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What's Really Going On At The Magic Theatre?

January 9, 2009

It's been a long time since I've come across a more vitriolic collection of reader comments than the nearly 60 responses that follow Robert Hurwitt's December 31 feature story on the San Francisco Chronicle's site about the Magic Theatre's dramatic appeal to raise $350,000 by today, January 9, or face closure.

The anonymity of the online response system makes people comfortable about being rude, of course. And there are always going to be pissed-off individuals out there writing negative stuff just to let off steam. But it's alarming to see just how much anger and cynicism greeted the news of the 42-year-old San Francisco new play bastion's financial woes. Many responses have been deleted from the comments list because they "violated SFGate's terms and conditions." A high proportion of the comments that haven't been removed range from the couldn't-care-less ("Never heard of it when I lived there-guess I won't miss it") to the glib ("If they really are the Magic Theatre they can just conjure up some money.....can't they?") to the the venomous ("I've seen better productions and actors/singers at the local high school's shows.")

What's behind this cavalcade of abuse? I don't think all these people can be embittered, out-of-work actors angry about not being hired by the Magic over the years. Could this outpouring be justified in some way? One has to wonder what's really going on over at Fort Mason when, within the space of less than a year, an artistic director doesn't get his contract renewed, a new artistic director comes in, the managing director gets fired, vast amounts of supposedly unknown debt surfaces and the company embarks upon an "emergency campaign". One of the article's respondees, kwoh910, doubtless echoes many concerned theatregoers when he/she writes: "I was going to donate to help save this theater, but now will reconsider. How did they get themselves in such a mess? Why did their managing leader suddenly leave? Was he responsible for this? To have debt that they didn't know about leads me to believe there is severe mismanagement going on. I don't want my donation to go into a black hole. I'd rather give to a more solid and trustworthy organization."

I personally would like to see the Magic Theatre pull itself out of this hole. The company is an important part of this country's arts legacy and I've been impressed so far with what I've seen of new artistic director Loretta Greco's work. I donated to the Magic's campaign despite certain misgivings of the type espoused by kwoh910.

But there seems to be a lot of smoke and mirrors type stuff going on which makes me feel nervous. Today, the emergency campaign deadline day, the company announced on its website that it would be extending the deadline for three more days. This makes the original ultimatum look rather arbitrary. The fact that the company has started rehearsals for its next production also calls into the question the seriousness of the Magic's plight. It's not that I don't believe that the company is in severe financial straits. It's just that I don't think it is being completely honest about the state of its debt and operations. "We parted ways about 10 days ago. That's all I can say," Greco is quoted as saying of ousted managing director David Jobin in the Chron article. If the Magic wants to attract donors, don't those donors deserve to know the cause of Jobin's departure? As kwoh910 hints, it's really just a matter of trust.


  • Ok, financial accountability is a good thing, along with openness, transparency and honesty. But to use problems in those areas as an excuse not to donate a little money or say "let them close, never liked 'em anyway" is just wrong. They've gone through ups and downs and years of mediocrity sometimes but they've done some great work despite being underfunded (ever been in the Northside dressing room? and how about those seats in the Sam Shepard that required a chiropractic visit after a show?) and underappreciated, and here I blame people like Steve Winn, who you lauded recently and who regularly gave mediocre to negative reviews of shows that thrilled me. Example: Stones in His Pockets first arrived at the Magic as a workshop production in an Irish Women Playwrights Festival and then slotted into the next season, featuring Mark Phillips and directed by Kent Nicholson, two of our best (assuming we haven't lost Kent to NY for good). Steve Winn yawned. I wanted to shove the Olivier award it won a year or two later up his ass. And even if the show is mediocre, such as anything by Rebecca Gilman (about whom I agree with Steve Winn), the cast is worth watching because they'll hire actors like Anne Darragh. They've brought in amazing touring productions, such as the riveting Howie the Rookie, and introduced me to Anne Bogart & SITI Company by hosting Room and Bob with two of the country's finest actors, Ellen Lauren and Will Bond, which blew my mind. I agree they should be more forthcoming about what happened, where the money went and where the new money will go but I don't imagine for a second that anything else will fill the hole they'll leave if they close. "Never heard of it when I lived there": do they go to the theatre at all or is that the fault of the woeful theatre coverage in the local media? "better productions and actor/singers at the local high school's shows": Really? What school? I'll be there. I don't know why they're a target for hate but I've witnessed some of it - then AD Larry Eilenberg being trashed by an audience for having the audacity to be male and lead an audience feedback session after a play written by a lesbian. I think most of it is a local social disease: the Bay Area eats its young and justifies its behavior by saying the kids weren't pure enough for their standards. "No one is the only one to fill the empty space I hold for you."

    By Blogger Tom, At January 9, 2009 at 8:51 PM  

  • Tom
    Thanks for your passionate response to my blog. You're absolutely right to point out some of the terrific things that the magic has accomplished over the years. As for Winn -- an opinion is an opinion. I don't always agree with him either. Your comment recalls to mind an experience I had shortly after moving to San Francisco from the UK 8 years ago. I was feeling fed up and homesick and I took myself off to see Howie The Rookie at the Magic. Did you see the production. Came out feeling transformed.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 10, 2009 at 11:01 AM  

  • Yeah - awesome show, the acting remains an inspiration. Had a weird deja vu experience midshow - I started recognizing the lines and story. Racked my brain for a week before I figured it out - 10 or 11 years ago I did a 2 week acting bootcamp in Ireland and stayed in touch with the guy who ran it. A year or so before the show at the Magic he sent me an email with a few pages of script from a new play he thought was interesting - Howie the Rookie.
    I only realized Steve Winn wasn't as big of a jerk as he seemed after having an email discussion with him about Rebecca Gilman and learning that his personal opinions were much more candid and negative than his professional reviews. I had an ohmygawd moment: he'd been pulling his punches all those years.

    By Blogger Tom, At January 10, 2009 at 1:14 PM  

  • That's interesting, Tom. I don't think critics should mince their words. That's what we're paid to do: Tell the truth.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 10, 2009 at 1:20 PM  

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