Sean San José is a real one.
There is no pretense to the artist who has called San Francisco home since the day he arrived into the world. He is a highly respected theatremaker with a strong reputation for answering the calls of community through art. San José’s lengthy career as an actor, playwright, educator, and advocate has led to his most prestigious post yet, artistic director of the famed Magic Theatre, housed at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Born to a Puerto Rican father and Filipina mother, San José will become the seventh artistic director in the history of the Magic and the first person of color to lead the company, which was founded in 1967.
The job fits like a glove. Loretta Greco, who ran the Magic since 2008, stepped down as artistic director in May 2020. The company has a history of world premieres by the likes of Sam Shepard (a resident artist in 1975), Paula Vogel, Taylor Mac, and Luis Alfaro, to name a few. San José’s history with the company runs deep, with the first play he ever saw being at the Magic, and his first gig there being Soiled Lives of a Ghost in 1990, cast by late great casting director Barbie Stein, which garnered both San José’s Equity card and the start of his career. San José credits both Greco and artistic director Mame Hunt, who stewarded the Magic for five years beginning in 1993, for the countless opportunities he’s had.
In addition to the history San José shares with the Magic, he is program director and co-founder of Campo Santo, a group that has developed and produced nearly 100 original works since 1996. The institutional knowledge gained by founding a renowned company alongside Margo Hall, Luis Saguar, and Michael Torres, three other prestigious Bay Area artists, is the foundation for the work San José will be embarking upon with the Magic.
San José will officially take the reins in June on a part-time basis, with the full-time appointment kicking off in August. He recently sat down to discuss his goals for the firmly established company, what community truly means, and his disdain for the national-versus-local debate.
DAVID JOHN CHÁVEZ: I’ve seen plenty of appointment announcements as they come through Facebook or Twitter, but I can’t remember one as exciting as when it was announced that you will be leading the Magic Theatre. We’re in a time right now where many of the largest and most consequential Bay Area theatres have women or artists of color as artistic directors. Have you had a chance to reflect on what your appointment means to the Bay Area theatre community?
SEAN SAN JOSÉ: I haven’t had time to reflect on it, because I’m not heavy duty on the socials, but folks had said to check it out because there were lots of good responses. I mean this as less of a reflection of me becoming artistic director of the Magic—I truly believe it’s an “us” thing. This idea that I am a part of and a representative of such an institution I think comes across. What feels really exciting to me is that we’re all going to eat, we’re all getting in, we’re all getting to open the table up and sit there together and populate that place.
What are some ways that you can build on your experience with a collaborative space like Campo Santo and take that into a bigger regional venue?
The work that I’ve been a part of, most significantly with Campo Santo, has been resonant because people know that I am one of a group and that I’m representative of my community. That comes across, so that they go, “Oh, homeboy is going to be in—that means the squad is in, and that’s cool.” And for future tripping, it’s great because it means people are excited about that notion, going beyond the more structured thinking of what so-called regional theatre is representative of—a singular vision, and it will do X, Y, and Z. I think there was a hope for that possibility to be in there, but I also think there was a desire, a need, and a want for change in there too. Those are all great for me; I’m hyped about that.
You worked with prior artistic director Loretta Greco throughout her tenure, and are close with her professionally and personally. When she announced her departure, did the possibility of succeeding her come to you right away?
My first thought when she announced that she was stepping down was, oh no, what’s going to happen to this spot? She has brought so much life, so many writers, and such a family vibe to this place. When I spoke to her more and she told me they were going to open up the process, she asked me if I was interested. I said hell no. As many opportunities that I personally have benefited from at the Magic, it’s still a white organization. It’s white-run organization, a white-money-run organization. Why would I willingly place myself in a situation like that? And I was like, nah, I’m good.
So what changed?
Loretta said that some folks felt I should be considered for it. And I thought, okay, that’s cool, that’s gratifying. But what I wanted to know was, are they widening their pool? I was like, if you think they’re honestly open to hearing at least another possibility, yeah, for sure, I would do that.
The whole process, probably why it worked is that I was able to keep it 100 the whole way—very honest, truly very close to who I am and how I speak. Most importantly, how I believe. So I was able to shoot straight the whole time and that felt good.
You got the job, so clearly they wanted your vision. What did you prioritize when it came to having an attentive room that was ready to listen to what you had to say?
I do so much grant writing for Campo Santo, and I’m always in that spot where I’m like, man, this project is dope, should I just say it’s dope? No, because I have to fit my narrative into their square, and I’m not going to lie or manipulate. I don’t find myself in many situations where I’m talking to a room of mainly white people and speaking a vision that represents culture for people of color. I’m in this room saying this needs to be centered and it’s going to be beautiful for everyone and generate life for everyone, and I felt good about that.
You’re one of four artists who founded Campo Santo, and now you’re going to lead another highly regarded institution, one of San Francisco’s most prestigious theatres. What would you say will be some of the biggest challenges in running an established mainstay as opposed to a company like Campo Santo, which you and others built from nothing beginning in 1996?
San Francisco has always been filled with activity, events, theatres, spaces, and artists, and that’s the mix that I came out of and that I’m in. That energy has to be part of what I’ll do at the Magic. It’s a huge question that I think the committee considered a lot when considering me: “What are you going to do differently from Campo Santo?” To me, the question is, what will I do that we have established and succeeded within the ethos of what Campo Santo does? Then I can amplify, leverage, expand upon, grow, and evolve that.
I’m completely about collaboration, cooperation, and community. I’m not going to push that off as I step up to this tier and vision a new way out. I believe in what got me here, so I want to find more ways to make that more effective, more resonant to bring in more people.
The Magic has a national reputation based on the actors, playwrights, and artists who have developed their work in that space. Yet it is still a regional theatre that serves the San Francisco and greater Bay Area community. How do you approach building a vision around those two ideas?
This notion of national versus local is an empty paragraph header. What does that mean? It’s just jive to me. If you do something that is dope and you believe in it and it resonates with people on a local level, then eventually it’s going to catch a fire nationally. If you aim for a national scope, you’re going to get a very far-reaching target. I’m not interested in reaching for something I can’t see. I want to be close to people and know who our audiences are when they walk through the door.
So this idea that it’s national—I think that’s a misnomer. It’s silly to me. It’s also a part of a big classist thinking that is one of the many fucked-up things about our so-called American theatre system, that is all about the larger thing does this and the national scope does that. The regional and the cities drive the national vision; everybody knows that.
So enhancing a national reputation for the Magic is not high on your priority list.
It’s about just making impactful work. I know it sounds simplistic and a little Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true. When we started Campo Santo, we started that sucker with nothing, zero. We weren’t going to pay anybody anything because we didn’t have anything. But you keep driving, building, articulating, growing, and if there’s a mutual need for you and the community, it can work. So it’s about defining your expectations and your goals. Inside of all that, all of us have to redefine words like community. It’s a word that means a whole lot to me.
Expanding on that, the Bay Area community exists within in a very expensive place. Making the Bay Area livable for the marginalized is a conversation that has been going on forever, but there haven’t been many sustainable solutions to the problem of artists struggling to live and work here. Have you thought about ways the Magic can continue giving marginalized artists opportunities in a region that is so cost-prohibitive?
Yeah, that’s huge. I’m realistic—I know what the budget is there and I’m no magician in terms of that. I don’t suddenly know rich people because I’ve been appointed to a new position at a bigger space. What I do know is, the potential workplace means what dividends can come from it, and I think it could be very direct to artists in our community. The main thing you do is give people space and allow it to happen. That doesn’t mean the Magic is suddenly producing 28 plays in a year. What it means is, the Magic is suddenly collaborating with as many people as we can, which is mutually beneficial for everyone.
Is this something you would like to see happen immediately?
We’re not talking about these first few years and suddenly upping everyone’s pay scale, finding housing for artists. If I knew how to do that, I’d run for mayor. I’d rather our city be saved than our theatres be saved. But I think there’s a way of injecting more life, more visibility, and more potential by opening your space up, and we’re definitely going to do that.
I’ve conversed with multiple artistic directors about ways to make theatre audiences more diverse. What are some possible ways to get greater representation in your seats, especially of those who haven’t engaged much with theatre for a variety of reasons?
I don’t have any great fairy tale about the Shakespeare company coming to my second-grade class and turning me out, and then going on to theatre school. I come from a huge family. Theatre was not on our radar and was not made to be on our radar. And that’s what I keep saying: Open up your space, invite people to your space, and make a home of your space. No one’s going to willingly one day choose to go to a thing that has historically been made exclusive, with all its roots in white supremacist thinking and structure. People can say whatever, but that comment is true. I’m not saying there is a direct line to it, but people that make up words like “classic” and make up schools for people that tell you who is represented on that stage and what languages are spoken on that stage—I’m sorry, but that’s an inherently racist and classist set-up. Look no further than the power structures of our theatres.
I say all of that to say that we have to make the space feel like a home. If I don’t make you feel welcome in my home, you’re not going to have a good time and you’re definitely not going to want to come and kick it with me again. You make people feel welcome enough that they would want to return.
After this long COVID pause, as we prepare to reopen theatres soon, what do you think can be different or better when we return?
I think about who gets the mic, who gets the space, and who gets centered. And I think that’s something we can do infinitely better. We’re always going to have to try and do better at that. How do you really center it in a way that is truly reflective of your community? Oddly, mainly in contrast to other opinions I’ve heard out there, I feel really hopeful about what’s going to happen next. I feel like we’re all charged and we want to be together. We know there’s power in community on a basic level, and we want our stories to be told.
David John Chávez (he/him) is a Bay Area-based theatre critic and reporter. He is the vice-chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. Twitter: @davidjchavez
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