Epic Arts in the news...

"A lot of people have said this is the kind of experience they've been wanting or missing" - East Bay Express, from "There Goes the Neighborhood", August 2003 (full article)
""For us it's about people who are willing to collaborate in community..[we] want people to see this as a resource, but also as a place where they can influence what's happening" - El Cerrito Journal, from "Arts Community Rising", February 2003 (full article)
"Epic Arts set out to give the new district an identity as "Berkeley's own 'Off-Broadway.'" - Berkeley Daily Planet, from "Gala Benefit Celebrates City's Newest Addition: The Ashby Arts District", August 2003
"What is most encouraging about (the Ashby Arts District) is that it was not imposed by city planners, but rather organized by the artists themselves." - The Berkeley Voice, August 2003 (full article)

"We want this to be an annual mission of rejuvenation that will unite and inspire people to make a lasting difference." - Berkeley Daily Planet, from "South Berkeley Neighbors Show Pride With Mural", October 2003

"We really appreciate your commitment to youth and the arts" - Bob Foster, Director, Longfellow Middle School Jazz Band
"Storyteller Tim Barsky's new collection of pieces, on the other hand, which premiered at Berkeley's intimate Epic Arts performance space and moves over to the Exit in San Francisco this month, is anything but bland." - East Bay Express, from "Why Theater Perserveres" (full article)


There Goes the Neighborhood
Ashby Avenue gets artsy.

Among the many things that make an arts district different than a Wal-Mart or a Starbucks is that when an arts district moves in, people don't lament the loss of their neighborhood. Even in Berkeley, where you'd have to be delusional or a recluse to think there's a shortage of local culture, a little more is always welcome.

Or a lot more. That's the thinking behind the formation of the Ashby Arts District, which officially opens this weekend with a benefit concert at the Transparent Theatre. People from Epic Arts, La Peña Cultural Center, the Jazz House, and other nearby expression outlets will congregate to get their collective culture on. Each evening will feature performances by Rosin Coven, a local Edward Gorey-esque cabaret and chamber ensemble; and two musicians from Moscow, Alexander Tsygankov and Inna Shevchenko, who've played Carnegie Hall and the White House, among other venues, and are now finally ready for Ashby.

"It's always been such a magnet for gatherings," says Justin Katz, who is program director for Epic Arts, bassist for Rosin Coven, and the Ashby Arts District impresario all in one -- and who could therefore be described without hyperbole as a tireless crusader for creativity. "The location is so ideal for people finding it and finding each other," he says. "One of the purposes of an arts district is to tell the rest of the city, the greater surrounding area, "Hey, look at this happening place -- it's worth a trip over for music, art, poetry, performances, classes, workshops, and who knows what?'"

That Ashby should have to work so hard for attention seems to imply a robust array of cultural opportunities everywhere else. Downtown and West Berkeley have their districts, too, of course. But availability doesn't always equal access; Katz and company hope to create a destination "with a lower-priced, more cutting-edge, Off-Broadway feel." That means plenty of pay-what-you-can nights and not, he avows, just a bunch of fancy new restaurants. "I've lived in that area for many years," Katz says, "and I know that at times it's been disparaged. A lot of people have said this is the kind of experience they've been wanting or missing."

The announcement of a self-labeled arts district is always a bit risky -- it requires an active compact between a community's creative types and its consumers. The best such places tend to evolve organically, and cannot be manufactured or conjured by marketing alone. But the extra push helps. "I think there's a grassroots mentality that says you do it independently, you do it yourself, and you don't want to have the government, the city, involved," Katz says. But city support, including a recent Civic Arts Commission grant, has been a welcome surprise and an education. "We're working on the mayor's declaration of the district," he adds, "but not waiting for it."

This weekend's benefit, designed to offer a kind of Ashby Arts buffet, is intended to raise enough money for a community calendar, regularly highlighting the noteworthy activities of the district's artists and performers. If all goes well, perhaps every BART station along the Richmond line will eventually become a fountain of public creativity. Saturday and Sunday, August 2 and 3, 8 p.m., Transparent Theater, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. $20. For more information or reservations, call 510-644-2204 or visit Epicarts.org or Transparenttheater.org.

East Bay Express - originally published: July 30, 2003

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El Cerrito Journal
Arts community rising
By Brian Kluepfel

Want to lounge on some comfy couches, listen to some new music, hear a poetry reading or take cello lessons?

Two doors down from one of Berkeley's busiest corners, crisscrossed by half a dozen bus lines and across the street from the Ashby BART station, stands a new center for the arts that itself is an intersection for the local arts community.

Epic Arts, a nonprofit that plans to offer concerts, art exhibits, workshops and readings, is holding a swanky, kick-off fund-raiser this Saturday, Feb. 15. The gala Belle Epoque dinner's title is a reflection of the space's raison d'etre, so to speak: to provide a low-cost, low-pressure space where artists and artisans of all stripes can meet and introduce new ideas and work. A show Vincent Avalos' multimedia work hangs in the gallery, while couches in the Moroccan-style salon are piled high with pillows, awaiting patrons of the first series of shows, which this month include the Pick Pocket Ensemble (guitars, fiddles, accordions) and Arjuna, a world music group that features Tibetan horn and Tuvan throat singing.

Although Saturday's benefit carries a hefty $100 price tag, it goes to help Epic Arts' goal of providing an inexpensive, self-sufficient site for artists. Most events on the calendar (www.epicarts.org) request a $10 donation.

Epic Arts founders Justin Katz, Ashley Berkowitz and Tanya Hurd have tried this venture before, operating a 6,000-square-foot warehouse space in East Oakland as Jingletown Gallery. Each brings expertise to the proceedings: Berkowitz is vice president of a local business management and consulting company. Katz, who met Berkowitz when both were students at UC San Diego in 1991, has performed in cafes and on street corners around the world and now belongs to the local group Rosin Covin. Katz's Paradox Media company books and coordinates bands' touring itineraries. Hurd's background ranges from ballet to community theater in the Bronx: After she and Katz collaborated on a New York event, she decided that 17 years of cold winters were enough.

"Justin and I were doing the same thing, except I was doing it in New York," said Hurd. "We just joined forces."

Taking the lessons of economy of scale (Epic's space is a manageable three rooms) and separation of work and home, they hope to make themselves part of what Katz is calling the "Ashby Arts District," which could comprise Epic Arts, the new Transparent Theater, the Black Repertory Theater, La Pena and more. Katz noted that artistic organizations might be able to share the costs of calendars and similar promotional outreach.

Epic Arts also will be a place for locals to study -- cello with concert cellist Beth Vandervennet, and puppet-making and puppeteering with Gitty Duncan and Mary Ellen Hill of Puppets and Pie.
"We want to have programs for kids and be more accessible to wider audiences," said Berkowitz. "You couldn't get to Jingletown Gallery without a car."

"It's really great what Epic is doing," said puppeteer Duncan, who also made the pillows for the new place. "It's a good way to invite people who wouldn't ordinarily sign up for arts classes, and for kids who don't have art in schools."

Duncan teaches art in the Oakland public school system and is directly aware of how few schools can afford to offer art class.

Epic Arts will also assist blossoming artists by providing an online grants directory and a computer and grant library in its gallery. A teachers' exchange will allow educators to trade ideas and methodologies.
Katz's wife, Carrie, and Duncan will also teach an art therapy class in the fall, in which adults can make and confront "an inner critic that they want to exorcise."

"For us, it's about people who are willing to collaborate in community," said Berkowitz. "I've always been aware of the bounty of creative energy around here."

Berkowitz said budding artists can submit ideas and projects on the Epic Arts Web site (www.epicarts.org). "I want people to see this as a resource but also as a place where they can influence what's happening," he said.

El Cerrito Journal - originally published: Feb. 14, 2003

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Concert to celebrate 'Ashby Arts District'
By Anukene Warda

The Berkeley band Rosin Coven and Moscow's world-renowned player of the ancient domra, Alexander Tsygankov, will play a concert this weekend at Transparent Theater to celebrate and introduce the newly named Ashby Arts District.

The concert is a benefit to help promote and make official an already active arts area, say organizers. Proceeds will go to printing and distributing a community calendar. The advocates of the arts district want to put together a newsletter that will list all the visual and performing arts.

"An arts district would raise consciousness and enthusiasm about the artistic community," said Justin Katz, program director of Epic Arts, which initiated the process.

Black Repertory Theater, Epic Arts, La Peña, Nomad Café, Starry Plough, The Jazz House, and Transparent Theater are all within the district.

"We hope the whole area will collaborate, and engage as wide an audience as possible," said Katz, who visualizes an Ashby arts calendar that would keep neighbors informed of performances and artists aware of each other.

"There is something going on every night, but most people don't know about it," said Katz.
He hopes that as word spreads, more members of the community will share their art, help others to do so, or simply enjoy it.

"It's an ideal place," said Ashby resident Michael Caplan. "There is terrific public transportation in the area, with AC Transit and BART."

Caplan was formerly the downtown coordinator and oversaw the development of the Downtown Arts District.

"What is most encouraging about (the Ashby Arts District)," he said, "is that it was not imposed by city planners, but rather organized by the artists themselves."

And an art district could attract profit, they say. "The sense of revitalization will draw restaurants, cafés, and shops," said Caplan. Many neighbors are excited by the picture being painted: a thriving community that revolves around art.

"It's just a concept right now," said Caplan. "If other neighbors come out and support, the idea would become a reality."

The Berkeley Voice - originally published Aug. 01, 2003

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Why Theater Perseveres
Three new works give the lie to the notion that it's a moribund medium.

Storyteller Tim Barsky's new collection of pieces, on the other hand, which premiered at Berkeley's intimate Epic Arts performance space and moves over to the Exit in San Francisco this month, is anything but bland. Traditional storytelling does something different with rhythm, ideally making even the most mundane story sing with mystery. Barsky is here to prove it with Over Nine Waves, which fuses ancient storytelling techniques with contemporary issues, hip-hop, and unusual sounds. Barsky, who recently did the music for Shotgun's Oedipus Rex, is back on familiar ground with a selection of old and new stories backed up by the surprising and exotic combination of cello, hand drum, bass guitar, flute, and beatbox. It doesn't sound like it's going to work, phrased that way, but it totally does; the end result is lush, tender, and haunting.

Barsky brings four pieces: a short, character-laden traditional West African Anansi the Spider story, two tales of social activism, and finally the complex 2,100-year-old Irish love story of Midr and Eideen. He manages a seamless blending of sources and sounds which somehow retain a feeling of antiquity while taking place in subways and cities. Barsky's lions carry pagers and his bees drink soy lattes; an eleven-year-old neighbor turns briefly into a cop-eating demon and a handsome prince rides by his beloved on horseback as she heads to the Laundromat.

All of the musicians working with Barsky do exemplary, subtle work, but one stands out for sheer bravura. Process, who quietly plays along during the first three stories, warms up the crowd after intermission with a description-defying display of beatbox talent, from replicating Rob Bass' "It Takes Two" and classic Salt 'n' Pepa to dropping drum and bass breaks, which should be physically impossible. Barsky also beatboxes -- into his flute -- to startling effect, while cellist Jess Ivry and bassist/percussionist Shree Shyam lay down smooth, evocative melodies.

Sliding effortlessly from a group of bystanders who end up in jail in the course of monitoring police activity ("You went out for the crack dealers and came back with four white activists?" one cop asks disbelievingly of another) and a kindergarten teacher caught up in the Seattle WTO protests to a story of "the love you don't dream of as an adult," replete with blood magicians, curses, and women turning into butterflies, Barsky's Over Nine Waves is not only a new force in theater, but sophisticated, impassioned storytelling at its best.

East Bay Express - originally published June 4th, 2003

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