No sheltering from the arts: Donald’s Top 20 cultural events for 2020
Each year as I prepare my Top 20 list of cultural events, I brace myself for a bruising few hours at the end of the selection process when I am forced to shoehorn a couple of dozen top candidates into the final 20 spots. For 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, I figured it’d be a lot easier. Compared to a “normal” year, not that much even happened culturally past the first two months, right? If anything, I’d be desperate to find enough worthy offerings.
Related stories: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2019
And: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2018
And: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2017
Yet here I am once again in the final, agonizing throes of kicking out the last three or four names on my list. It says something about 2020 — and the resilience of artists in general — that so much good happened in such a lousy year.
Granted, many of these events don’t conform to expectations for a list from another year. There’s a pandemic sheen to many of them. I include some just because they are indelible in my memory by representing artistic innovation. Who knew Zoom could be used in so many ways?
A few notes about this annual list:
• The full title, I guess, would be “Donald’s Top 20 Cultural Events of the Year in the Central San Joaquin Valley.” Or, because there’s only one of me and far more offerings each year than I could ever attend (even if I went out almost every night), the most realistic way to describe this yearly endeavor would be “Donald’s Top 20 List Out Of All the Stuff He Manages To Get To.”
• “Cultural” is a pretty broad term, and I have to narrow that down a bit, too: In this case think of it as shorthand for “theater-classical-music-opera-dance-visual-arts.” As in years past, I declare up front that I cover more theater events than anything else because they’re the most likely to have repeat performances.
• I’m grouping my shout-outs by three categories: theater; music/dance/literary arts; and visual arts.
• For 2020, I asked for nominations from readers, and I include some of these on my list.
• As you read my take, remember that 1) I’m just one person; and 2) I love to get feedback. What do you agree with? What do you think I left off?
Here’s my 2020 list. Selections within categories are in alphabetical order.
‘8 Minutes and 46 Seconds,'
The Fools Collaborative
In a time when stunned and saddened people across the nation marked the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, members of The Fools Collaborative came together for a meaningful and moving piece of performance art. The title, referring to the length of time Floyd’s life was choked out of him, features a cast of Black actors on Zoom. As the minutes tick down in real time, they repeat Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” And: “I can’t move … mama …” Simple and stark, the performance is a cross between a lamentation and a prayer. The video is still available to watch on Facebook. [Read my coverage]
‘Darkside,’ Fresno State
How to stage a university theater production in the middle of a pandemic? Fresno State director Kathleen McKinley triumphed over social distancing restrictions with “Darkside,” an innovative telling of Tom Stoppard’s brainiac salute to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” McKinley and video director Candace Egan (a professor in Fresno State’s Media, Communications and Journalism Department) put together a hybrid performance they called a “live-action-theater-graphic-novel video.” Elizabeth Payne’s wonderful graphic illustrations suggested graphic-novel action meets a medieval monastery, and strong performances from Andrew Mickelson, R.L. Preheim and Tyler Murphy anchored the show. Thoughtful and meticulously crafted, “Darkside” was a testament to the way that theater people can continue to make things happen no matter the circumstances. [Read my review]
Good Company Players
In 2020, an outpouring of community support for GCP during tough financial times reminded us how special this theater company is. Three examples make the point: 13-year-old Stella Freeman took it upon herself to help not just GCP but three other theater groups as well (the GCP Junior Company, of which she is a member, Shine! Theatre and Children’s Musical Theaterworks) by drawing portraits for $20 each. She raised more than $4,000, including $500 she donated from her savings account. Example No. 2: A GoFundMe campaign started by Jim Irvine has so far raised more than $44,000 for the company and Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. And, finally, the Junior Company Foundation itself has been a bulwark of support. Several months ago the Werdegar family donated The 2nd Space building to the foundation. (Updated Jan. 10 to clarify the financial transaction.) “With this tremendous gift we have been able to stave off rent obligations for GCP, and it means even during ‘regular’ times we will able to keep the rent reasonable,” says foundation president Julie Lucido. [Read my coverage]
Fresno City College
Stephen Karam’s exceptionally well written play received a vivid, assertive production from director Charles Erven and a terrific cast balanced between experienced and student performers. On one level, “The Humans” was deceptively simple: A somewhat troubled, somewhat fragile, somewhat regular family with grown daughters gathers for what becomes — no surprise — a somewhat troubled, somewhat fragile and somewhat regular Thanksgiving dinner. But underlying the typical domestic narrative is a sense of anthropological detachedness laced with an underlying dread. Leslie Martin, James Knudsen, Brandi Martin, Vernon Lee Jones III and Christy Ania Hathaway offered pounding performances. [Read my review]
‘A New World,’
Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle, directed by tony sanders, received a robust staging from Shine! Theatre, which before the pandemic began was starting to branch out of its children’s theater lane. In “Songs for a New World,” four talented singers (Mady Broach, Jennifer Myers, Miguel Molinar and Harrison Mills) packed a vocal wallop. Molinar, in particular, impressed with a velvety smooth, effortless falsetto that reminded me of liquid gold. In the standout song “Flying Home,” his big note felt like it poured over the audience. [Read my review]
Selma Arts Center
Though this fast-paced, quirkily constructed comedy about the C-list students at a Hogwarts-like magic school was best pitched to people who have earned a master’s degree in “Harry Potter,” there was plenty of fun in “Puffs” for those, like me, who are a few dores short of a dumble. Co-directors Adam Chavez and Ben Deghand whipped up a nifty theatrical experience that ranged from bare-bones cheap (I think the dragon was wearing a shower curtain) to slick and sophisticated (Dan Aldape’s clever lighting design included a smoky 3-D effect that made me swear I was seeing ghosts). Josh Plowman was a particular delight as one of the main Puffs, while Michael Brandon Fidalgo made a second-act character change that could give you whiplash. Existential crisis! [Read my review]
Rogue Festival 2020
There was a we-just-hit-an-iceberg-but-let’s-party mentality to the 2020 Rogue Festival, which bumped up about as close as it could against the worsening pandemic without violating any shelter-in-place orders. I braved the first weekend but got spooked by the virus the second. My pick of the festival: Sarah Matsui’s solo performance show “Hello, Boar — You Must Be Hungry.” Matsui explored her Taiwanese-Japanese American identity in a sunny, vibrant performance as we smelled the breezes of Hawaii (“eucalyptus leaves and wild ginger”), saw the clomping charm of her father, and experienced her optimism even as the extent of her troubled childhood became clearer. Also on my top list: Marc Gonzalez’s “Merely a Player.” Playing five different “Marcs,” Gonzales offered us a glimpse into his inner sanctum — the place where all the “people” who make up who he is interact and coalesce. [Read my review]
Good Company Players
(Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater)
There was so much to love about this silly, witty, big-hearted GCP musical: Roger Christensen’s Pilgrim hat. Roger Christensen. The sublime costumes by Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed. Steve Souza’s wig. Steve Souza! Emily Pessano and Kaye Migaki’s choreography. Director Laurie Pessano’s staging. And Shawn Williams, one of the company’s most reliable comic veterans, playing Shakespeare as a sexed-up, coyly narcissistic literary superstar. If GCP’s 2020 had been allowed to unfold as planned, there would have been lots of “best musical” competition for “Something Rotten!,” but I have a feeling that we might have seen the champ at the top of the year. [Read my review]
“Enchanted April,” Good Company Players (2nd Space Theatre). “Chicago,” Broadway in Fresno. “Captain Louie,” Selma Arts Center. Backyard Readers Theatre Lab (not technically open to the public but an innovative theatrical leap for Fresno). “Music in a Climate of Change,” Children’s Musical Theaterworks.
'The Poets Are Gathering,'
What do you do for a follow-up act after releasing a critically acclaimed, genre-bending, strikingly original jazz album that burns up the charts and proposes a whole new marriage of poetry and jazz? If you’re Benjamin Boone, you train your creative vision squarely on the ills of the world today. The result: “The Poets Are Gathering,” a somber yet joyful collaboration between some of the best poets and musicians in the world. Tackling issues of racial justice, politics, immigration and other must-discuss topics of 2020, Boone’s take captured the zeitgeist of the times. [Read my coverage]
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Oh, what a year it was for poet Anthony Cody, the recent Fresno State MFA graduate whose acclaimed “Borderland Apocrypha” found itself among the Top 5 books of poetry honored by the National Book Awards. As a finalist in the category, Cody’s work reached a vast new audience and garnered yet more recognition for Fresno’s thriving poetry scene. He didn’t win, but the chance to dress up in a “pandemic tux” made it all worth it. [Read my coverage]
'Body & Soul,'
Fresno City College
Fresno City College offered a powerful performance. From a reader: “It was beautifully filmed and artfully choreographed. The students expressed what we were all feeling about the pandemic through dance.” Though I didn’t see the entire “City Dances” concert, I saw glimpses of the performance in the FCC “Toasting the Arts” virtual video and was impressed with the power of socially distanced dance in a time when body contact is verboten.
Youth Orchestras of Fresno
Gluzman, the violin superstar, took a break in February from his busy schedule to play a concert with the Youth Orchestras of Fresno. A highlight was his performance of the Bach Double Violin Concerto. By his side were Alexander Han and Benjamin Pegram, both high school students in the Clovis Unified School District, who got the opportunity to trade off the other solo line in the piece. Watching it all was conductor Thomas Loewenheim, the man who made it all happen. We got to witness a remarkable amalgamation: of the professional and the amateur; of experience and youth; of mentor and student. To watch how straight the young violinists stood and how seriously — no, reverently — they undertook their moments in the spotlight, I couldn’t help but melt at the sweetness of it all. [Read my coverage]
Fresno Master Chorale
By the eighth or ninth month of the pandemic, performing arts groups across the country had their hands on sophisticated recording software and were doing such creative things with virtual performances that Zoom has lost some of its sense of novelty. But in August, when the Fresno Master Chorale, under the baton of Anna Hamre, unveiled 55 singers performing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” via Zoom, the impact was pretty stunning. I watched the Master Chorale’s “Hallelujah” four times in a row just because I was so delighted with the presentation. I loved scanning the ranks of individual singers, and I swear that even on the fourth viewing, I was seeing people I hadn’t registered before. I loved taking in the backgrounds, body language and facial expressions. Even the clothing choices become part of the visual appeal. Usually when I see a choir sing, the members are all in black. Uniforms bring cohesion to an ensemble. But in this case, the Zoom template creates that cohesion in a different way, and we’re left with an appealing sense of individuality. [Read my coverage]
Beethoven anniversary concert,
For several years, Fresno Philharmonic music director Rei Hotoda has been hinting that she’d one day conduct from the piano, and she delivered on that promise in a memorable January concert celebrating Beethoven. The composer’s concerto for piano, violin and cello was brought to life vividly by Hotoda, Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio and Julie Albers in a performance that likely burned off more calories for the conductor — who kept leaping up from the piano when she wasn’t playing — than a Pilates session. The physicality of the endeavor was fascinating to witness. Hotoda had to be as aware of her body as she was of the music: negotiating the piano bench as she stood and sat, transitioning between conducting and playing, keeping her conducting hands high enough for the players to get the beat. “To the musicians, I’m guessing it looked it like she was waving goodbye in a descending open-cage coal-mine elevator,” I wrote in my review. “There she goes!” [Read my review]
'Lessons & Carols,’
Fresno Pacific University
By the time the holiday season rolled around, Fresno Pacific had the Zoom thing down. In translating the university’s annual live “Lessons & Carols” music-and-worship service to the computer screen, the concert had a different aesthetic but the same sense of joy. For some reason, one moment is among my favorite of the year: Edwardo Cazares, one of the members of the Concert Choir and an English major from Dinuba, reaches a point in “When Jesus Left His Father’s Throne” (arranged by Fresno Pacific’s Walter Saul) when the music shifts into a more upbeat tempo. At that point Edwardo reaches up to his “man bun” and lets down his hair with a wide smile on his face. To me, it was a moment of pure abandon. [Read my coverage]
Fresno City College holiday choir concert (I love the moving version of “What the World Needs”). Fresno Philharmonic “Landscape Dreams” virtual premiere. Youth Orchestras of Fresno violin master class on Zoom with virtuoso Donald Weilerstein. In the early days of the pandemic, Patrick Contreras playing his violin for people in their yards.
Fresno Art Museum
In its last major show before being shut down by the coronavirus, the Fresno Art Museum hosted an impressive and memorable show — just one of a few museums to do so — that highlighted the rich history of the California Impressionism movement. “Gifted: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956” brought some big names to the museum including Maynard Dixon, Elmer Bischoff, Edgar Payne and Agnes Pelton. One of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition is that the pieces were collected for decades by students at a non-affluent high school that became a part of a tradition of collecting great art. Think about it: A bunch of high school students put together a museum-worthy collection we were viewing a century later. [Read my coverage]
‘In the Cloud’ virtual exhibition,
Gallery 25, a pillar of the Fresno visual arts scene, wanted to keep its brand alive during the pandemic. Like so many other institutions, it went virtual. The “In the Cloud” exhibition (still available to view) is a robust roundup of member work, from Ann Leedy’s ethereal explorations of sky, earth, water, wind, light and shadow (“With my current work, I’m releasing some control to wilder impulses”) to Michele Sani’s vigorous exploration of her Catholic faith, which is the core of both the content and form of her art. One thing I find striking: The exhibition is presented as a narrated video, which preserves the gallery’s tradition of interaction with the viewing community. “As a brick and mortar space, we hosted beautiful receptions in which guests could ask questions of the artists while enjoying wine and snacks,” Sani told me. “The narration and music encourage the viewer to slow down, hear and see, and think, as if she were conversing with one of the artists, wine in hand.” [ Read my coverage ]
‘Pandemical’ virtual exhibition,
The Center for Creativity and the Arts at Fresno State put out a call for a juried exhibition inspired by the pandemic. (Like most things virtual, it’s still available online.) The exhibition showcases spoken word, poetry, music, painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, video and animation. It is art with a motivating factor, with the well-designed website divided into the themes of Isolation & Community, Illness & Wellness, Innovation and Social Advocacy. The Breakbox Thought Collective, the best-in-show winner, offers four gorgeous and inspiring spoken word/musical performances. [Read my coverage]
Fresno City College
This will be the second time on one of my Top 20 lists for Moulton, an internationally known video and performance artist (and an assistant professor of art at UC Santa Barbara) who grew up in Oakhurst. The first was in 2015 for her work at an art exhibition titled “The Hatchery: Fortress” that was held at the cavernous (and eerie) former Synanon cult compound near the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. For her second show in the Fresno area, Moulton brought her film “Whispering Pines 10” to the Fresno City College Art Space Gallery. It features Moulton’s performance-art alter ego, Cynthia, who with her sunny demeanor and stridently cheerful, childlike sense of ‘50s homemaker contentment is like a kitschy cross between Betty Crocker and old-school Pee-wee Herman (before he got creepy). The film is a weird, compelling comment on domestic bliss. [Read my coverage]
Franka Gabler’s frozen flowers photography (watch my video interview) was a pandemic experiment for her, and it turned out beautifully. Joyce Aiken and Arminee Shishmanian’s painted-rock project at San Joaquin Gardens turned into a participatory event: They scattered the rocks in various locations on the San Joaquin campus in hopes that their neighbors would find them and take them home (read my coverage).
I want to include two entries that don’t really fit into a traditional Top 20 list. The first is the government. Yes, I know the “g” word can be a dirty one for some folks. But when it comes to the arts, I am thankful for living in a society that values the rich cultural fabric of our communities, even in times of crisis. The resources are substantial: The Payroll Protection Program. The Fresno Arts and Culture Emergency Relief Grant Program. The newly passed Save Our Stages stimulus package. The arts are feeling the support. Add in the promising news regarding Measure P, which if upheld by the courts will offer a dedicated funding stream for the arts in the city of Fresno, and we have a substantial safety net. Bravo for that.
And, finally, to the wonderful “Fresno Famoso.” Much like Camelot, don’t let it be forgot. This limited-series live arts show aired for just 10 episodes starting in March, but I believe it had a big impact on the Fresno-area arts scene during a fragile, crucial time. My three stellar co-hosts (Malcolm Sosa, Teresa Flores and Josh Tehee) and I brought a variety of guests to our virtual studio. We featured everything from musical-theater performances, artist studio visits and choreography to poetry readings, local bands and even an entire improv comedy group. The shows weren’t perfect in terms of sound quality and production values, that’s for sure, but they were live and brimming with togetherness and resilience. Especially in the early days of the crisis, the sense of community I got from working on the show was priceless, and I had many viewers share similar sentiments. I thank Malcolm, Teresa and Josh for all the hard work they put into the project, and I will cherish the memories. (We still have never been in the same room altogether!) Perhaps a “Fresno Famoso” on-air reunion of some sort will grace this new year. [Read my coverage]