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Magic Act

September 3, 2008

A Q & A with a historic theater's new chief.

The Magic Theatre takes its name from a famous location in Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf: "Anarchist Evening at the Magic Theatre, for Madmen Only, Price of Admission Your Mind." For a while following its inception in 1967, San Francisco's new play bastion made a radical impact on the U.S. theater scene, nurturing the careers of dramatists like Sam Shepard, Charles Mee, and Michael McClure and the acting talents of Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, and Sean Penn, to name a few. In recent years, however, the company has struggled to maintain its renegade reputation. A slew of big-name world premieres from David Mamet's Faust to Bill Pullman's Expedition 6 brought in a steady clientele but largely failed to stimulate. The Magic hired a new artistic director this summer in an attempt to reignite its spark. Loretta Greco comes to the Magic from New York with high-profile directing and producing credits at such institutions as the Public Theater and the Women's Project. She has also directed productions all over the country, including at ACT and the Magic. We caught up with her just before the launch of her inaugural season.

What inspired you to apply for the job at the Magic?

When I've directed plays in other parts of the country, three weeks into rehearsal I've usually itched to get back to New York. But when I've worked in San Francisco, I've never had that urge to leave. I have fallen in love with the city. I've always wanted to work at the Magic. I'm a Sam Shepard freak. I was spoon-fed all of his plays during my impressionable days. I also took the job because I love the Magic's intimate spaces: They allow audiences to see the sweat and tears on the actors' faces and feel like they're part of the show rather than mere observers.

How does the Bay Area theater scene compare to New York?

Nothing compares to New York in terms of scale, but the quality of what's on offer is comparable. You get a mixture of sublime work and dreck on both coasts.

What turns you on about theater?

As a practitioner, I feel like it's one of the few collaborative art forms. I love working with new writers — and occasionally dead writers, too. As an audience member, I believe that there's nothing like going to the theater. A small part of me is supremely critical. But mostly, I feel like I'm experiencing theater for the first time. When I was 8, my dad took me to a dress rehearsal for the local high school production of Oliver! in Miami where I grew up. I was overwhelmed. My heart was thumping and I had goosebumps. From that instant, I knew what I wanted to do. Eventually, I started organizing neighborhood "happenings" which included readings, dance numbers, and sketches. I would enlist everybody in the neighborhood to help and wouldn't take no for an answer. I like community and ritual. I go to church. I go to the theater, although sometimes I worry about the state of it.

What concerns you most about theater?

That it's lost its sense of adventure and is too commercial. That people go because they want to see their favorite stars. I'll always take a good story over a commercial hit with four big names in it. Still, you have to think about box office. But recently, since the economics have shifted in this country, theaters all too often base decisions not on artistry but commerce.

How do you plan to balance the box office with artistic integrity at the Magic?

I've always trusted my instincts. I've been doing this for 20 or so years. I know I have great taste. If you have a terrific script, fine actors, and a top production team, people will come. If the play's no good, I can hire 20 film stars and it still won't be heard.

How important is staging world premieres?

We're staging two this season — American Hwangap by Lloyd Suh and Mistakes Were Made by Six Feet Under writer Craig Wright. But I'm not just interested in doing world premieres. We need to do second and third productions. Premieres never get the work done.

How much directing do you intend to do?

I'm directing two shows this season — Evie's Waltz by Carter W. Lewis and Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius. I'm determined to maintain a balance between producing and directing.

Tell me about the season's inaugural play, Laura Schellhardt's The K of D, an Urban Legend.

When an agent friend sent me The K of D, I didn't know anything about the playwright. It's a great tall tale about a young girl's rite of passage set in a nowhere Midwestern town. I wanted to launch the season with a play that introduces audiences to a terrific emerging voice and reminds people about what's distinctive about the Magic: It's intimacy.

What about the rest of the season?

Bordering on naturalism, Evie's Waltz is not something I'd normally pick. But I found the play so honest and scary. It's about what happens to our kids in high school and how bad things can happen even to great families. Tough Titty by Oni Faida Lampley is about a woman's search for grace. Exuberant, buoyant, and heartwarming, it's a love letter to anyone who's ever had a cross to bear. I make the play sound like a Hallmark card, but it's nothing like that. American Hwangap looks at the immigrant experience through the lens of a Korean-American family in Texas. It's wonderfully poignant as well as madcap. Mauritius is constructed like a brick shithouse. Until I saw this play in New York, I never saw a heist work onstage. The plot, which concerns five people all after the same thing — a postage stamp — is extremely funny and heartbreaking. Screw The New York Times for comparing Rebeck unfavorably to Mamet. This lady is every bit the dramatist that Mamet is. If every first draft were as good as the one I have of Mistakes Were Made, we'd all die and go to heaven. Wright is a real wordsmith. The play asks big questions like, is there a God? And if our hours were numbered, how would we spend our time? For this first season, I won't push the envelope as far as I plan to in the future. I want to get to know the audience first.

Where do you see yourself and the Magic five or ten years from now?

In five years, I want the Magic to be financially triumphant and a destination for artists. In ten years, I hope to have bequeathed my job to someone much younger, smarter, and braver than I am. Perhaps I'll return to New York to run a theater there.



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