top of page

When Art Confronts the Law

CIARA LONG, HOST: And now for the next installment in our commentary series. Reporter Aseem Shukla has a side career as an amateur actor. He’s been appearing in plays since he was a teenager... he says some of those shows have pushed boundaries… but only one ran afoul of the law.


I have done a lot of weird shows. I’m telling you, I will do anything for an audience.

Four years ago, my friend Steve invited me to be in an immersive play. The story took place in an alternate version of the jazz age, where rich people could pay to come back from the dead.

The really wild part, though, wasn’t the play, it was the venue. Steve had partnered with this guy named Eugene who ran a real speakeasy-- I mean like an actual illegal bar. It was on Yerba Buena Island, which is in the middle of San Francisco Bay. He called it the Signal Room, and it was on top of an abandoned Coast Guard tower.

On the night of the show, we hiked up through a eucalyptus wood to get to the abandoned tower, and snuck in through a loose board. Then, we climbed four flights of creaky stairs. They felt like they might give out any minute. It was pitch black.

At the top, you could see everything, from the fog rolling in through the Golden Gate to the sunlight on the Oakland hills. Eugene had decorated the walls inside with old maps, newspapers, and theater programs. In one corner was a full bar. In another, somehow, he had a working upright piano.

Steve led us in a quick final run-through. And as the sun set over the city, we lit candles.

And that was when the voice broke in from a megaphone outside. “We know you’re in there, and we need you to get out right now!”

We blew out the candles, and everyone got down on the floor. Just in time, because the cops started shining floodlights through the windows. Crawling into the dark stairwell, Steve bombarded Eugene with messages—had this ever happened before? What should we do? Did he have a backup plan?

Eugene messaged back: just be quiet, and wait until the cops leave. They get tips all the time, they never actually come inside to check.

I had no experience of hiding out from the San Francisco Police, and we hoped Eugene was right. But it didn’t seem like these guys were going anywhere. If anything, the shouting was getting louder. Soon enough, the cops announced they were coming in, and started banging a truncheon on the door downstairs.

Steve yelled, “we're coming out!”

The four policemen asked us what the hell we were doing. Steve told them, we’re doing a play. They asked where the audience was. We said, they’re not here yet. The cops sighed and radioed back that they’d removed “some artsy group” from the tower. They told us we were trespassing on military property, and that we could face months in prison and a hefty fine.

For about ten minutes, I really thought I was going to jail. But finally, they told us the Coast Guard was not going to press charges, and to leave and never come back. So we didn’t: we went to get drinks, legally, to drown our sorrows about the play that could have been.

When I think about this episode, I do smile about our tiny act of criminality. I’m a rule-following kind of guy, and this whole thing was pretty exciting by my standards. Mostly, I think about the unanswered questions. How did Eugene find this place? Why did the cops pick that night, of all nights, to crack down? And most of all, how the hell did anyone get a piano up there?

LONG: Aseem is still acting, but he’s limited his site-specific performances to people’s backyards... with their permission. Only one time did a landlady get mad, and she... didn’t call the police.


bottom of page