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Tragic Magic

March 2, 2009

Last night, a group of about 25 Bay Area theatre community people got together at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco for the latest in an ongoing series of Theatre Salons. Organized by theatre director Mark Jackson, actress Beth Wilmurt, director John Wilkins, producer Kimball Wilkins, theatre critic Rob Avila and yours truly, the Salons aim to bring folks from disparate corners of the local performing arts landscape for wine, food and discussion on a topic of pressing cultural interest of the founding committee's choice.

On this occasion, we decided to talk about the current elephant in the room -- "theatre in the new, new, new economy" -- seeing the deluge of stories of financial struggle bouncing around our community of late e.g. the recent death threats sent out by The Magic Theatre (artistic director, Loretta Greco, pictured above) and Shakespeare Santa Cruz, the broader issue of dwindling theatre coverage in the press etc, as a jumping off point for a wider discussion about what is happening to our little eco-system. We specifically wanted to mull over a few questions such as: Do these close-to-the-point-of-no-return theatre companies and newspapers matter? What if some of them vanish? Is our community truly essential to the cultural life of the Bay Area? Is there a difference between a vital organization and the vitality of the general scene? Or are we in need of some loss, the cultural equivalent of a controlled burn?

The fittingly downsized format of this recession-time Salon (fewer participants, smaller room, snacks for purchase from the Exit Cafe bar rather than a buffet/sit-down meal catered by the organizers) meant that the discussion was more focused than usual. We didn't end up digging as deeply as I would have liked -- to do this would require more regular meetings with similar participants showing up every time, I think. But we covered quite a lot of ground from a breath perspective. I was especially impressed with peoples' openness, strong sense of engagement and willingness to say what they felt without worrying about tarnished egos.

What was interesting in particular was the passion with which participants approached the topic of The Magic Theatre. With the exception of a few dissenting voices, nearly everyone in the room had said that they hadn't seen anything at the flagship new play theatre in around a decade that they thought was any good. Yet despite the negative attitudes surrounding the theatre's artistic output, most Salonites believed that the disappearance of the Magic -- if it were to go under for good as threatened a couple of months ago -- would be extremely detrimental to the local ecosystem in terms of such things as lost jobs and even fewer mid-sized houses.

This attitude extended to feelings about other local arts bastions such as ACT and the Datebook section of the beleaguered San Francisco Chronicle. Somehow, there's a deep attachment to these institutions, despite questions surrounding the strength of the services they provide.


  • Dear Chloe,

    Being included in the earlier salons was such a gift to myself (an actress, director and Head of the Arts Department/Theater Program at the International High School who also runs a program for translating & producing new French plays with foolsFury) and my husband Steve, a writer/director long-affiliated with the LA company, Theatre of n.o.t.e. and more recently with foolsFury.

    The salons offered us nourishment for the head, heart and soul, which was so meaningful to us as relative SF newcomers (and more recently as new parents, determined to not lose connection to artistic work, community and deep artistic questions.)

    I was thus so sad to read here of the downsizing of the salons... and to realize that I had been part of it.

    It is with bittersweet that I read of conversations held there about issues that my colleagues and I in arts education now grapple with daily... as we watch the fall of the budget-cutting ax ourselves. (Did you know that under Sarkozy ALL arts classes are gradually being removed from high schools.... in France, FRANCE for god's sake!) There is bittersweet in thinking that just last week Steve and I were talking about how much we longed to discuss with colleagues here about Steven Leigh Morris (head theater critic of the LA Weekly) being laid off from the paper due to budget cuts, an event that we think, will be more devastating to the vibrancy of LA's theater scene than the failure of several small companies!? (Being here in SF has made us appreciate and miss the incredible service the LA Weekly did there- with multiple productions reviewed each week, major features run on small theater, and reviews posted for the duration of a show's run. Like you, Leigh was a great lover of and advocate for small theater.... and we fear Leigh's departure is the end of an era - and a real blow- to LA's independent theater scene. )

    Anyway.... forgive my awkwardness and perhaps "un-coolness" in writing you, one of the several hosts who has been so gracious and generous with my husband and I.

    I'm sure I have a dose of childish pride-hurt at not being "picked" (takes me back to elementary school kick ball days!) But more deeply, there is an adult-artist lament at missing out an exchange so rich, nourishing, vital.

    I also did not want, through pride and politesse, to
    fail to let you know that the salon indeed is a precious gift to those artists who are part of it... and that it's absence in my life - as you move into your own "budget cutting downsizing"- is thus felt.

    Yes, a bit sad,

    Michelle Haner

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 3, 2009 at 10:50 AM  

  • Dear Michelle
    Thanks for your note. First off -- we are not downsizing the salons. We just wanted to try out a different, more ad hoc format for this one. I mentioned that the format was fitting for these economically tough times in my blog posts, but I did this as an afterthought while I was writing. The smaller setting, lack of catering from us and reduced guest size was more a factor of us all being very busy and wanting to set up a salon at short notice. Luckily Richard and Christina at The Exit opened their doors to us to make it happen. We would no doubt have run the party at our usual venue, Last Planet Theatre, if the Exit hadn't worked out. So the downsizing is really incidental. Secondly, I'd like to apologize for not inviting you and Steve. We planned everything rather late so decided that we would all just individually invite a few people rather than putting together an official guest list as a group as is customary. This meant that the inviting was done in a rather off the cuff fashion with no attempt to coordinate invitations and check that we were reaching out to people such as you and Steve, who have contributed so well to previous salons. So I'm really sorry that we forgot to put out the call. We'll be sure to remedy this in the future.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At March 3, 2009 at 11:13 AM  

  • Chloe thanks for your thoughtful reply...and grateful to hear that down-sizing is not permanent! Until we have a chance to converse on such topics in person, I look forward to continuing to follow your blog!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 4, 2009 at 10:59 PM  

  • Hey Chloe (and anyone else reading this),

    Michelle’s expression of disappointment at not having been invited to the latest Salon reminded me indirectly of something said at that very Salon, and which ultimately relates to this idea of a Stammtisch.

    First, Michelle, if you’re still following this commentary chain, let me add my apologies to Chloe’s, and reinforce her note that our failure to invite you was indeed purely due to the last-minute way in which this particular Salon came together.

    During this smaller-than-usual Salon, the organizers of the Salon were subtly accused of elitism by a first-time Salon guest, who asked rhetorically why he’d not been invited before, and further asked rhetorically why a particular local Artistic Director had not been invited that night. At this last bit, John Wilkins and I shot one another a look from across the room and burst into laughter.

    What our new guest did not know is that this particular Artistic Director had in fact been invited to 3 or 4 previous Salons and declined in every case. There are a number of people, actually, who’ve been invited multiple times and consistently either decline or just never respond. When this happens, we eventually assume that, for whatever reason, the person is either generally too busy or not interested and we stop pestering them. Theater people have highly erratic schedules, often working long, odd hours, and sometimes can’t squeeze in much else. And yet some have a combination of schedules and interest that makes it possible for them to attend the Salons with more regularity.

    Anyway, it seemed a great irony to me that the Salon organizers might be thought of as an exclusive bunch, inviting only a select list of guests, when in fact our mission and practice has always specifically been to put together as inclusive a guest list as possible, drawing from the range of job titles in the Bay Area arts community as well as the range of economic strata, people from mainstream, midstream, and fringe areas.

    Considering this and the evolving format of the Theatre Salons, I think the possibility of a Stammtisch is quite worth considering. I can’t remember if I was that director friend of Chloe’s who said the Bay Area theater community isn’t large enough to sustain a Stammtisch, but if so then I disagree with myself. The size of the community I don’t think is the issue, but rather people’s schedules and interest. I have no doubt that a whole lot of people are interested in theory, but then might not be able to actually make it, either because of scheduling or because after a long week in a theater they simply rather spend some time with their families or vegetating on Netflicks.

    Chloe’s point is quite good that a regular, standing date allows anyone to come as they are able. It would also eliminate the need for the Salon organizers to create a guest list. This would turn our Salon “guests” into “participants,” and might also alleviate that rumor of elitism -- which more than one person has voiced despite all our efforts to the contrary.

    Around 2000/01 I was involved with a first-Sunday-of-every-month thing, casually dubbed “Art Chat” by its organizer, director John Warren. On the 1st Sunday of each month, 6 to a dozen people would gather at someone’s home. One person would be responsible for bringing a pressing question related to the theater. This question would be our focus for the evening. For about a year these Art Chats went on, but as attendance became more and more irregular, they faded away.

    This left me wondering if theater people really do have the time to make their theoretical interest in such things an ongoing, practical interest. The Theatre Salons have been scheduled roughly every 3 to 4 months, and even that has been a challenge to maintain. We send out a range of invites and final attendance numbers have been from 12 to 40.

    Our most recent Salon felt, in a way, like a step toward a Stammtisch. It was at a café/bar. We did not seat our guests at tables with pre-arranged name cards as in the past but rather left seating entirely open. Our usual 30-minute arrival and mingling period ran over an hour as I recall, before the formal discussion got underway. That discussion was a bit more provocative than usual. So perhaps fewer people gathered around a single table is indeed more productive in the end.

    Maybe a Stammtisch is a logical evolutionary step in this ongoing Theatre Salon experiment, the primary intent being to get the full range of people who make up the Bay Area theater community together to eat, drink and talk seriously about the theater. Stammtisch or Salon, that full range of people will not make it every time. But thus far it has proven a stimulating enterprise in any combination.

    I’m glad that Michelle was disappointed at having not attended our recent Salon. That tells me that it means something to her. And it heartens me to know that talking seriously about the theater means something to theater people in the Bay Area, since I’ve sometimes had the impression that it actually doesn’t. I’m so very glad to be wrong!

    As usual, I’ve gone on too long. Apologies. Where's John Wilkins when I need him?

    On and up.
    Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 5, 2009 at 2:44 PM  

  • Hello to all,

    As a former employee of the Magic I was pleased to have been able to participate in the salon. My very narrow perspective of the organization was challenged and altered by the breadth of contributions.

    I was shocked at how supportive the community was of the Magic. There was, if I remember correctly, not a single enthusiastic statement about a recent production at the Magic. Yet, there was much talk of how the ecosystem would be altered for the worse if it failed. I don't believe this is the case. First - an ecosystem of the natural world is a slightly flawed comparison to a theatre ecosystem. Natural ecosystems are, by definition, reliant on the existence and activities of the various players. A theatre ecosystem is not. If all the fringe scale companies vanished the regional theatres would not die of starvation. There is no way to predict what effect, if any, the Magic's failure would have on the rest of the community.

    Many people were quick to say that the loss of jobs would be painful for the community. While this is absolutely true it must be considered against the larger picture. How long would it be before another theatre filled that gap? If those jobs are so valuable, why does the Magic have the turnover issue that it does?

    None of this would matter, of course, if the Magic was consistently producing work that people were excited about. That's simply not the case. There's some occasional and measured interest here and there but the big picture is one of season after season of modest work that's rarely theatrical or inspiring.

    I'd be shocked if there were many people reading this who didn't vote for Obama. We voted for change. We agreed that the status quo was unacceptable and we took a risk on a young guy without a lot of experience. Why don't we do the same for our theatre community? I'd like to see what our other options are before I settle for what's placed in front of me.

    Sadly it's not a democracy, we don't get to vote on it. In case you can't tell - I did not give the Magic money during their S.O.S. Time will tell if the Magic can find new footing under it's new leader. Time will tell if funders continue to re-invest.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation with this community that continues to surprise and challenge me.

    Best to all,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 10, 2009 at 3:20 PM  

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