• January 26, 2023

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An iconic SF theatre finds its way back by leveraging its greatest asset — people

At the risk of sounding like a complete egghead, let me start by saying I have a theory about parties. I’d rather write about a party than attend one. And if I were to attend one, I’d likely help decorate the wall. I can’t drink (anymore). I can’t dance (never could). From the gaze of a wallflower, I’d probably share my thoughts with anyone at the party willing to hear them. But since I’m not attending this party — at the Magic Theatre tomorrow night — let me share my pet theory.

In my money-making life, I’m a brand strategist. Put simply, I find ways for my clients to engage their customers by leveraging my client’s best assets. If you are a lifestyle brand, the idea of starting a community might make sense. Check out the great cases of brands like Doc Martens, Red Bull, Glow, etc. But let’s say you are a theater company, and you’re in the business of getting people to get together, in physical space, variations on physical experience might be an avenue to explore.

Which brings me to the Magic. The Magic Theatre, that is, an SF Bay Area icon that in the way back was home to then budding playwrights like Sam Shepard and actors like Peter Coyote, Danny Glover, Ed Harris, so many others. The Magic’s newish artistic director, Sean San José, is mid way through his first full season and he’s pausing tomorrow night with a gala featuring Harris and other original cast members. They will perform a slice a of Shepard’s classic “Fool For Love,” which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. San Jose himself, is a fool for love. After months of sweating it out, losing sleep, doing every thing he can to bring the Magic back (raising money and producing art are both job 1), he’s gathering friends to not just sit back and watch but to party into the wee hours with past and future stars and the people like you.

Photo from the original world premiere production of Fool For Love by Sam Shepard, featuring Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, at the Magic Theatre, San Francisco, 1983.


Three reasons why this makes sense. First, San José is still in the early stages of reimagining the Magic against serious headwinds — pandemic-forced closings, strains on the consumer pocketbook, a timid funding marketplace – that are challenging all theater orgs throughout the US. There is little money. But what the Magic has is a large number of fans with a wide net of POC talent – a big part of the future of theatre – both young and old (elder’s play a critical role, ahem). Tomorrow’s gala is not just just an opportunity to see Harris et al. walk the boards, but also showcase the talent that will drive the Magic next season through close collaboration that have been incubated with other groups. Resident artists at the Magic include playwright Luis Afaro, Associate Director of Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, Margo Hall, Artistic Director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and Campo Santo, the groundbreaking troupe that San José helped to lead in a former life. The Magic, under San José’s leadership, really likes to mix it up.

The younger artists are responding. “This new direction that Magic has been moving on is so refreshing, inviting and long overdue,” said Ashley Smiley, a leader at Campo Santo. “Previously the theater felt inaccessible and unwelcoming, especially to audience members and artists of color but now, now it feels like a place I can call home.”

Also, with or without knowing, the Magic is following an obscure lesson from the brand marketing playbook.

As I discovered years ago, much early in my career, there was a relatively unknown Canadian theorist, Harold Innis, who claimed that modern communications was driven by two kinds of media — space-binding media, which brings people together from all parts of the world and society (sound familiar? Innis was a professor of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, inventor of the phrase, “the global village.”) Think film, TV, news papers, the Web, social media. Then there’s something a bit more potent: time-binding media, which binds people from the past and present. Think religion, visual art, and yes, theatre. The Magic can do the time-binding thing. And it can do it at a party. Want to watch Ed Harris in action? Ask him to dance. DJ Juan “Wonway Posibul”Amador — the Magic’s artistic curator — will be spinning all the right numbers for you, it’s been rumored.

But finally, I have to say, the best reason for the Magic doing this in the middle of all the chaos, political uncertainty, and financial concerns is just that. San José is betting that you could benefit from a little party right now. Besides, it’s their core strength, as the marketers say. “If you came to our Gala last year, you’ll know we don’t do Galas like everyone else,” said San José, in a press release. Just bring a mask, proof of vaccination, and a checkbook. Tell them I sent you.


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