Monday, November 20, 2017

As Smoke Fills the Sky: A TYA Company Responds to the California Fires

Yesterday there was ash falling from the sky outside our theatre – but let me be clear, we are the lucky ones right now.  Just a 45-minute drive from Berkeley where the TYA community gathered six months ago for our national conference, our friends, colleagues, neighbors and family in the North Bay are facing devastation that is hard to fathom. 

Back in 1991, when I was a kid, we had a fire in the Oakland Hills that destroyed thousands of homes and 1520 acres. The memories of that fire are still fresh in the mind of those of us who lived in the Bay at that time.  So, the stories coming out of the news this time around are both familiar and haunting.  But the staggering size–17 fires barely contained, over 170,000 acres (that’s bigger than the city limits of Chicago), tens of thousands of people evacuated, 31 deaths and many more unaccounted for—it’s almost too much to comprehend.

 

The red sun caused by North Bay fires

In Berkeley, the skies are brownish-grey all day and the air smells like smoke.  Schools are being cancelled because of air quality concerns.  Moment to moment we are all aware and on edge.  At the end of rehearsal two nights ago, one of my actors just stopped and exhaled–His entire family lives in the North Bay.  One of our production management team spent Tuesday sending out messages, “My mom lives in Sonoma. I need to go and help her evacuate.” My family has taken in a friend’s diabetic cat who needed a home while her cat-mom helps to evacuate Skilled Care Facilities. One of the actors in our current production has two brothers who are firefighters–one has already been called to help, the other expects to get called up at any moment.  But, we all know that we are the lucky ones.  We know that we are OK and our houses are OK and we aren’t going to get a loud knock in the middle of the night telling us to leave everything behind and get out immediately. 

 

"How does the arts community respond to a disaster of this proportion?  How do we respond when the suffering is ongoing?"

How does the arts community respond to a disaster of this proportion?  How do we respond when the suffering is ongoing?  In addition to the horrific loss of life and homes, when I saw pictures of the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts in Santa Rosa surrounded by flames I realized the extent to which the destruction of cultural institutions will also affect the community. This is a beautiful theatre where I had the joy of teching the first national tour that Bay Area Children’s Theatre ever sent on the road. At last check, the theatre survived, but all of their education buildings and offices are likely gone.  We are thinking of our colleagues and the artists who work so hard to make theatre, art and music in the North Bay.  Most can’t be reached right now.  Some folks are posting resources but the reality is that for many of our fellow theatremakers a disaster like this will have repercussions that will last for years. I have hope and faith that the theatre community of the Bay Area and across the country will be here to help in any way we can. 

This week, in our staff meeting, the only conversation that came up about this was “What can we do to help?”  What can we do as a TYA theatre to help the thousands of families who are looking at maps trying to figure out if they still have a home?

 

"What can we do as a TYA theatre to help the thousands of families who are looking at maps trying to figure out if they still have a home?"

We have two board members who lost homes in that 1991 fire. At the time, both had small children.  I reached out to them…would free tickets to our current production be helpful?  Is it an insult to offer something so small when people have lost everything?  Both board members were incredibly helpful and strongly supported our efforts to offer a moment of respite for affected families. 

 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at BACT. Photo: Melissa Nigro.

One responded, “People will be reaching for positive anything, especially for the young ones. In the Oakland Hills Fire, I traveled that life-changing experience alongside our sweetest-in-the-world 2-year-old girl. (Offering Tickets) is a great gift to those displaced, confused, grateful/sad, families.”

The other advised: “Good idea for families with young ones. I’m sure they’d welcome a chance to get away from the area, if possible.”

In the end, we decided that, if there is a family out there living in a shelter, staying in a hotel, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment, they might need a moment to spend with their children that gets away from the awful circumstances. 

 

Photo: Melissa Nigro

We know our reaction is imperfect.  Most of the affected families don’t have internet or computers. We know it would be better if we were offering transportation or our theatre was closer, but right now this is the option that we could offer quickly.  Other organizations are making similar gestures—the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the San Francisco Zoo and many others. 

Our Facebook post with the offer of tickets at first felt very hollow, but, in less than 12 hours, 145 people have shared the post, trying to spread the word so those who are in contact with folks affected can hear about the opportunity to see a show with their family.  Typically, our Facebook posts get 10-15 shares, but in this case, everyone is trying to find a way to help.  I have seen restaurants posting about free meals, shelters redirecting donated blankets and clothing because their storage is full, offers to house horses and pets.  Everyone wants to reach out and help…even if it just means sharing a FB post in the hopes of spreading the word about a way to bring children to an experience that has nothing to do with sirens, evacuation orders and the strain of loss.

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