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Art and Innovation

Thoughts on the Magic Theatre

Address: 2 Marina Blvd, Fort Mason, Bldg, 2, 3rd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94123
Phone: 415-441-8822

Magic Theatre—Magic Masquerade

"I believe in my mask-- The man I made up is me
I believe in my dance-- And my destiny"

—from "Crow's Song," Tooth of Crime by Sam Shepard, 1972

John Marx—Thoughts on Art and Honors
Sam Shepard was an icon in the world of American theatre. Playwright, actor and director, he reinvented the stereotypical picture of the American west to make it gritty and realist, even surreal, while confronting human dilemmas. And for a significant part of his career, he had a special relationship with San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where he spent 10 years as artist-in-residence, giving both actors and audiences the opportunity to experience drama in new ways.

Innovation and Involvement

John Marx, vice-president of the Magic’s board of directors, got a taste of Shepard’s work firsthand in 1983, when he saw Fool for Love at the Magic Theatre, with Shepard directing and Ed Harris and Kathy Baker in the roles of the leading characters, Eddie and May. It was a production with so many things happening that it was difficult to keep track of them, forcing the audience to make choices. “That was fascinating. I was hooked on the Magic,” he recalls. The theatre at Fort Mason has been part of his life ever since, and at its Magic Masquerade Gala, a fundraising event on March 9, he received an inaugural Sam Shepard Legacy Award for his contributions.

Fool for Love is a play that defines the Magic for Marx. In addition to seeing Shepard’s classic production, which went on to New York and won several Obie Awards, he saw it in 2017, this time with artistic director Loretta Greco directing. “When Sam did it, it was not a comedy,” says Marx, explaining that it was about a power struggle between a man and a woman and was entirely serious. In the 1980s, “It was the nature of what things were,” he observes. “Loretta did a 21st century version,” he explains, pointing out that some of the lines can seem silly today, and so humor was an element in Greco’s interpretation, reflecting how changing times can influence a play. It’s not possible to change as much as a word without the playwright’s permission, so, Greco changed the power dynamic between the two characters instead, giving the work a new, contemporary reading. “That’s an amazing aspect of the Magic,” says Marx, observing that it’s a place to break new ground and be experimental, innovative and fearless.

With a desire to support groundbreaking drama, Marx and his wife became supporters, and that led to a deeper relationship with the Magic Theatre. One year, they made a commitment to host a donor dinner, but changes to the sponsorship structure eliminated the dinners, and they got pushed up to the Producer’s category instead, allowing them to be involved in one play. It was Triptych by Edna O’Brien, and they got to attend rehearsals, spend time with the playwright and actors and just be there, which he found amazing. The move to a higher sponsorship level didn’t require paying more, but their enthusiasm was such that they increased their donation to the higher level. “The experience was just that wonderful,” he says, explaining that usually in philanthropy, a donor receives a generic letter, but the Magic does more. “We’ve been producing ever since, and now we’re season’s producers, which means we get to go to all the plays,” he says. It’s a small gesture by the theatre, but it’s effective, because it’s meaningful for a philanthropist to be involved and develop a relationship with the actors.

Marx believes fundraising for the arts is essential, partly because the government keeps pulling back, but also because private fundraising allows the arts to maintain their independence. “I remember when the National Endowment for the Arts was first attacked,” says Marx, recalling the reaction to Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano. It was one of a series of photographs Serrano did in 1987 showing statuettes in liquid, and conservatives asked why taxpayers’ money was funding sacrilegious work. Marx also remembers a play at the Magic that required tearing up a Bible on stage, and he points out that it might be a protest, but it’s within the context of the play. “To have art be really effective and work, it needs to be independent,” he says, adding that artists shouldn’t have to worry about the government pulling funding if it doesn’t like something. Corporate America also provides some funding for the arts, but it has to be safe and suits its purposes, and it carries the risk of commercialization.

Only one-third of the Magic Theatre’s revenues are from ticket sales, and the balance comes from donations, institutions and foundations. Crafting and development takes more time than stage time, and it’s expensive, so “Private philanthropy is essential,” he says, adding that if plays are to be edgy and controversial, they need private funding.  Otherwise a theatre can’t afford to take a risk.

Marx believes that culture and the arts are essential, because they are a way to inspire people to live better lives, and live theatre, in particular, allows people to develop a sense of community and kindness through participatory art. “We need cultural shifts, and art is one of the strongest places cultural shifts can occur,” he says, giving Burning Man as an example. He explains that what makes it work is the range of art from museum-quality pieces to a bejeweled unicorn doll. “ People know the difference, but view the intention as equal. I believe in going forward, we need to create this sense of range,” he says, adding that the Magic is at the top and is doing some of the best work in the world. We need, however, to extend the range. “It doesn’t change the artistic direction, but you’re involved,” he says.

Receiving the first-time Sam Shepard Legacy Award has special meaning for Marx. As a noted architect, he’s received many high-profile architecture awards, but this one is personal. He explains that professional awards are something one actively pursues, and they include a financial motive, so they’re intentional. “With the Magic, it’s the exact opposite. It’s one of the absolute best ones I’ve ever won,” he says. “It comes from pure love.”


Magic Theatre’s Magic Masquerade Gala took place on Friday, March 9, at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco. It featured a Sam Shepard Tribute Performance and presentation of the inaugural Sam Shepard Legacy Award to two worthy individuals—Marx and retired attorney Toni Rembe Rock (right), who also serves on the board of directors. To find out more, go to http://magictheatre.org/engage/masquerade



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"Reel to Reel" — Sights and Sounds of a Marriage

(Clockwise from left) Will Marchetti as Walter at age 82, Zoë Winters as younger Maggie, Carla Spindt as Maggie at 82 and Andrew Pastides as younger Walter.

Review by Judith M. Wilson
Photos by Julie Haber

A dripping tap sparks a memory, and it’s a recollection that just two people can share, because they’re the only ones who experienced it. No one can really know what’s inside someone else’s marriage, and that’s at the heart of Reel to Reel, which is in its debut run at Fort Mason’s Magic Theatre, as it employs sound to define one particular marriage and shows how powerful a medium sound can be. Playwright and director John Kolvenbach uses more than 100 sounds in Reel to Reel, from a repeatedly ringing telephone that punctuates an argument to sound effects, such as the ringing of a cash register and spinning of a ratchet wrench, that put scenes into context and help to explain them. Even silence is meaningful.

Carla Spindt and Will Marchetti play Maggie and Walter at the age of 82, when they’ve been married for 55 years and three months—give or take. Zoë Winters and Andrew Pastides play the same characters at the ages of 27, when they first meet, and 42, when they’re 15 years into the relationship. Both couples have played across from each other in different roles, and so, “We’ve got history among both sets of actors,” says Kolvenbach. In addition, he adds, the two couples look somewhat alike, but that was just luck and not contrived. The result is a kind of chemistry that makes the characters comfortable with each other, and so their actions and reactions ring true in nuanced performances, as the collage of a marriage takes shape, giving a sense of the union rather than a narrative history.

Ironically, although traditional telephones and mobile phones both make appearances, the play requires a depth of attention that modern communication often doesn’t. The scenes aren’t in chronological order, so it takes seeing the big picture of the entire play, as the various pieces come together, to make the most of it and appreciate its artistry. It's in good hands, however, with a small but skillful cast of actors who are more than up to the task of holding the audience’s attention with finely-tuned performances that reveal the essence of their characters over time.

Details also count, from Maggie’s reel-to-reel recording equipment, which endures over time, to Walter’s bathrobe, which demonstrates how life and priorities change as one ages, while the need for human connection continues. Even the sound of a sigh carries meaning, as dramatic events and the simple banter that is part of the ebb and flow of everyday life both come into play. It’s a creative telling of the story of a marriage with smart dialog and the inventive use of sound, and giving it your undivided attention is worth the effort.

Reel to Reel is 80 minutes, with no intermission, and it runs through Sunday, February 25. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday; 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.  The Magic Theatre is located in Building 2, third floor, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco.

For tickets and more information, go to www.magictheatre.org or call 415-441-8822.

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"REEL TO REEL"

Listening to Life

By Judith M. Wilson

Marriage is like a crazy quilt. It’s a miscellany of experiences, conversations, emotions and adventures, and somehow, miraculously, the disparate pieces come together to make one cohesive whole. An outsider can only see what’s on the outside of a quilt, and, similarly, one can never really observe the intimate details or detect the nuances inside someone else’s marriage. It takes being part of its creation for one to truly understand and appreciate it.

Playwright John Kolvenbach gives us a sense of what one particular marriage might be like by telling the inside story of a 55-year union in Reel to Reel, his new play, which has its premiere at the Magic Theatre on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. It follows Walter and Maggie over the years of their long marriage, with Andrew Pastides and Zoë Winters portraying the pair at the ages of 27 and 42, and Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt playing the same characters at 82. Both couples have played across from each other in different roles and have a history. As a result, says Kolvenbach, “They start to pick up little pieces of each other,” much as married couples do. Recorded conversations, arguments and everyday household sounds are part of the mix, which is a collage of the relationship through the years.

Kolvenbach was intrigued by the notion of the unknowable quality of someone else’s marriage and fascinated by the relationship between memory and sound. And he explores those ideas in a play about intimacy that whispers in the ear of the audience, using sound in every way he could. “It conveys intimacy as much as every other sense,” he says. Music, Foley (the reproduction of everyday sounds effects usually used in film), poetry and dialog all come into play, as the actors make all kind of sounds—more than 100—in a creative way to create a collage of love, aging, life and death. “It’s sort of a 3D radio,” he says.

As director as well as playwright, Kolvenbach, who is also the author of Goldfish, Mrs. Whitney, Love Song, on an average day, Gizmo Love, Fabuloso, Bank Job, and Marriage Play (or Half ’n Half ’n Half) had to tackle two different roles that have the potential to be at odds. As a dramatist, “You have a picture of the whole play in your head. When you’re writing you can watch the whole thing in your mind,” he says. A director, however, has to avoid preconceived ideas and give the actors the freedom to find and interpret their characters. “You have to let the actors make discoveries that aren’t on the page,” he says, so letting go is part of the process. The reward lies in taking the play from its beginning as the seed of an idea to seeing it fully realized on stage. “You get to take it all the way through. I love it,” he says

Kolvenbach says he wrote the play with the Magic Theatre in mind, first because artistic director Loretta Greco is a great theater executive. This is his fourth collaboration with Greco and the Magic Theatre. And second, it has an environment that allows theatricality. “You can see and hear every syllable,” he says.

He adds that the play is intricate and goes back and forth in time and in and out of realities, and as such, it requires the audience’s complete attention. ”It’s a leap of faith,” he says, explaining that it is intimate and also requires a long attention span, which is the opposite of what people experience today with cell phones. He believes it’s worth the effort. “Modern life can be depleting,” he says. “Politics has left us in a very shallow place.” He observes that one can write about the either problem or the antidote, and he’s chosen the latter. He describes Reel to Reel as an exercise in empathy, something that might be in short supply these days, but is uplifting when we find it.