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At The Magic Cafe

March 27, 2007

One of the things I missed about theatres when I moved to the U.S. was cafes and bars. In cities like Moscow, London, and Paris, most theatres have a space you can hang out in before and after a performance and buy drinks and snacks. Theatre cafes and bars are a great place to meet people and provide the perfect venue for a post-show discussion and drink.

Relatively few performing arts venues have on-site drinking spots here in the U.S. I guess this failing is an unfortunate by-product of this country's Puritan streak -- that "well, if you must open the playhouses then make sure there's nothing as debauched as drinking going on in them" spirit. This is a shame, especially for venues located away from major thoroughfares where there isn't a place next door to grab a bite to eat or knock back a few ales.

So you can imagine how ecstatic I was to hear that the Magic Theatre had plans to open a cafe-bar on site. A place like the Magic needs a meeting place more than most other theatres in town as it's located in a pretty out-of-the-way area, Fort Mason, where the only place to get something to eat and drink is the upscale vegetarian restaurant Green's, which is expensive and closes at 9pm. The nearest bar is a 15 minute walk away in The Marina.

I visited the Magic's new nightspot on Saturday, with the theatre's associate artistic director, Jessica Heidt. I was not only keen to see the space and have a drink, but also to hear the live band laid on as part of the Magic's Hothouse play series. I have to say that I enjoyed the experience on the whole, but the Magic still needs to do a little work on honing its cafe concept.

The best thing about the Magic Cafe is that it's a really great space. The walls have been tastefully painted; the art work on display is slick and funky; the furniture (small round tables and chairs) work well in the space; the bar does pretty good wine as well as beer, tea, coffee, soft drinks, cookies, and candy. The prices aren't cheap, mind you -- $6 for a glass of house wine seems a little excessive considering the fact that most people will have already shelled out quite a bit to see the show.

The first thing that needs to be transformed is the lighting. On Saturday night, the industrial lights were on full blast. I felt like like I was sitting in an office meeting on a Monday morning, not chilling over a drink with friends in a cool performing arts venue. Lighting -- as theatre people ought to know more than most -- is crucial to setting the right tone. Jessica got up at one point to turn a few of the lights off, but this still didn't work as it meant that the room was bright in some places and dark in others. What's needed is a dimmer switch and a few candles on the tables. Bingo.

The second thing that the Magic needs to consider is the role of the Cafe. Is it a place for a relaxing post-show drink and chat or is it a place to watch more performances? I'd say both are possible, but the emphasis should be on socializing rather than sitting there politely listening to music or someone reading their poetry, as if the cafe were merely an extension of the auditoriums down the hall.

On Saturday, an acoustic band played. Jessica and I, along with everyone else, sat stiffly in our seats listening and clapping. The room was silent besides the music. This made for a rather stilted atmosphere. When Jessica leaned over to whisper something to me at one point, a woman sitting to her right told her to be quiet. I'm all for live music, but somehow things need to be looser in a bar setting. People should be able to talk and mill about and not be made to feel like they're being rude or interrupting something.

If the Magic can sort out these two issues, I think the cafe is going to be a great success. Perhaps the people in charge of setting the rules should spend more time at the Exit Theatre bar downtown. I think that space provides a great blueprint for how to run a beautiful, casual, intimate performing arts venue drinking hole. Hopefully more theatres will follow the Exit and the Magic's lead soon.

This just in: Plans are afoot for Josh Kornbluth and I to play oboe duets at the Magic cafe at some point during the run of his upcoming show Citizen Josh at the theatre (May 12 - June 10.) I hope people come to the cafe that night to listen to us play. But I hope they don't listen too hard. Drinking and eating and talking will be mandatory.

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