,” and also boot-stomping hits like “St. Judas.” A handful of Growden’s choir members sat among the audience and crooned backup vocals during the beautiful ballad, “The Gates/Take Me to The River.” Before long, the melody became contagious and everyone in the audience was singing and clapping with the band in full swing. With the voices of the poets and writers, it was the life-affirming gospel of The Lost Church.
Known for its dreamlike David-Lynchian ambiance, The Lost Church is a hidden gem for theatergoers in the Mission. The venue space and décor enhance the experience. A multimedia theatrical production house, The Lost Church produces content for film, the stage, and the Internet. On the outside, the building appears to be little more than a tin house, but within its doors dwells an entirely other and highly imaginative space.
Set in a dim glow, red is the color of The Lost Church—royal red curtains, drapes and red carpet alongside wooden floors. Big mirrors and lamps are arranged upon the walls. The venue also comes replete with an upstairs smoking patio and barroom.
Though The Lost Church is not noticeably small, it does possess an undeniably intimate charm. At Word Performances, there is both a sense of serious artistry and open community. Performers sit by audience members, and with the venue’s acoustics one speaker fills the entire room. It is a place for story-lovers to appreciate and commune over the many art forms of the stage and to celebrate the power, magic and diversity of the human voice.
Michael Shufro is a journalist, poet, storyteller, and playwright. Michael is also the host of the Parnassus Revue, a SF literary arts radio program and live show. Michael has worked as the Santa Rosa Correspondent for The Press Democrat, a then New York Times company. His writing has also appeared in the North Bay Bohemian among other publications. He is currently at work onBlunderboar, a play about a depression-era family of circus performers struggling to recover their memories lost in Time. Michael resides in San Francisco. Send Michael an email.