“Welcome Home @ 40” Interview Series: Kimi Okada

As ODC Theater celebrates 40 years of presenting with two weeks of performances, talks, exhibition and dance parties, I sat down with some of the individuals who have shaped the theater’s curation for the past four decades. ODC Associate choreographer and founding member Kimi Okada remembers the early days of programming and talks about the values that have sustained the theater since its inception.

Marie Tollon: Can you talk about the early years of presenting artists?

Kimi Okada: We moved here in 1976 and found a small studio on Mississippi Street on Potrero Hill. We completely renovated the space, which was kind of a long shoebox of a space. We sanded the floors, added an office and another small space. We didn’t know anybody and knew from the beginning that we needed to create a community. So we decided to teach a few classes and since we were brand new to the scene, we took it upon ourselves that, every weekend, we all split up and went to see as much as we could –dance, theater, music, multimedia performances, site-specific performances… It was everything from the most grassroots experimental works to the ballet.

We were a collective and met about everything, so we would have meetings to talk about the work that we had seen. We decided to start sponsoring and presenting artists once a month in our space. We called the program the Performing Arts Forum, and it eventually became the ODC Theater. The 2 or 3 classes we taught became the ODC School. And the company was always the company. The Mississippi Street space was a tiny version of what the New Performance Gallery ultimately became. We were always interested in creating a forum for lively discussions about art making and art viewing. We taught an Aesthetics class and started a magazine called the New Performance journal, inviting national writers to submit articles.

There was always a culture of wanting to support other people and share resources. We did so many diverse kinds of performances there. We had dance/theater, postmodern dance, puppetry, new music. Bill Irwin did his first piece there, The Regard of Flight. It was really about the art, that was the driving force behind it. It was also about asking ourselves: How can we invite artists into our space? How can we start a lively conversation? How can we get people to see other people[‘s work] and ours? When I look at what we have become, nothing has changed in terms of what we valued in 1976. It is just that everything got bigger!

When we bought the building here in 1980, the floor was not finished and we were under the gun because we had an entire roster of artists lined up to perform, including the Jazz Tap Ensemble, which was getting a lot of attention at the time. We were way behind in our renovation. We all did the work and had round the clock, 24-hour shifts to get enough of the floor done! I had never jack hammered a plumbing line before, but I remember having a 2am to 8am shift with a couple of other collective members. We just built the floor as fast as we possibly could to get a third of it done so that the artists could perform. We did it by the skin of our teeth! We put folding chairs on top of plastic, in between the sleepers on the ground, we got porta potties, and we put Christmas lights all around. And that was our first show at the new space. It was memorable!

Many of the artists who came through are still working in San Francisco, many are famous. We were always interested in quality, we wanted to push the definition of what contemporary dance was. We wanted to be a space that embraced innovation, experiment and risk. We wanted to present people who had a voice that was worth listening to, whether we liked it or not. I don’t think that has changed either. The seeds for that go way back to the fact that we were an artist-driven organization. This is where our heart really lies, in believing in the power of art and wanting to make that happen.

MT: ODC Theater has gone through tremendous changes throughout the years. What has changed the most in your opinion?

KO: The numbers! The quality of our space and our capacity to fully present have changed a lot from our little shoebox of a space to this beautiful, state of the art, fully equipped theater. The space allows a wider range of work and can be dressed so many ways. Having the theater sit in an institution that has become much more institutionalized, and has established a reputation has changed as well. Each theater director has come in with a different criteria for curation and the organization of it has certainly changed. It used to be the collective going “Oh I like that, let’s invite that artist” and it became much more formal. We have been able to offer more resources to artists as we have gotten bigger.