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BWW Interview: Sean San José of THE NEW AGE OF MAGIC GALA at Magic Theatre Wants to Invite Everyone to the Party

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This year's Magic gala on August 5th promises a fun time to kick back and just enjoy being together again

BWW Interview: Sean San José of THE NEW AGE OF MAGIC GALA at Magic Theatre Wants to Invite Everyone to the Party
Magic Theatre Artistic Director Sean San José
(photo by Joan Osato)

For his opening salvo as Magic Theatre's newly appointed Artistic Director, Sean San José is throwing a party. On Thursday, August 5th, Magic will present its 2021 gala The New Age of Magic: Celebrating the New Artistic Director Sean San José outdoors at Fort Mason. San José strongly believes theater should be for everyone, not just people of means, so in lieu of a typical high-end gala aimed primarily at wealthy donors, Magic is hosting a more egalitarian event with ticket prices starting at a very reasonable $25. For those with the ability and desire to pay more, there are opportunities to do just that, including a VIP champagne reception. Mainly, though, the goal is to bring people together after so many months of isolation, to kick back, have some fun and celebrate both Magic's astonishing 55-year legacy of producing bold, new plays and the exciting possibilities presented by San José's tenure as its leader. The gala will feature entertainment, outdoor games, raffles and silent auctions. Food from Off the Grid and drinks will be available for purchase. Tickets and additional information are available at magictheatre.org.

San José is a Bay Area theater maker, performer and producer with a 25-year track record of championing innovative and impactful new work. A San Francisco native, his history is inextricably linked with Magic, going all the way back to seeing his first play there as a 17-year-old and extending right up to recent years working closely with former Magic artistic directors Mame Hunt and Loretta Greco on numerous Magic productions. He is also a Co-Founder and current Program Director of Campo Santo, a performance group that has developed and premiered nearly 100 new works for and by People of Color since 1996.

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with San José by phone. Although I've seen him perform onstage many times over the past few decades, I'd never met him before. He is incredibly easy to talk to - honest and open, without any pretense, warm and funny. He is also, unsurprisingly, super smart about theater, but his is a deep knowledge gained from extensive on-the-job experience rather than some elite graduate program. Nothing about him feels studied or academic. Among other things, we talked about his surprise at being appointed Magic's Artistic Director, his deep appreciation for Magic's legacy and his passion for opening theater up to invite in more people. His description of his own utterly baffling first trip to a theater as a teenager is eye-opening. The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

I'm calling you from my home in San Francisco. Where am I reaching you today?

Believe it or not, I am at a place called Magic Theatre in lovely Fort Mason. I've been going in this last month or so. It's dusty and empty, but it feels very exciting to be back in the space again, as we enter back into the world, so it's been really cool. And I'm excited about the whole fall in general, about all of us coming back.

For Magic's August 5th gala, it sounds like you're taking a different approach from years past. Why did you want to change things up?

Being appointed to this position, I was really surprised and humbled, but also excited because of the possibilities it represented, that we could make this bastion of bold new plays, this hallowed theater place at the edge of the city, a home for more people in more ways. I'm very committed to that, to make Magic continue to be bold, but to do it in a way that allows it to become a home for more people. I've been to many of Magic's annual galas, I've performed at them, and they're great and spectacular oftentimes. But I just felt very strongly that if my first big event were to be a fancy gala with high-end tickets, that was really a mixed message.

The bottom line - I buried the lede on this - is having a party means the starting price is not $500. The starting price is $25, like we want everyone to come in. If me being the leader of this new era at Magic is about making more home, we better do that from day one, and one of the ways will be to make it more accessible. I know it's not free, but $25 to support an institution that is in great need of support I think is a win-win for folks.

And mainly, we'll have a good time. I think when we get together these first few times, we should blow it out, we should have fun first, as opposed to go back to business as usual or try to create something really fancy and spectacular. I would much rather have us celebrate being in the same space, being able to breathe and play and jam together, and I think that's also going to be part of the energy going forward at Magic.

Making home for more people is a wonderful goal, but theater is also expensive to produce, particularly if you're going to pay folks anything like a living wage. How do you balance bringing in more people and paying for it? How do you make that possible?

I mean, that's the question. I think our main attack is gonna be "Let's populate this place first." So taking away everything that creates an air of exclusivity, which does come across in ticket prices, in subscribers only, all of the things that have become somehow the staples and foundations of American theater, so-called. I think they have helped this field survive, but they have also left out untold numbers of people. So I think the first thing we want to do is open the doors, literally and otherwise. Like come in, come one, come all.

Now how does that equate to money? It's not one-to-one, but I think if we make this place a destination, if we make it a home to artists, more things are possible, more things are created, more people show up, therefore there's more transactions happening, whether it's onstage or off. And the by-product of making this place a generator of community and creators is more work comes out. That doesn't mean Magic Theatre all the sudden has a 55-play season [laughs], but it means the place is happening and alive and open 10 months out of 12, as opposed to a theater that does 4 plays and is open 6 or 7 months.

We're going to open up these doors to see what's possible, but also to unleash this unlimited potential of what's in the Bay Area. Like space is the issue, certainly not the only issue, but it's way, way up there. I think once you provide space for people it creates something really immediate - "Oh, great, now I can do my work." But it also gives you the invaluable thing of having home. I can speak to that personally, being part of Campo Santo. For years, we had this very special long-term residency under Deborah Cullinan at Intersection for the Arts. Knowing we had home and space superseded everything - whether we did the most incredible production, had a hit show, got a huge grant. All things become possible when you have home. Because home becomes the place where all can be seated.

And that goes back to what I'm saying about exclusivity and inclusivity. If we continue to be in the world of theater that is seen by a certain number of people with a certain set of strictures in place, then it will remain that way, and it is questionable how long that model will sustain. But if we open it back up, the people are always there, the community have been here forever, and the potential possibilities of work are infinite.

When I saw the announcement that you'd been chosen as Magic's new Artistic Director, I have to admit my reaction was "Well, of course!" It just made sense to me, given your deep history within the Bay Area theater community, not to mention that you're a native San Franciscan. It seemed kind of inevitable. Did it feel that way to you?

No, I would say quite the opposite. I think the luxury and reality of what I've been able to do, most profoundly with Campo Santo, is just do the work with a sense of belief and integrity. To do that makes everything real and clear. I think once you start negotiating your mission or beliefs or integrity with outcomes beyond your control, i.e. a review, national exposure, audiences, whatever that may be, you undermine the intent and therefore take away the positive energy that goes into it. I feel like the stuff I believe in and stand for has an audience, has a community, but doesn't necessarily have resonance with the so-called powers that be in the theater world. So it certainly didn't feel like I had a clear-cut case to make [for becoming Magic's AD].

I've had a very special and personal path with Magic. I saw my first play here, I got my Equity card here, I've met so many important people here, I essentially trained under two incredible women in [former AD's] Mame Hunt and Loretta Greco. So it's meant a lot to me, and certainly as someone that lives to create new plays, it has meant something to me historically. But in terms of who leads that, who visions that, who populates that? I'm the first person of color in a leadership position in a 55-year history, so just based on that I certainly didn't see this coming. [laughs]

And that actually made it a purer interview process when I did engage with the board of Magic, because I felt really clear that I wasn't trying to angle anything, I wasn't trying to sell them. I asked, "Look, I don't mean to sound off-putting, but can you tell me honestly is Magic interested in listening to another possibility?" And they said "Yeah, we honestly are." I said, "Great. Then that's all I can ask for, and I would be honored to be considered." And when I held interviews with the committee and the board, it felt so honest because I had no sense of expectation, other than that I believe in Magic so I at least wanted them to hear another possibility of the way things can be done. Clearly, it's been done well in several different iterations, but I think there's a way they can root it in community and in the Bay Area more directly.

I feel really lucky, and also doubly blessed if you will, having reaped the rewards of the previous era. I was lucky to work very closely under Loretta Greco multiple times. I certainly couldn't do what Loretta achieved here, but I can offer a lot of potential, of how we can make this place home for more people and still create bold, beautiful plays.

The first play on Magic's schedule this fall is the world premiere of Taylor Mac's Joy and Pandemic which Loretta will also be directing. So unlike a lot of incoming artistic directors, you seem to have no qualms about working with your immediate predecessor.

Let me just say not only do I have no problems, but it's absolutely a gift to have Loretta directing it, especially as we transition into a new era and present a first play. Loretta is responsible for having brought the genius of Taylor Mac to the Bay Area in a big way with The Lily's Revenge and everything that followed. So I feel it only makes sense and it's kind of a boundless gift.

I have a very close relationship with Loretta, to the point that I can remember when she called me before she announced it publicly [that she'd be stepping down]. At one point Loretta even asked me, "Would you be interested?" And I said, "Hell, no!" [laughs] Because I know her so well, I know how hard the gig is. And it was like "Are you tripping?" Watching Loretta create a family of people here at Magic has been a joy to witness and be part of. The relentlessness to create excellence that Loretta does is so admirable and awe-inspiring, and also just makes me think of her in a totally other league than me.

That's why following in her footsteps I don't feel as daunted. Because I know I'm not even dancing in the same ballroom as she's in. We're totally different. If Magic had said "Can you sustain what Loretta did, and we'd like to offer you the job." I would have to say, "No, thank you." I am not capable of that. I have not the energy, the wisdom, the drive to do that. And this endless pursuit of excellence is really rare to see. Everything she did was about reaching those heights, and I learned a lot from witnessing that.

And then there's the writers we mutually admire. You're getting the great Luis Alfaro to write a new play? Holy shit! You know? You're bringing one of our sheroes, Jessica Hagedorn? Omigod! And so there are a lot of mutual aesthetics. We're both people that love writers. I mean, I can't say enough about her work. And more importantly, as much as I cherish the hours that she directed and shaped plays I was part of, I've also spent hours talking ideas and sharing open, honest thoughts over her excellent, very strong coffee. I've never worked with a director that is as muscular, as quick, as sharp, as straightforward, that can make so much happen. And you get all this stuff done in a really hard-working but fun and real way.

I wanted to go back to the very first play you ever saw, which happened to be at Magic. Do you recall your impressions of that experience at the time?

I was really young, like 17 or something, and had never seen a play so the whole experience of seeing a play, that's what sticks with me so deeply. Like I had understood plays to be this far-away, removed, foreign thing. Even walking into a place as mellow and kind of hippie-ish as Magic Theatre, it still had a stricture, a set of rules, a decorum, that I was completely ignorant of and no one was offering any instructions. So I was just like OK I don't belong here, I'm lost, this is why me and my family have never been to a play, because of all this. Like I don't know what this is. On the 38 [bus], I'd been by those two big theaters on Geary Street, but I had never been in 'em. I had never even considered being in them, but here I was and it was anxiety-making, to be honest. You walk in, people seem to know where to put their coats, and I'm like "You're giving your coat to somebody?!" It was just baffling to me. Like "Here's a pamphlet" and everyone knows what the pamphlet means? I was like "What? We're supposed to read?! What's going on?" Everyone knows how to sit, when to sit, when to hush and not say anything.

And then - the lights come up and that's when my whole world got blown open, because all the sudden, there's a human being onstage. A child and a parent are in a kitchen, and they're talking. Consciously and unconsciously in that moment, I realized - and I know this sounds really basic - that this thing onstage, for us here 50-60 feet away, is to reflect what we live. It was mind-shattering to me. I never knew anything like that was possible. They were live human beings, and the idea that they were expressing themselves openly, honestly, nakedly - and it was old Magic Theatre, so sometimes actually naked - it was amazing.

And then to feel, and I didn't cogitate all this at once, that the people sitting next to me were also experiencing something on the level that I was. Not the same thing, but they were relating to it and finding a way to connect into that. So all of the sudden I was like "Holy mackerel! There's a hundred and eight-three of us, and we're all experiencing this live moment and it's channeling through each and every one of us." And that was just amazing, that there's a place where you can go to experience the real world.

Because for me, and for most of us I'm sure, it's not easy to understand life. I'm a child of immigrants, I'm an islander, and we have weird ways of expressing, and not expressing, ourselves. I grew up as what it turns out was poor, so there were all these have-nots in my head and in my heart. I didn't know how to express myself, I didn't know that people expressed themselves. Not to paint a picture that I had a harsh upbringing. I had a completely loving upbringing. That's what makes it even more baffling. I had a mother and grandmother and many aunties that raised me and loved me to death. So I understood love and family, but I didn't understand my own inner workings, and how to therefore interact with the world that I was about to enter and had been in for 17 years.

And then, lo and behold, there's this strange place where you not only create, but you have a way to sort of gauge and inspect and investigate the real world. What an amazing gift that is. And that has always stuck with me, because I know that whatever work I'm doing has that piece in it. All the new work we do is about creating an experience that can hopefully seed a dialog that helps you confront something in the real world.

I don't know what would have happened if I didn't go to the theater to figure that out. Cause I loved books, I loved movies, but you control that interaction. I close the book when I'm bored or I've read too much. I turn away from the movie and buy popcorn or I go to the bathroom, and you know it's celluloid. There's something really different about seeing a live human being. It doesn't mean that every experience is profound, but it offers the possibility that you consider the world, and for this moment we actually are reminded that we all live in this world together. Not to get too hippy-dippy about it, but it's true, and to me it's an invaluable tool to get through life. For this moment in time, whether it's 70 minutes or two hours that you're in a theater, you get to consider it. Then hopefully you hold onto it and you can build on that. And for weirdos like you and me, we hold onto it forever and we keep building on it, cause we keep seeing plays, and we see the cumulative power of that experience, you know?

Yeah, for me it just keeps getting richer over time.

And having seen as many plays like you and I have, people will go "Oh, you're really into imagination and make believe." But it's actually the opposite. It actually helps me get more in touch with my reality, my emotions, you know? You would think it's all about creating pictures and imaginary dialog, but it's actually a reflection back to that real world. So that will never go away. It will deepen, the farther you get into it.

The last play I saw you in at Magic was Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour. For the run of that play, a different solo actor did it at each performance without having even seen the script until it was unsealed onstage in front of the audience. What was that experience like for you as an actor?

I have to tell you, I was absolutely terrified. I had done his other piece, and this one was even more - can it be more unknown, I guess?! [laughs] Nassim was very far-fucking-out. You stand onstage, they give you a manila envelope, you read the script out loud, which is basically a list of instructions, and you do them. And that was just like "Holy shit!" But I made it through and no one walked out of the theater and no one got hurt.

I love theater because I love scripts. So you put me in a situation where you go "Just riff." and I shut down. I'm like "Give me the line! I want to dive completely into the line and get lost in it." And then to go like "You have no lines, kid!"? And you kind of have to be you - I mean I could I suppose pretend to be a version of me, and there was a bit of that, but it felt vulnerable and that was really wild.

But it was at Magic, and it was such a warm vibe. Like we all had the same amount of information, and that was also kind of the shared joy. We were like "Oh, shit!" But "Oh, shit" together, as opposed to "I think he's gonna crash into a wall." You were all going "I have no idea." and I'm looking at you all going like "I have no idea!" But then the real joy of that was getting to interact with him [Soleimanpour]. He was there [backstage] the whole time, so it had this bizarre - not bizarre, but very special anchor. Bizarre in that he didn't talk, you know, so that I couldn't ask him to help me in any way. But he was there, so he wasn't gonna let me crash.

You always try to get to that point when you're doing a performance, where you're playing the words so much that it feels akin to music, that you're just riding it. And Nassim, because there was no way to try and control it, once you just give in you were truly, not only riding, you were kind of flying. So I walked out of it not dripping with sweat and not, you know, peeing on myself [laughs], and it was really fun.

You've been working in theater for decades now. When you think back on everything you've done, can you tell me about a play or a production you were involved in that felt most like you or how you see the world? One that still resonates for you, like "Yeah, that one was me."

I mean, to be corny and honest, I always feel like the next one is the one, you know whatever you're working on. But I will say two things. One is this great writer, Star Finch. She's just the most amazing writer, and she's from San Francisco, too. We've worked with her for several years now. We did a bunch of smaller projects or collaborative projects, and then her first full-length we produced was called H.O.M.E. And it sounds weird to say like this play is the one, but it's the way she takes from our world so clearly and then reimagines it in a future world. That play is called H.O.M.E. because it stands for "Hookers on Mars Eventually." Half of it takes place on Mars and half of it takes place in Oakland, and it's really, really Oakland and, as far as we know, it's really, really an imagined Mars in 10 or 15 years. There's something so profound about being able to take what we're living here experientially and then place it like in orbit, literally in this case. I feel like vision-wise Star Finch speaks so deeply to me.

And then on a real personal, performed level, I was part of one of Luis Alfaro's plays that he wrote for Campo Santo called Alleluia, The Road. There was something about the way we staged it in an intimate way, and the spiritual journey that everyone in that play was on that I could certainly relate to without researching, if that makes sense.

But I feel like that's the question I unconsciously ask myself before I bring someone back to the group, like is this a person we've gotta work with, because whatever work I have seen of theirs has touched me in that way, and it's that deep that you go like, that's it. I mean, I've seen Roger Guenveur Smith perform stories of Rodney King, of Frederick Douglass, of Huey P. Newton, people that are not at all like my life. But I am so profoundly, personally, spiritually, emotionally affected by it that it sears right into me. So it's not always the one-to-one. It would be easy for me to go like "Well, Jessica Hagedorn," cause I'd never seen a potent Filipina female experience on the stage. And seeing that, that's my mom. But it's not always the one-to-ones, you know what I'm saying?

Those are the writers. And it's because whatever I see of theirs, I unconsciously know I will have that experience. That experience that will answer that question you have, that I could go "I just saw a Richard Montoya and it was this. I just saw a Jessica Hagedorn and it was this. Colman Domingo wrote this and I felt that." I feel that way about any of those writers. And that's why when I work with writers, and Campo Santo works with writers, there's nothing about a [single] production or a commission. We're like "We're doing this [play] and whatever you wanna keep doing." Because it's about the long road.

I realize that was a complicated kind of question, but you're new in this role so I thought people might want to know like "Just who is Sean San José?" ... without me trying to psychoanalyze you! [laughs]

Going back to my sort of corny theater-camp thing about "What would I do without theater?" that's the thing, Jim. Honestly, I wouldn't know myself if I didn't find myself in Naomi Iizuka's writing, in Richard Montoya's writing, inside of Jessica Hagedorn's writing, in Star Finch's world. I know that sounds ignorant or profoundly unhealthy, but if you're working with writers that are so honestly and boldly cracking open the world, in their revealing the world it actually reveals yourself to yourself.

You know, we've learned ways to work through life, whether it's through our upbringing, through our culture, through our gender. Like life is hard, but we're also resilient beings and we get through it. And in the working through it, and I know this from watching my aunties and my mom and my grandmother, you also have this part of you that is hidden, maybe unknown even to yourself. So I get this great gift of being able to explore a character, and one way to do it is to go completely in, and in doing that you go "I can do this." Not just because I have a facility to mimic, but because I'm somehow accessing some emotion or spirit in me that connects back to a piece of writing that on paper, on the surface, I wouldn't say has a similar biography to me. So I feel like it's kind of like a school. I never went to any kind of training or university and I feel lucky that through these plays not only do I learn about myself, I learn about the world.


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