A few yards north of the corner of 6th and Howard in San Francisco’s once undesirable neighborhood around 6th and Mission, a small shoddy theatre stood. The name meant a tramp, a person of limited means, possible homeless, itinerant and it was appropriate for its surrounding neighborhood. I had the pleasure of attending a performance of one act plays at the original incarnation of Bindlestiff in the mid 90s, fan as I am, then and now, of art expressed off the beaten path. The performance space was a fire hazard, the audience seating populated with metal stools, and the wine…at least they sold wine. But the plays, well, they were different. They took risks that mainstream plays dare not. There was a date between two serial killers and another play was a monologue of a paranoiac on the verge of homocide.
Sixth Street feeds into and out of Highway 280 and over the decades I would look from my passing car for the graffiti-like posterboard that presided over the entrance of the what seemed like such a cool venue for theatre. And one day, who knows when (since so much time has passed), it was gone.
I wouldn’t be writing about this theatre in this column if not for its 1997 transformation into a Filipino American performing arts venue with the appointment of Allan Manalo as artistic director. That was 20 years ago and I had never learned of this until this month when I came across a social media post on an upcoming Filipino production at Bindlestiff. What a pleasant surprise to learn that the theatre is still in operation.
I was fortunate enough to see the last night’s performance of one act plays, a reprise of my experience of the mid 90s, Stories High XVII. The performances, which ran for two and a half weeks from August 31 through September 16, 2017 were the culmination of a workshop in which participants wrote, directed and performed in their own original plays. The program is sponsored by PAWA (Philippine American Writers and Artists, San Francisco Grants for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission. My favorite performance was of a Fil-Am couple in the early stages of dating trying to hide the criminal dispositions of their respective families. It featured belly-laughing portrayals of a Filipino father and a Filipina mother. The workshop occurs over the summer and enrollment for next year is open to the public.
The Bindlestiff Studio is self-described as the “only permanent, community-based performing arts venue in the nation dedicated to showcasing emerging Filipino American and Pilipino artists.”
Compared to when I first went there more than 20 years ago, the space is new, bathrooms nice, stairs of buffed metal, surfaces painted. It is less authentic than the original even though the coordinates are the same. It seems rich. Indeed, the entire neighborhood has undergone a shocking gentrification over the last 20 years. Sixth and Mission may still possess some of the unsavory elements that has made it what it is, but it feels reasonable to walk around the area on a busy night now and the sprawl of tech wealth has left its mark around every corner.
As for me, I am just glad to find that Bindlestiff is up and running again. That it is now a Filipino studio sweetens the notion even more.
For upcoming events, go to www.bindlestiffstudio.org.