Bay Area artists and arts leaders reflect on two years of the pandemic | Datebook

First there were hints and whispers — headlines from abroad, worst-case scenarios from pessimists. Then international travel sputtered, and the NBA and Broadway began canceling events. But still, the unthinkable couldn’t happen here, we thought.

Then the world stopped, and time became a great, thick soup, seemingly never moving forward yet somehow aging us by a decade every day.

We all thought it would just be a couple of weeks. But two weeks has stretched into two years.

With the second anniversary of the Bay Area’s momentous shelter-in-place order arriving, The Chronicle sought to look back at those 24 months, at what can feel like an undifferentiated mass of grief and helplessness and — with the help of local artists — try to focus on individual moments of the pandemic and honor how they changed us.

By defining them, we can reckon with them. By reckoning, we can move forward.

Christina Augello, Exit Theatre artistic director

March 2020: Richard (Livingston, managing director) said, “I think we should cancel everything.” The guys from “Never the Sinner” were coming down from Tahoe. I didn’t want to cancel, but it seemed it just had to be that way. At that point we thought we were closing for a couple of weeks or a month. We were on the brink of so many things. And then boom, it was just like getting gagged and not being able to breathe. It didn’t seem as if I was shutting the door of the theater. I was going to come back next week — just like if it’s the Christmas holidays, you’re not open.

(Then by late March) it got real when I got frightened about the theater having no one in it, and I boarded up the windows. I said to Richard, “We’re there, but we’re not there.” It felt vulnerable. You need to take care of the space; it’s a living thing in a way. The paranoia kicked in. “Who would take care of my baby? I don’t know why, but somehow it felt secure that we boarded up the windows, and then no one could invade my sacred space. We put up posters for the Fringe Festival, just to make them look pretty. Everybody on Market Street was starting to board up windows. It was like putting on a coat in a winter storm.

November 2020: As an older woman trying to figure out how you live on Social Security, I made a decision that I had to make a move financially, for my future. Arcata (Humboldt County) had the cost, culture, climate. Then Richard said, “You’re going up there, and you got a two-bedroom condo? I’m coming too.” Then he said, “How ’bout doing a theater there? On Craigslist I saw this space.” We signed the lease.

March 2022: A show that was going to be in our 2020 Fringe, “Taking Our Life: Suicide, Ecocide and Daring to Live,” is going to be our first public performance. Richard’s going to have to be the technician, because we don’t have anybody up here, and he’s the only one who knows how it works. (Augello plans to split her time between Exit Theatre Arcata and the Exit Theatre in San Francisco.)

“Taking Our Life: Suicide, Ecocide and Daring to Live”: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 13. $12. Exit Theatre Arcata, 890 G St., Arcata.

Sarah Cahill, Berkeley pianist

March 2020: I was fortunate to work with filmmaker Veronica Selver and composer Todd Boekelheide to record the score for Veronica’s film “Irmi,” with a number of other musicians. We were in a small recording studio in Berkeley. Gradually, during that week of recording, all of us began to worry: Were we too close together? Did someone just cough? Can we hug goodbye? Should we not eat off of the same plate?

I’ll always remember how the anxiety crept in that week.

August 2020: I didn’t know what to do with my grandmother’s old spinet piano, so we hauled it out to Albany Bulb, under a big pine tree right on the bay, and I played music for a small masked audience. I thought of leaving the piano out there at Albany Bulb, but a nice young man named Alvaro decided to take it home, so he and his friends rolled it down the hill on a little dolly, and onto a truck.

March 2022: I’m doing a lot of traveling and playing concerts, but there’s a whole new level of concern now, which is to stay healthy for performances. I’m obsessive about wearing a mask, taking vitamins, eating meals outdoors or in my hotel room. … It’s stressful, but necessary right now. It’s hard to believe that we ever sat together in crowded concert halls and if someone coughed it was no big deal.

Mama Celeste, drag performer and Oaklash organizer

March 2020: I remember the night everything shut down I was supposed to be performing at Oasis for a show called “Media Meltdown.” Some of the performers went ahead with the show as planned and joined together to perform for a virtual audience on Twitch — which as far as I know was the first digital drag show, at least in San Francisco but maybe anywhere.

Not knowing much about COVID at the time and probably having had watched too many zombie movies, I opted to stay home. But I still wanted to perform. The theme of that night’s show was supposed to be “Claymation,” so I donned a full-body Gumby Halloween costume, a neon-green knockoff Catherine D’Lish dressing gown, put my phone on my ring light, and did a burlesque tease to “It’s Not Easy Being Green” from the Muppets. The bars may not have been open, but that didn’t stop any of us from letting our freak flag fly.

Digital performance turned out to be a really exciting new avenue for drag. All of us were forced to learn a lot of new mediums to showcase our art — filming and editing, animation and special effects, streaming and OBS (Open Broadcast Software). It was an intense learning curve, but it also forced us into a kind of renaissance. Suddenly “RuPaul’s Drag Race” wasn’t the only drag show you could watch from home — now everyone had their own show!

September 2020: Our first digital Oaklash in 2020 was an artistic triumph but a technical nightmare. Since we were forced to postpone our event until September, our main event — which was simultaneously live-streamed from both 7th West in Oakland and Oasis in San Francisco — coincided with the hottest day of the year and fire season in upstate California. Remember the day the entire sky was orange? That was the day after. All of our computers overheated, our internet connection was constantly going down, and worst of all, my eyebrows melted off! It was truly one of the most stressful days of my life.

And yet by the end of that weekend, over 250,000 people had tuned in to our show from around the world and we had gotten rave reviews about the variety of performances that had been featured. For a small festival that usually brings in a few thousand folx in a day if we’re lucky, we knew this technology wasn’t going anywhere. And it allowed us to make our programs more accessible to all sorts of folx, including people with disabilities, hearing impairments and anyone who just didn’t want to leave their couch.

By our 2021 event, we had mastered the craft of putting on a drag show online during which we ran a 54-hour nonstop stream of drag entertainment over the course of three days. Truly a marathon, but we pulled it off seamlessly.

March 2022: Now going into the festival this year, we are ready for absolutely anything. Oaklash 2022 is going to be a hybrid online and in-person event culminating in our first ever block party on Saturday, May 28. We’re more committed than ever to making our show accessible to all audiences, and because of the time we had in the pandemic, are now better suited to do so.

Doing events in person again is in one part terrifying — there’s a constant looming fear that everything you’ve worked towards might need to get shut down at a moment’s notice to keep your community safe — but gathering is also incredibly essential to what we do. Drag as an art form is so much about showcasing and celebrating the differences that make each of us unique, and bringing people together who have nowhere else to go. We haven’t had anywhere to go for the last two years, and that’s why we’re working so hard to make it bigger and better than ever.

Oaklash: May 23-29. Details to be announced at

Reniel Del Rosario, Vallejo ceramics artist

March 2020: I remember the initial spiral that happened. News of COVID-19 spreading was pretty frequent in early March, but it still felt far away. Then one day, I was working in the ceramics studio at UC Berkeley as a guest artist and I remember Ehren Tool, the facility mechanician, busting in and saying “COVID-19’s in Berkeley!” …

Slowly I had shows and events I was to be a part of sending me notifications that they’re being canceled or postponed indefinitely, so I was out of ways to show or sell artwork. Then the ceramics studio was closing down temporarily and not allowing any usage, so I was out of a studio. Then the middle school ceramics gig I had wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I was out of a job. And then it dawned on me: I didn’t know how I was going to make art, let alone rent, with no way to sell things that I couldn’t really make. So I had to move back in with my parents back in Vallejo, which involved moving homes and creating a new studio space out of a part of the family garage. I probably didn’t make art really until May since there was so much to move and readjust in how to make.

Summer 2020: Because I work in my garage, I usually keep it open for ventilation during the day. When I started getting to the mix of making, the neighborhood would get curious. Mostly people just looked, but around the summer of 2020 people would stop by (and) ask, “What are you making?” Or, “What is that?” Or, “Is this for a show?” …

Eventually the neighborhood kids saw me using the potter’s wheel one time and they really wanted to try it out, so I let them try it out. No one could throw — I barely can to be honest — so I ended up making really tiny cups for them all and they all decorated theirs and everyone was excited. (It) really brought me back to teaching ceramics to kids, which I missed dearly.

March 2022: I’m “in a much, much better understanding of what to do in the studio in order to make all the things I do. But (I’m) still learning the ways to properly balance studio life and the rest of life. I have to drive out to the greater East Bay or San Francisco to do most things career-related or art-related.

There’s definitely moments where I need to remind myself to calm down, but my mental health has been greatly improved since the beginning of the pandemic with the worries of how to make work and finances easing off my shoulders as time went on.

As for reentering the world, it’s not as dramatic as I envisioned. It feels like all the things that were postponed in the early pandemic — shows, events, installings, openings, gigs, etc. — gradually came back full force, granted with safety measures in place for most.

I live in an immunocompromised household of eight family members, so I was very cautious and conflicted to get back into things “out there” … but the world is vicious and I needed to make artwork, go to these events, make a living, keep on with my career, maintain relationships and all that jazz, and suddenly it’s like a new normal.

Mark Fishkin, founder and director of the California Film Institute and Mill Valley Film Festival

March 2020: March 2020 hit us all like a ton of bricks — fears for my family, especially my daughters in L.A. and Hawaii, and if we would be able to retain our 30 year-round employees. Sleep was a luxury. The staff and board were incredible; we pivoted to virtual, applied for government loans and grants, our community rallied to support us, and ultimately, we remained intact.

Fall 2020 to 2021: Amazingly, CFI was able to bring people together with a 280-car pop-up drive-in in 2020; people were cheering, even though we had to stay in our car, there was a human element, finally a connection. There was hope, and there were movies.

My youngest daughter who is living in L.A. was able to spend an extended period of time with us, a blessing in the midst of a pandemic.

By fall 2021, COVID was receding. We’re ready to take the leap to an in-person for MVFF 44.

Our fears disappear; people are excitedly coming into the theater. Yes, they are masked, but you could still see their smiles.

March 2022: While not required, I still wear a mask indoors a lot of the time. For the first time in two years I’ll be traveling to the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is open, and business is picking up. Every day we see an uptick in the number of people coming out to enjoy a film on the big screen, the way film was meant to be seen.

The rebirth of dinner and a movie? As Hemingway said: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Bay Area artists and arts leaders reflect on two years of the pandemic | Datebook

Isabel Fondela, Roxie Theater director

March 2020: I vividly remember our management meeting on Thursday, March 12, 2020, when we decided to close. The next day, we got board approval and emailed all ticket holders to let them know. We thought we’d reopen two weeks later.

I also remember trying to get work done from home with my husband also working from home and a second-grade boy wanting to watch YouTube and play video games at all hours.

I also remember paying $15 for four rolls of toilet paper at a corner store.

January 2021: After giving virtual cinema a go for a few months, hosting drive-in screenings at Fort Mason, including the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, was a big highlight for me. It felt like there was light after the tunnel, and there was light after the tunnel. We reopened in May.

I also remember attending lots of Zoom meetings and events, and wanting to get a virtual background on my Zoom.

It took me a while, but at that time I stopped feeling anxious and judging other people for what they were doing with their lives: attending gatherings outside of their social bubbles, not wearing masks, and especially I let go of having negative feelings towards runners running without masks next to me.

March 2022: So far I have been lucky enough not to get sick, lose my job or my mind, or end up getting a divorce. Although I still don’t know how to put a virtual background on my Zoom, I have learned to check in more with myself and others on mental health status and needs. Being present for my family has become even more important than it was before.

Diana Gameros, Berkeley musician

March 2020: In the initial days of the pandemic I was at my home in Berkeley. When we were told we couldn’t get out nor travel, it reminded me so much of the feeling I had in the time when I found out that due to my immigration status in 2003 I wasn’t going to be able to leave the U.S.A. for many years, making me unable to visit my home country, Mexico, and my immediate family. It was a bizarre flashback, and realizing that during the pandemic most people in the world would not be allowed to travel made it even more bizarre.

As awful as this was for everybody, in a way I felt it was an opportunity for people to perhaps understand firsthand what I always try to convey through my music and when I banter in my concerts, in regards to immigration and the privilege of freedom of travel and seeing your loved ones in other countries.

July 2020: The first weeks I was still naive about the whole thing, really thinking we get could back to “normal” in the summer. Then I had a show at SFJazz Center in July, and when I received an email from them saying the show would be canceled — and seeing the website of my show with a big “CANCELED” sign — it really hit me that who knows when I was going to set foot on a stage again.

I started to perform many concerts online. Way too many. It was great at the beginning and it’s what kept me afloat financially, but as the months progressed my soul was resenting it. I missed performing live, having to sing in front of a screen and the lack of live feedback from my audiences started to weigh on me. …

Later during the pandemic, I started to work as an independent contractor for Adonde Media, as a host/voice actor for a podcast for DuoLingo, the language app. That’s been something that I really have been loving doing. I get to record myself, do it all from home, in my own time and I get to hear amazing stories and work with an amazing team of people.

I suppose this work would be relevant to music in the sense that now having this extra source of income makes it possible for me to only take musical gigs/commissions/virtual events that I really want to do and truly enjoy.

March 2022: I’m playing more piano, and that’s keeping me so happy and very motivated. Piano was my first musical love. I broke up with it after graduating from music school, (but) we’re getting back together now and it’s lovely. I’m also preparing to go back to the studio to record a new album of original music, which is way overdue.

“¡Canta Mujer Canta!”: Diana Gameros featuring Morgan Nilsen. 6:30-8:30 p.m. April 7. $15-$25. Seven Eighty, 780 Valencia St., S.F.

Champagne Hughes, Oakland educator, storyteller and pleasure activist

March 2020: I was in “The Human Ounce” at Central Works. It was my first three-person show, my first evil character, and the first thing written with me in mind. COVID happened, and we made the decision to stop this show.

I’m also a DJ, and then my biggest gig ever — thousands of dollars, three months of rent in one gig — that was canceled. I’m sitting here having anxiety attacks and panic attacks. It felt like something just died.

(By late March) I still need to be onstage. This is when Anna Deavere Smith’s docu-theater came in. I was like, “I’m going to interview people about their experiences with COVID.” I had this ambitious goal to hit 100 people — high and low — and I was able to interview 40, all different types, from bail bondsmen to counselors to poets and drag queens and thespians. It ended up being so therapeutic for them (but) so exhausting for me, because I’m intensely listening with all of my core, like, “How can I help them to a place of healing?”

June 2020: My counselor said, “OK, Dr. Hughes, I just want to let you know you’re doing my job.” I’m like, “What job?” He’s like, “You’re being a counselor.” Next month, I applied to get my master’s degree.

There’s healing powers to the arts and being in the action, redoing and allowing yourself to release. I knew nothing about drama therapy, but I was very willing to try because I needed to heal and save myself. A collective died in March. How can I heal myself while unknowingly healing others?

March 2022: I was offered “Passing Strange” before COVID started. During rehearsal, all this self-doubt came in, and now I’m in my master’s and I’m still working my full-time job. I ended up having an (anxiety) attack three weeks ago because I’m not getting any rest. Then I’m like, “If I just hold on.” But the more I held on, I became resentful. But theater is what heals me! So I asked to switch myself from lead to understudy. Being an advocate for self-care and then not giving myself care — this isn’t right.

“Passing Strange”: Through April 10. Free-$40. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. 510-841-6500.

Ruby Ibarra, San Ramon rapper

March 2020: When I first heard about COVID-19, I remember it was the start of 2020. I would hear about it on the news, not yet understanding its magnitude, but I did start to worry as my mom lived in the Philippines and I saw that the virus was impacting Asia. But I didn’t think about how quickly the virus could spread and how deadly it was.

In March 2020, on the same day that California had its first confirmed case, I also had a performance in Sacramento. I remember that day continued as “normal” for me and the people around me. Then one week later, I was at work and in the afternoon, I watched the news on TV and they announced that there would be a shutdown. I was in complete shock; it didn’t feel like reality. For one of the first times in my life, the future felt uncertain.

April 2020: Throughout the last two years, there have been major shifts in my lifestyle, daily routine and the work that I do. As a music artist, I remember by April 2020, all of my upcoming shows were canceled one after another. I remember not having any idea about what to do, and feeling like the entire world was “hitting the pause button” on life.

I did a lot of self-reflecting and learning about myself, but I also learned a lot about adapting and understanding that it is OK to not know or have everything planned. Still, there was a lot of vulnerability that came with that.

March 2022: I am currently working on completing my sophomore album, after having spent a majority of the pandemic producing and writing for it. My music is also featured in the new Fox TV series “The Cleaning Lady,” which debuted in January.

I think I’ve changed greatly in the last two years. I’ve learned a lot about public health safety and have become more mindful about it than I ever was. I feel like a different person who is now more cognizant of my health and wellness. I’ve protected my mental health by having an open communication with those close to me, and having routine talks and checking in with one another.

With the world opening up again, I feel a bit nervous but also hopeful that we’re finally on the path of overcoming this pandemic.

Margaret Jenkins, founder and artistic director of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

March 2020: My strongest, earliest memory is the performance that was scheduled for the Lab, my studio/performance space. We had sold out the show, “Encounters Over 60,” with 80 reservations. As hints of COVID-19 began to filter down to all of us, like a whisper at first, our reservation list quickly shrank to 40. We knew, but not fully yet, that all was about to change.

April 2020: The most profound effect of the pandemic was having to let my Lab at Folsom and Eighth Street go, which I had had for 15 years. Quickly it became clear — given that we were all in quarantine and I could not access the Lab and neither could dozens of other artists who rented the space — that we were going to have to relinquish our lease. Not having my own space and research center for other artists has been a significant loss.

March 2022: Currently I am at work on “Global Moves,” which will launch my 50th anniversary. It is the first event of a yearlong celebration. Reentering the world of rehearsing and being in person with my dancer/collaborators is a blessing. Spending so many months and years apart has given a certain poignancy to being back together. Having had a company for 50 years I’ve experienced many “pandemics” of a kind, but this pandemic has tried all of our souls and made us reevaluate and reacknowledge the importance of being together.

“Global Moves”: June 16-19. Tickets start at $20. Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., S.F.

Anne Lai, SFFilm executive director

March 2020: It was Friday, March 13, and my third day on the job. After an emergency board vote to cancel the 63rd San Francisco International Film Festival due to the pandemic, we took the entire staff to a nearby bowling alley bar to toast each other for the many months of hard work that would never come to fruition, try to process all that was happening in our world and lives that week, and most importantly be around friends and colleagues.

The utterly unique combination of feelings I had around moving to a new city (from Los Angeles, after leaving the Sundance Institute in January 2020), starting a new job and canceling the festival within days of each other will forever be etched in my mind.

October 2020: We hosted a weekend at the Fort Mason (Flix) drive-in, and it was magical to be safely together, at golden hour sunset with seagulls flying over the water and Barry Jenkins’ San Francisco-shot “Medicine for Melancholy” on the big screen. What was a “pandemic option” instead became the perfect, and divinely San Franciscan, night at the movies.

March 2022: After two years we’ve brought our staff back to work together at our brand-new offices in SoMa. It feels energizing to be able to prepare for the festival in a fresh new space. We are ready to welcome audiences and filmmakers back into theaters April 21.

The 65th San Francisco International Film Festival: April 21-May 1. For tickets and program announcements, go to

Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, San Francisco comedian

March 2020: (I had to get) custom masks to fit my small face. A dear friend who works with children hand-sewed a light blue mask with dainty flowers and cursive writing on it, spelling a lot of F-words. The mask encourages people to stay six feet away from me: “6 feet back motherf—r.”

July 2021: That amazing July after vaccination I told jokes in a packed bar, (with) everyone laughing at every joke. It felt like old times — until a few days later, when two audience members and two performers who were at that show texted me that they had tested positive despite being vaccinated. Then I knew it:packed, hot comedy clubs with drinking audience members, all of which make for a great comedy show, also make for a great coronavirus comeback tour.

March 2022: I am vaxxed, boosted and performing live, as well as on the occasional Zoom.I recorded my first comedy album in October, and “DHAYATRIBE” is available for purchase — including collector’s item on vinyl — or download. No shame if you are still avoiding crowds. Buying my album, you can still support artists.

“Really Funny Comedians (Who Happen to Be Women)”: 7:30 p.m. March 27. Cobb’s Comedy Club, 915 Columbus Ave., S.F. 415-928-4320.

The Moth StorySlam: 7:30 p.m. March 29. Public Works, 161 Eerie St., S.F.

Shawna Lucey, stage director and general director of Opera San José

March 2020: I spent the pandemic in Harlem, where I was home between directing assignments. I went for a walk in the park by my apartment very early in the morning wearing the one surgical mask I had. I was crying and listening to Boito’s “Mefistofele,” the big chorus at the beginning of the show; I was convinced my career was over and that we wouldn’t be able to make grand opera live again. My boyfriend (now husband) showed up later that day with a bag full of Popeyes chicken sandwiches that he had waited hours to procure to cheer me up.

July 2021: I returned to San Francisco Opera to revive my production of “Tosca,” with my 1-month-old daughter and husband. She attended almost every rehearsal and I wore her in a wrap on my chest while I directed. I was surrounded by beloved colleagues, friends and grand opera. At one of the orchestra stagings, JJ joined in the singing — loudly — but she was perfectly on pitch.

March 2022: In 2020, when I lost all of my directing work, I joined Columbia’s master’s program for nonprofit management with the goal of becoming a general director someday. This fall I was appointed general director of Opera San José, a dream come true for me. By robbing me and so many people of the ability to gather, create and enjoy great music, the pandemic strengthened my resolve to dedicate my life to opera.

Edwin Outwater, San Francisco conductor

March 2020: The pandemic began after an exhausting period of concerts for me. I remember feeling my body and mind slow down and relax like the beginning of a break or vacation, and simultaneously realizing this was going to be a very long break indeed. It was weird.

September 2020: The lengths we all went to make music happen were extraordinary and inspiring. At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where winds and brass were not allowed onstage, a no-latency audio network was installed that allowed them to be part of the orchestra from individual rooms. In February 2021, at the Chicago Symphony, we recorded Mason Bates’ new work “Philharmonia Fantastique,” section by section, over the course of a week. The amount of ingenuity and dedication from musical organizations was beyond inspiring.

March 2022: The pandemic helped me become more than just a performer. I created two films at SFCM, and wrote two songs with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, which will be released in April.

I’m still using these skills, doing more creating, producing and writing than I ever have before. That being said, I’m thrilled to be back onstage. What is really touching is seeing live music come back to life. Gradually, orchestras and audiences are beginning to grow back, bit by bit. It reminds me of the first delicate signs of spring after a long winter, of life returning slowly but surely. It makes me so emotional even thinking about this.