Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
El Beh is a San Francisco-based theater artist, performer, musician and educator with a passion for ensemble-devised theater at the intersection of social justice, community and radical art.
Whether mastering all of the roles in Hamlet in a daring “roulette” version of Shakespeare’s drama at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage in Berkeley, doing drag cabaret at the Rite Spot bar in San Francisco, or playing the cello and singing in Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, the 34-year-old North County San Diego native is consistently thrilling to watch.
Beh next appears on stage this fall at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, reprising her role in Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Shotgun Players has also tapped her to perform in its upcoming production of Robert Wilson and Tom Waits’ The Black Rider.
What do you most adore—and find most challenging—about being an artist in the Bay Area?
I love what community we have as artists here. There’s a lot of support both from fellow artists and artistic institutions. I think that we’re at the forefront of national attempts to create a more diverse, inclusive and therefore more accurate representation of our country within our community of artistic practitioners and patrons. Don’t get me wrong, we have a long way to go. But it’s not everywhere in the country that a queer person of color would be prioritized to play Emily Webb in Our Town.
On the other hand, I’ve had many a local friend struggle with eviction or have to move away from the area entirely in order to continue making art sustainably. I’m privileged to have rent control, but even that small increase every year means my working far beyond full-time hours in order to make ends meet. And I know very few artists for whom that story isn’t also true. Because of the economics, many theater companies are only able to function by making less risky artistic choices in their programming. Meanwhile, the experimental, less commercial companies have a harder time even existing. Thankfully here in San Francisco, we have strong, bold folks like Lisa Steindler at Z Space, and the teams at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Counterpulse who are committed to finding ways for devised, experimental performance art to continue being made and brought to the Bay Area.
What was your first big break in the Bay Area performing arts scene and how did you go about securing it?
The show that really shaped the path my career has taken thus far was The Threepenny Opera at Shotgun Players in Berkeley. It was my first show at Shotgun and it introduced me to my dearest collaborators, which then led to pretty much every incredible collaboration I’ve had since then, as well as the honing of my aesthetic. I didn’t even get to audition in person, but sent in a recording of me singing some of the songs from the show. Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley had seen me in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of Seussical, and had been so consistent and persistent about getting me in something at Shotgun that he was able to convince the director of The Threepenny Opera, Susannah Martin, to cast me.
What comes first for you – being a musician or an actor? How do you go about integrating both pursuits into your life, seemingly so seamlessly?
It’s a little difficult for me to define myself as either a musician or an actor. I grew up playing music. But I would say that in recent years I’ve come back to being a musician because of the decision to become a professional actor. Integration was kind of a given to me at first, because the idea of the “actor-musician” became the zeitgeist around the time when I started performing professionally. So a lot of my early work came from my ability to handle both crafts. Nowadays, I’m fortunate enough to get to integrate both pursuits because of my preference for devised and physically-based work, which means we get to bring our full selves to the table.
In Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, you’re on stage playing the cello, acting and singing for hours and hours on end. How many hours are you on stage and how do you go about psyching yourself up for and getting through such a long performance?
I really love “durational” performance and all that it exposes as we’re made to sit with things far longer than we’re typically comfortable with and everything starts to break down. After doing Mugwumpin’s Asomnia, where we stayed awake and created new performances together every hour-and-a-half for 60 hours straight. Anything less than that feels like cake! I have it really easy in A 24-Decade with my longest time on stage being six hours. Our music director, Matt Ray, brilliantly arranged all the music so most of the musicians get breaks even during the longer stretches as well. It doesn’t ever feel like I’m playing for very long in the grand scheme of things.
Besides my usual grounding, physical and vocal warm up rituals, there isn’t a lot of psyching up I need to do for this piece except to remain present.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
I believe we are making progress. But I often desire far more radical measures to be taken to create equity. I think there needs to be a dominance of representation of oppressed peoples because our stories have for so long been silenced, forgotten and disregarded.
For me, it’s not just about gender parity, but rather, gender equity. This considers outside of the binary. It’s hard for me to restrict my thinking around gender lines without including its intersections with race, class, sexuality and disability. So what my ideal future looks like for all disenfranchised working artists is equity in representation in the arts with the ability to thrive while making art that matters to them and their particular communities. We need to give these individuals more space and agency so typically underrepresented voices have the opportunity to steer the ship.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, and videos.