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Oh, Snap!

Sean San José and Margo Hall in Conversation

Sean San José: I want to say congratulations, belatedly of course on becoming the first woman artistic director of the historic Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

Margo Hall: Yes, belatedly. I've seen you at least...

Sean: 758 times—

Margo: —since we started on this endeavor. I came on in September of 2020. Well, I came on earlier, but that was the technical term we use for the newspapers. When did you come on as artistic director at Magic Theatre?

Sean: Just this year—so 2021. They decided in May or something like that, so I started in June a little bit, and then officially in August. So, about a year after you did.

Margo: I was waiting for you to come on.

Sean: Well, it's funny, because of course everyone links it. I was happy when they announced the Magic thing. I was like, “This is cool for the Bay, because you and Marva are running these joints now.” It also says something about who is in the Bay and what they respond to. People can see the aligned vision, even though clearly Lorraine Hansberry and Magic Theatre have very different paths and histories. I guess people are hip and ready for those journeys to evolve—that's the word I keep using, so as not to scare people but also let them know we're expanding the vision.

Margo: Right. I think for me, it's not like I'm coming into a previous predominantly white institution. But in this legacy of Lorraine Hansberry, I'm the first woman. So I think it's interesting—not to say that female writers weren't used in the past, but it wasn't necessarily a focus, where it is a focus for me. That would be the change, if you're thinking of what is different about me being here—like what's different about you being at the Magic Theatre.

Sean: The hippest thing is that you and I have the luxury of working at institutions that have a history that we admire, especially having been in the Bay area. But at the same time, we are not weighed down with fulfilling that vision. Instead, we have these committees and boards and this moment in time that has us collectively asking, “Where should it go?” That allows us to use this moment to say, “Well, this is going to be the focus.” That feels active and necessary. The only reason I was interested is because I have a very specific idea of what I think could activate this space and this plan to make this a bigger home to more people.

It's different for me too because, like you were saying, it's a different mountain to climb to be like, “I'm going to do it within this white institution.” It is a white organization, whether or not they name it; it is what it is, and it is what it has been. But it doesn't mean that's what it will always be. So, there's a lot of deconstruction to do.

Margo: That's what's exciting about it. It's not necessarily replacing; it is expanding to hear new voices in that community and expanding people's brains. With me going to Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, I'm not only interested in putting a season together. I want to move forward in a more nontraditional way of how things are normally done and think about a more organic process. What is happening and what do we need to do? I know there has to be a plan and ideas, but for Campo Santo, it was like, “We got these cool plays, let's try to put them up.”

We never posted a season, but we worked organically and found writers we liked working with. We said, “Hey, we want to do a production with you and start a process.” When trying to talk about that to a board, it’s a little scary for them. But it's like, “No, we've got to put up a season.” It's like, "I have no idea what's going to be going on in a year."

Sean: That's the catch: People think all the work we have done together with Campo Santo and going forward with these new organizations comes without planning . First of all, the plays take three to five years to marinate, so we're not coming off of uncooked shit. But the other thing is that there are enough burners going and then we realize, “Oh, shit. Right now, this is what we need to talk about.” Or the work says, “Hey, let me speak right now, this is important,” or “This is so hot.” That’s different than saying, “Oh, don't worry, in 2024, that's when that commission drops.” I'm not against that, but given the opportunities that you and I have, it's more like, “What can we do that will resonant with the communities that we want to talk to?”

I think that travels across cultures, communities, and neighborhoods. We're still in this weird moment in time where institutions go, “We better get a woman; we've never had a woman. We better have a person of color; we've never done that.”

A man in a hat sitting next to a woman in a blue dress who stands with her arms outstretched.

Margo Hall and Sean San José at Magic Theatre Gathering, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Photos by Brechin Flournoy, @missbeezphoto.

Margo: Right. For me, it's pretty clear. I'm at a Black theatre, so I'm not going to do Theresa Rebeck. What I've said is, “I'm doing Black female playwrights. I don't know for how long, but that's my focus right now.” Of course, some say, “Well, what about my play?” I say, “What about your play? There's plenty of opportunities in many theatres that exist in America but right now, at this theatre, this is what I'm focusing on. I'm using my platform for that, and I wish you well. I will help you, connect you with theatres who might be interested in doing your play, but I'm not doing a play by male writers—at least for this first year.”

It's not like we’re the only theatre in the world, so why do I have to explain that I want to give an opportunity to voices that haven't been heard? Why do you have to explain that you want to focus on theatres of color? Those are voices that haven't been heard. Give some space and understand that there's other places that can do the work.

Sean: It's funny—I only said it because as soon as I articulate it out loud, it's like maybe I forget, or I don't know who I'm talking to. I know I'm talking to you, but where does this go? It goes out into the theatre world writ large, which is still largely a white construct. I have to dialogue with that bit. There's also still a part that is like, “Look, I'm going to plant our feet in the ground here and I’m going to do it real firm, because the time for easing in is well passed. That's why I love that your statement is clear: “It's going to be Black, female writers, period.” And that's it.

Margo: Yeah, and it's going to be nurturing emerging, Black, female writers. That's what we're doing right now.

Sean: That's the jump and I think that's the thing that hopefully gains resonance. It's not just representation, but it's lineage and it's generational.

Margo: Yes, and it's good work, like what you did with the Tongo Eisen-Martin San Francisco Poet Laureate event—that was great. Starting your programming off with “Black Fire” from a homegrown poet in performance—on point.

Sean: That was the set off; that felt really great. It feels right, it feels like home, and it feels necessary.

Margo: I think it's funny that we both had, on the same night practically, our first shows, right? You were doing the Tongo thing, I was doing the New Roots Festival, produced by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, with a new joint by me and Traci Tolmaire, and luckily we both got to see each other's show.

Sean: Yeah, and I love it too. Just to have people in the spaces together and being able to share work live again is great. It's so representative and it's so clearly what the vision was. That's why I felt great about setting off live performance at Magic in this new age with Tongo doing a show.

Margo: It's a poetry reading being pressed to vinyl; if that's not Campo Santo and our aesthetic, I don't know what is.

Sean: This is what I'm saying: A Black man talking about life in the city that he grew up in and talking about the ghosts and justice and the mothers. It was everything. It couldn't have been more emblematic to have it set off like that. It's wild in one regard, because we come from this group, Campo Santo, that is so organic. Campo Santo so fully exemplifies what a group is; no voice is stronger than the other voices—except for who talks the loudest. But when everyone's listening, the best idea is going to be the one that gets pushed—or at least what we all think is the best idea in the moment. In a certain respect, the word and the work takes care of itself.

We're in this moment in time where we're starting things, but we're also changing things. So, all of this articulation that is prefacing everything, that's the part that feels like a new role to me. This notion that you and I come from—we're not a collective but we're definitely a family. So we operate like a family; sometimes someone's louder than someone else, but we're all going to make sure that everyone gets addressed and invited in and all that. What's different for me is the idea of a singular voice.

Margo: Yeah. It's very strange because we collaborated on everything. So that's why when I first thought of writing the Lorraine Hansberry play, I reached out to Traci. I was like, “I don't want to do this by myself. We need to collaborate because I'm used to collaborating with family.” We just wanted to get some folks together and read it but it was like, “No, I can't do that, because it's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and I have to get a contract from Actors’ Equity Association if I want to use Equity actors.” So, it's a whole new experience. It's a lot of following rules. But I still call our family people to help me figure out how to take the lead, so to speak. I don't like doing stuff alone.

A man and woman performing on stage.

Skeleton Crew, Marin Theater Company. Performers pictured: Christian Thompson and Tristan Cunningham. Photo by Kevin Burnes.

Sean: That's the whole get-down though, right? That's why I'm looking at every definition in so-called American theatre right now and it's not that I want to break them all, but I want to shake them and see what's resonant. What do I still respond to? For example, you mentioned seasons earlier. I've never responded to planning theatre seasons. I find no resonance in it other than seeing a bunch of plays laid out on a list. That's cool to look at as a theatre person but in terms of development—in terms of connection to people, ignition, responsiveness—I find it fallow. Obviously that model works for some theatres because it generates income that they use in advance to get their cash flow. I'm not ignorant of it and I'm not shitting on it, but we came from twenty-five cents and stuff like that.

But to the point about the definitions, American theatre has been existing on a paradigm that needs to be looked at—not to say that it needs to be broken again. But it needs to be adjusted to almost every city, neighborhood, and focus. Margo, you are running Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which has this storied history and really historical legacy of being a theatre that did things a certain way. But it's 2021 and a lot has been lost and a lot has yet to be revealed, so that is your focus. If your focus is to get new voices, why would the priority then be seasons? Or workshops or subscriptions? I think as a woman, you have also had to deconstruct this ridiculous white male pyramid structure of the whole thing.

Margo: Exactly.

Sean: That ain't happening. In the same regard, people of color are going to come in and just follow this paradigm that is, again, a structure that is not inherently collaborative or cooperative—which to me is just nonsensical for theatre. Power flows down in this bizarre chart; one voice says it, another follows, and then another three follow. But when looking at the pyramid, I go, “But where's the circle in there? Where's everyone coming together?”

Margo: Because the third person down might have the best idea, and if they're not open to that...

Sean: Absolutely. Who needs to do theatre if you're following orders? I think there is a way to do it that's more circular. It doesn't have to be chaos. People used to say that about Campo Santo. They were like, “That's cool that you guys have that approach, but will you be able to sustain the model?” Well, twenty-five years later, here we are. We certainly have had structural organizationally. We worked with Deborah Cullinan for however many years at Intersection for the Arts, so we have the scaffolding from her vision to sustain it now and that's from twenty years ago. But still the furnace has to be fired from a place of desire and need.

Margo: Right, and resonance. Who knew that would be your first show? It was just like, “Tongo, he's the San Francisco poet laureate; that's who should be at Magic.” But you didn't say, “Well, in this season, we're going to put this here and this here,” because it was urgent. It was what was needed. When I read the Erika Dickerson-Despenza play, [hieroglyph], the first thing I said is, “We've got to do this play and figure it out in COVID, because this is a really good play and it's needed right now.” So we have a layout, but we're not afraid to change it.

Sean: Yeah. Right now, we're redoing the lobby at Magic so we're literally taking down names and play titles off the wall and putting paint over it and putting a new picture on it and I'm thinking, “Is that disrespectful? Is that not legacy?” Magic Theatre was started by a bunch of freaks in a bar based on an idea from a poem. They wanted to do something that no one else was doing. So, if now at Magic we’re just repeating the thing that they did or following form of 1967 in 2021...

Margo: Where's the progression?

Sean: Exactly. So there's these moments where I just go, “No, legacy actually means going further with that spirit and blazing forward.”

That's why I'm looking at every definition in so-called American theatre right now and it's not that I want to break them all, but I want to shake them and see what's resonant.

Margo: Going forward with that spirit but making changes. That foundation that they built gives me the opportunity to be able to do what I want to do.

Sean: That's exactly it. We also have to be really real. When Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter ran the historic Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the vibrancy and the actual statistical numbers of the Black population, specifically in San Francisco, was alive and present. It's been systematically decimated and eliminated from the city. So to follow that same structure—again, there's no resonance to it because we actually have to put a firmer stake in the ground to say, “We're not going anywhere. We're not disappeared. The Black population exists. This is a Black city, no matter what the fuck that stupid new tower says or however many corporate white buildings and vans you put in our city. It's still a Black city.” We have to respond with strategies that work with this moment in time. It seemed desperate when they started but now, it's just hideous; it's ridiculous.

Margo: Right. Putting that stake in the ground will bring people to the theatre. At the Magic, you're focusing on theatres of color and having folks of color come in and work as resident theatre companies and resident artists—and that brings our people. Maybe they don't live there, but they can still come there and see their people. For those who are still there, they have a place to go see their work. If we don't do that, then the art will disappear.

Sean: That's why now, in a city that's less than 5 percent Black, you're going to plant 3 new writers that are going to develop and grow and have a voice for generations to come.

Margo: Represent, for sure. Yeah, in trying to feel out this new position, it's interesting learning new things. I'm so used to just showing up to the theatre, doing my thing, and going home. Now it's producing and deciding what those choices are going to be for what shows I’m going to show, and finding the actors to do it and the director and all that stuff. I wouldn't say it's hard, it's just a lot of work. Especially because it's just me and Stephanie Shoffner, who is the executive director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre—so we run everything right now. But we're trying to get into a position where we’re able to hire staff, so we can delegate some stuff. But it's an interesting transition, I'll say that.

Sean: I think the new part, too, is the sustainable thing; the collective power. If someone is not doing this work collectively in this day and age, I say good luck to them and I'm not investing in their corporation. I'm investing in the ones that are like, “I'm going to work with them because I need them and they need me, and this type of storytelling is necessary.” But we haven't broken the mold yet. Arts are still at the bottom of the barrel. So if we're not doing it together, we're just elbowing each other for the same bucket of money. This single vision thing is for the birds. No thank you.

Margo: Yeah. The fact that we're still connected by having the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre as a resident company at the Magic makes perfect sense because we both have the same vision. We have a foundation of something we created over twenty-five years ago that continues. So why not have family?

Sean: Yeah, and why not grow it together? That was the big question that the community asked me: “If you were to do this, how would you be able to separate Campo Santo from this?” I had to say, “Look, if I'm doing this, there is no separation.” That's because we all win if we do it together, as opposed to cutting it out. That's why you were the first phone call like, “Hey, we have a space now, so we should all be doing this together.” If we're not doing that, that's an older model. That's from like the 1980s when people had money to kick into new buildings and new organizations. Now we're just trying to say, “As citizens, we have to see the importance of cultural space—Especially for people of color. So if people aren’t doing that, then I really don't know what they’re doing in a sustainable way.

Margo: Right. There is this concept of, “Oh, now we have a Black woman at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; we have this new artistic director over here.” Like you said, Sean, it's being framed as some new takeover or this change or whatever—I guess if you want to put it like that, fine. But the goal is to keep that family connected so that those people don't fail because you put people in those positions and they have no support. We’re in this hierarchy but we're like, “We don't even know how to do that. What we do know is that we grow together.” So of course we're going to come together if we just happen to be who we are. But we are leaders in our community, and people know we make dope work. So why wouldn't it be Margo and Sean holding it down?

Sean: I love you, Margo.

Margo: Love you, too. On the changeover: Margo Hall and Sean San Jose.

Thoughts from the curators

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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