The Wild Ride

Saying YES! to a season of women playwrights at Magic Theatre

As a field, we talk frequently about the results of season planning, but we rarely are given the opportunity to examine the myriad decisions season programmers need to make. Transparency about this demanding and sometimes exasperating process could be helpful to the relationship between artists and theatre organizations as well as a fascinating read for all of us who enjoy performance. Read the full series here.

Magic Theatre is a midsize company in San Francisco with a long and distinguished history of developing and premiering new plays. In the following post, Artistic Director Loretta Greco shares the sometimes circuitous route to Magic Theatre’s 2015-2016 season. – Fran Kumin

We are about to launch a season penned entirely by women:

Fred’s Diner by Penelope Skinner, an American premiere

Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield

Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia, a West Coast premiere

runboyrun by Mfoniso Udofia, a world premiere

Our lead critic thought we had forgot to mention in the press release that it was an all female season! And while the fact is beyond thrilling for me, it is just as important to convey that these extraordinary voices earned their place for their excellence and by surviving the wild ride that is season selection. They were not designated for a concept season.

It is fascinating (and other words) to me that while others still seem to be having such a hard time with parity and diversity, the majority of our most critically-lauded productions during my tenure have been written by women and artists of color. For us, the search for excellence and the new has organically brought parity and diversity.

The bones of the vanguard were set forty-eight years ago at Magic, when John Lion gave Sam Shepard a decade-long artistic home. There is a continuum connecting those years to ours that inspires us to keep saying yes, and each time we do, we hope to engender a little more boldness across the field. Again and again, the projects that have held the most mystery and a good dose of trepidation (The Lily’s Revenge, Any Given Day, and Oedipus el Rey to name just a few) have ultimately been the most thrilling to birth and experience in production.

an actor on stage
Joshua Torrez as Oedipus (foreground) with Marc David Pinate and Romi Dias in Luis Alfaro's Oedipus el Rey. Photo credit by Jennifer Reiley.

When considering writing that is new to us, the individual play is only the beginning of our conversation. We know that taking a leap of faith in writers helps them to thrive. In building seasons, we are looking for bold voices we can support for the long haul. When we say yes to a writer, we are committing to their voice, their unique perspective, and to producing a body of work over time.

Consequently, this family of writers feels safe coming to us with a few pages or the seed of an idea for their next adventure. Our commitment to gestate and produce Bruja, Jesus in India, and Hir sprung not from pages but from conversations with Luis Alfaro, Lloyd Suh, and Taylor Mac. We believe this commitment makes development more fluid and organic; workshops or readings aren’t auditions, and writers, knowing they will be produced, can stay focused on the work itself.

In building seasons, we are looking for bold voices we can support for the long haul. When we say yes to a writer, we are committing to their voice, their unique perspective, and to producing a body of work over time.

an actress performing with leaves
Sabina Zuniga Varela in Luis Alfaro's Bruja. Photo credit by Jennifer Reiley.

Naturally, the first place we begin to build seasons is from this family of artists. Once we make a commitment or two, the rest of the season’s puzzle pieces seem to reveal themselves, and a larger conversation between the plays begins to vibrate. And every season, just when I think everything is falling into place, there is inevitably a curve ball or three. This year was no different.

The Journey to the 2015-2016 Season
Eighteen months out, I thought we had three of our five slots: a Sam Shepard home grown legacy revival as part of our “Sheparding America” celebration, the second installment of Luis Alfaro’s premiere This Golden State trilogy (our co commission with OSF), and the first ever Bay Area production of Jessica Hagedorn’s kaleidoscopic masterwork Dogeaters, which would speak to our large and vibrant Filipino community in the Bay. Hagedorn, Shepard, and Alfaro. Wildly different voices speaking to a myriad of audiences, with opportunities for two more new plays I felt sure would come organically from our family of writers.

But after checking in with the rest of our usual suspects, it was soon clear that most of our writers weren’t ready to put their work on a trajectory for 15-16. Taylor was devoting the next eighteen months to focus on his twenty-four-decade history of popular music and the Playwrights Horizons production of HIR. He wouldn’t be ready to begin his next project until 2016. Ditto Lloyd Suh and Christina Anderson. Linda McLean was inside something new and writing, but she wanted to give herself more time, Victor Lodato was focusing on selling his second novel, and so on. At best, it looked like many of these writers would be in early gestation for our Virgin Play festival at the end of 2015.

an actor cheering on stage
Rod Gnapp, Jomar Tagatac, Patrick Alparone in Linda McLean's Every Five Minutes. Photo credit by Jennifer Reiley.

Thankfully, from our trusted agent Scott Chaloff came Skinner’s Fred’s Diner, a brilliant look at power and gender via three generations of waitresses who reveal in funny, surprising, and gut wrenching ways their dreams and the lifelong hardships. The class warrior in me is always looking for an authentic working class play that defies agit prop—why is this so rare? My associate Ryan Purcell and the co-Producer of our Virgin Fest, Dori Jacob, also loved the play. A reading in our Virgin Play series and six great roles for beloved local artists cemented the deal with the entire staff. We were almost there. One more.

In March, with our April announcement looming, we received a surprise visit from Sam.He bore the sheepish news of three plays—all of which began and premiered at Magic—to be produced in NY. As happy as I was for him, I suddenly felt we ought to wait another year or two before resuming our Shepard legacy revivals. Sam agreed.

At the same time, we were working with Luis Alfaro on his first installment of This Golden State: Part One: Delano which would close our 2014-15 season. We’ve developed and premiered two of Luis’s plays already, and we are extremely proud of this bold pivot he’s making away from the Greeks to create a trilogy from scratch with the commissioning support of both Magic and OSF. Good news arrived—Luis had finally been granted tenure and a fall sabbatical. I made a decision then and there to postpone the second installment another year. We will spend time both in San Francisco and Ashland embracing the way Luis writes best—with actors and myself around the table—during his sabbatical and then resume production of the trilogy in our 16-17 season. This may also give us a better chance to have Bill Rauch direct the second play. When he and I forged this unlikely collaboration between our theatres we hoped to create a meaningful paradigm that might be mimicked elsewhere. All of this felt right, even though it put me down another play.

Just as I was wondering if it was too late to go to nursing school, I got an email from my dear friend, Jane Ann Crum, who, along with being a brilliant writer and dramaturg, is the most discerning theatregoer I know. Jane was writing with an eloquent endorsement of the Women’s Project’s production of Bright Half Life. Inspired, I re-read the play aloud and found myself dazzled by its authenticity and structural boldness, and moved by how that structure supports the content in such emotionally viable and surprising ways. A reach out to ensure Tanya’s participation and a nudge towards wanting to support future plays and we were in business. What an amazing journey to take sandwiched between Skinner and Hagedorn’s plays. Three exciting plays in place.

I’d like to report that choosing those final two plays was easy; that I knew exactly what the last notes of the season should be, but the truth is, I didn’t. Ryan and I re-considered many new pieces (one of these two slots would be his to direct). We discussed runboyrun at length—as beautiful as it was, I wasn’t sure it captured the size of what her full cycle was trying to do. I knew Mfoniso was a finalist for the PoNY fellowship and when I learned that they had decided to award it to another wonderful writer, it gave me pause. Mfoniso was a luminous emerging voice whom we had joyfully worked with in Virgin Fest ’14 and ’15, who instead of timidly tapping at our door, came bounding out of the gate with a gutsy nine-play Nigerian cycle. She needed champions! What would happen, I wondered, if instead of producing one play, we produced two of her cycle? Would the sum of the two plays be greater than the parts? I felt that if Mfoniso could take such a bold risk, the least we could do was take a leap of faith. And so we did; we said yes, and placed Mfoniso at the center of a spring residency so while working on the productions of Sojourners and runboyrun, she can also contextualize and share the other pieces of the cycle with our Magic community. And with that, our season was complete.

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Thoughts from the curator

As a field, we talk frequently about the results of season planning, but we rarely are given the opportunity to examine the myriad decisions season programmers need to make. Transparency about this demanding and sometimes exasperating process could be helpful to the relationship between artists and theater organizations as well as a fascinating read for all of us who enjoy performance.

Season Planning

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This is really great! Thank you for taking the time to write this. As a playwright, I'm thoroughly interested in pieces that describe and/or demystify the selection process. Sadly, that kind of information is hard to find. I admire the transparency you've shown in narrating your own process. Also a treat to hear about my friend and fellow playwright Mfoniso! Wonderful news about her two upcoming premieres.

Loretta, thank you for so candidly sharing the details of this season-planning journey. While it is clear that a season of all-female playwrights was not necessarily intentional, it is a marvelous outcome! I love it the phrase "for us, the search for the excellent and the new has organically brought parity and diversity. Would this were true for every theater in America!