Performing artists hopeful amid uncertain future and potential devastation

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Grateful Crane Ensemble sold masks as a fundraiser. photo by Soji Kashiwagi

With theaters shuttered and live audiences reluctant to gather, the performing arts sector has suffered considerably since the pandemic has prompted most people to stay at home. For Asian Americans, the issue is no different, and some fear devastation if things do not improve.

Ethnic Media Services reported that the arts sector has lost $12 billion nationwide, of which Los Angeles alone has faced a $20 million blow to its hundreds of galleries and theaters. Citing figures from the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture, the article said half of the county’s arts organizations fear they won’t survive the pandemic.

“Five years from now, are the performing arts sustainable? So that’s the big question, and the answer is unknown,” Mark Izu, a San Francisco-based musician, said in a Zoom call with the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Arts are people’s disposable income. You don’t need the arts, per se, like if you’re sick or you don’t have food.”

“Even before 2020, we know that, from our own experience, that if there’s an economic recession, it takes the arts and culture sector two-to-three more years after you see the general economy recover, for us to regain or get back to where we were prior to that,” Wisa Uemura, executive director of San Jose Taiko, said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Cut Off From Venues
Uemura, who is participating in the Greater Downtown San José Economic Recovery Task Force, said she understood the need to be responsible and avoid risks in reopening the economy, but expressed her frustration with how the arts are regarded in discussions.

“When they’re opening certain industries that are similar to us … yet they’re telling us we cannot, that is really difficult to hear,” she said. “We’re not even on the radar for reopening. We have to continue to advocate for that …”

While Uemura would like to resume holding in-person classes next year, she said the challenges of doing so are “extreme,” as the group has had to constantly revise their plans in a chaotic year in which California has suffered unprecedented wildfires, economic recession and the worldwide pandemic.

Brenda Wong Aoki, a professional storyteller and Izu’s wife, said the March shutdown of the U.S. economy wreaked havoc for Asian Americans and Japanese Americans especially, by closing venues just ahead of their busiest months, including San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival and all of the Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month gigs in May.

“The people who would need money, you would be surprised,” Wong Aoki said. “And it’s the best artists, because they can’t gig right now and that’s all they did.”

Wong Aoki, who is a part of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, said the nationwide organization is discussing the challenges that lie ahead for the arts. Nevertheless, she said she fears art by people of color are at particular risk when compared to Euro-centric arts such as ballet and classical music because many arts organizations and funders are based in the East Coast and are not as aware of the Asian American diaspora on the West Coast.

She added that artists of color especially lack financial security.

Going Online
For many artists, online video is the only viable venue right now, but technical and monetization issues remain. Izu started playing the sho, a type of Japanese flute, each morning at the beginning of the pandemic on Facebook Live. Though his daily shows received positive feedback, the performances do not necessarily bring him any money.

Melody Takata, head of GenRyu Arts in San Francisco, has performed online. She said she has tried to promote her work on Facebook, but she has to learn more about social media to expand her presence.

“I think there’s been a lot of possibility, it’s just figuring out how to outreach to the audience since it’s no longer just a localized thing in California, it’s kind of worldwide now,” she said. Takata partnered with the Asian Art Museum in August to present an hour-long online performance for Japan Day, which normally consists of an all-day festival in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Takata said she has had to cut back to make ends meet, including canceling her own health insurance. She said she must launch a fundraiser to celebrate her group’s 25th anniversary, but she knows it is a difficult time to ask for donations. Nevertheless, she believes it is important to continue GenRyu Arts’ commitment to the Japantown community.

“I’m lucky that we have some very dedicated members … we have been working on strengthening their learning skills too in terms of Japantown as Asian American activists to think about what their role is, not just playing drums, but how you’re representing yourself and how can you communicate who you are and what your community is about,” Takata said.

Soji Kashiwagi, founding member and head of the Grateful Crane Ensemble in Southern California, said his group has had to cancel all of their shows and events throughout the year, including a biennial goodwill visit to the Tohoku region of Japan. At the same time, Kashiwagi is the only staff member at the ensemble, and said the group will survive the year.

With so much shut down for the foreseeable future, Kashiwagi began to seek out ways his group could help the community.

Grateful Crane Ensemble sold masks as a fundraiser. photo by Soji Kashiwagi

“We did a fundraiser. A friend of ours made these … rice sack masks, using the vintage material from the old cotton rice sacks,” Kashiwagi said. “So it’s been successful. It’s not big fundraisers, but it was the first time we’ve ever done a virtual online sale of anything. And we ended up selling out.”

Grateful Crane Ensemble helped raise money to feed isolated seniors in the Little Tokyo area, as well as loaned recordings of past performances to groups to aid their online presentations’ programs.

“With everybody going virtual, we’ve had different requests from groups to include us in their virtual programs. And so, instead of performing at the Washington, D.C. Tsuru for Solidarity Pilgrimage, they had us do these videos for their virtual pilgrimage, which happened on June 6,” Kashiwagi said. “So it ended up being 15,000 plus people watching it, … and so that’s many more than what would have been actually live in D.C. And then, the people who watched it were from all over the country, and all over the world as well.”

Kashiwagi, however, said holding live performances online has been difficult for performers. “It’s difficult to get that same feeling as either an actor or a singer when you’re doing these performances virtually from your house and there’s no audience. It’s kind of like what baseball and sports are going through, where they’re playing their sports without any fans in the stands,” he said. “There’s certainly not a lot of money in what we do, and so a lot of the enjoyment for us is to have that interaction with the live audience and that’s missing in the virtual world.”

Other artists concurred, saying interacting via video can only do so much. Izu said he and his wife typically tour across the country, and live performances allow them to meet and exchange information with all sorts of people. Uemura, meanwhile, said her organization has moved classes and practices online, but cited challenges in teaching and sharing feedback.

“Our usual practices have quite a bit of individual feedback in real time, but that is significantly challenged by our inability to really hear their technique,” Uemura said. “We can only rely on what we see, and even that is delayed in a lot of cases.”

Screenings to Streaming

PERFORMING ARTISTS ADAPT ­— Nikkei organizations are adapting to presenting programming online.
courtesy of Contemporary Asian Theater Scene

Reiko Iwanaga said Contemporary Asian Theater Scene, which is based in San Jose’s Japantown, had hoped to commemorate its late founder Jerry Hiura, but the pandemic has halted any live performances the organization would have organized. Financially, the organization is OK for the moment, with an all-volunteer staff and a minimal expense paying for an office in San Jose’s Japantown that is subleased to J-Town Community TV, Iwanaga said.

With their other plans scrapped, Iwanaga said she and her organization have focused instead on the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest and its interviews with filmmakers leading up to the virtual festival, which wraps Oct. 10.

“Because we’re virtual, we were able to do that … I’d say that’s been a really successful aspect of this year, leading up to the film festival,” she said.

She added that without the constraint of scheduling time in theaters, the festival is able to host 70 films, including encore showings of popular screenings from previous years. Iwanaga added that she is not sure how well her festival will fare compared to previous years. “There are a lot of film festivals online right now,” she said. “Not only film festivals, but there’s so much online.”

Asian CineVision’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York, San Francisco’s CAAMFest Forward and Visual Communication’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival all coincide in October and have online screenings.

As uncertain as everything is, however, artists and their organizations remain hopeful in the face of a potentially chaotic future. Uemura said she was consistently amazed by the resilience of those in the arts and culture sector.

“We are all united in our belief that arts, whether they be performing arts or visual arts — we are the second responders,” she said. “We are critical to the recovery of our communities. And so many of our arts groups are embedded in our communities, particularly of color, and they are the ones that are going to be able to tell the stories of these communities both during these times, and before, and what will come.”

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