By David John Chávez, with Sean San José
As part of Substrate Arts’ Launch Party held at Magic Theatre in June 2023, David John Chávez spoke onstage with Sean San José, a writer, director, performer and co-founder of Campo Santo, a performance company for people of color in San Francisco who is also the new artistic director at the Magic Theatre. He is the first person of color to hold that position in the history of the Magic, founded in 1967.
David John Chávez: Hello, everybody. Good evening. Thank you so much for being here. It means the world. I interviewed Sean San José back in May of 2021 for American Theatre magazine. And it was not long after that he received the appointment [to artistic director of Magic Theatre.] And one of the things I had mentioned to him was that so many people just across the board, on every social; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – were just beyond excited about this appointment. It was a huge appointment in the Bay Area theatre scene. At that time, we had a lot of people of color, women, BIPoC folks, the LGBTQ plus community, were getting some really big appointments in the Bay Area theatre scene, and his appointment was right up there at the top. So he was incredibly engaging. It was such a fun interview to do. We had a great zoom chat, and the editors in New York absolutely loved the things he had to say. They kept the word “fuck” in there. And I was like, dude, you guys dropped the whole word! I had never seen that before from that publication.
I have to give credit to someone that can’t be here tonight. Unfortunately, Julius Ernesto Rea, who was supposed to do this interview – yes, let’s give him a hand. He’s a phenomenal artist. Absolutely hard worker, so responsible in so many ways for this event coming together, just super organized. It’s a pleasure to work alongside him; I like working for him. So you know, he’s just incredible. He was supposed to be here tonight, so I’m stepping in and you know I’ll do my best to make Julius proud.
So one of the things I love is talking about criticism, especially when it comes to speaking with artistic directors, people that know the scene, people that are on the other side of what we do. We’re writing critical viewpoints on shows they produce, we do not work for the companies, and therefore there’s times when a review comes out – it’s not great. So the companies push back, but you know, our loyalties are to the reader. So he’s on the other side of that, he’s looking at maybe what’s being said, or maybe not, because everybody’s different when it comes to reviews – if they engage with them or they don’t, those those types of things. But one of the things that was really exciting when Sean took over the Magic was that people were just really excited for the level of theatricality, the level of storytelling, that was going to be continued from Loretta Greco, who was the artistic director that preceded him. And I think based on the work that’s been done, obviously it has been a very great choice and we’re seeing a lot of really incredible storytelling coming out of this space. So that’s exciting. So Sean, this leads me to the first question that I have for you. When you look at the three shows that have been produced or will be produced this year; we had The Travelers, we had The Ni¿¿er Lovers, and upcoming in August, Josephine’s Feast, as well as other projects hosted in this space. How did the combination of these different shows represent your vision for the Magic Theatre and the future of San Francisco and Bay Area theatre? Starting off with an easy one.
Sean: Softballs! First of all, thank you all for inviting me. It means a lot to me. I’m excited about what this collective can do, what it promises for what we can do culturally and to expand voice in the Bay Area. And this is a very serious audience. I’ll try and match your sternness. But to the question, David, I think one of the things that we wanted to do the most when we came in here, and it’s cool to be in the actual space, talking about the space, is to make this space kind of like what it is tonight. Which is to say, a space that opens up the doors for people. We wanted to carry on the tradition, a 55-year history of creating new plays, which is, just looking at the numbers, pretty impressive. It’s pretty amazing. Because it’s not easy to do, and it’s definitely not, oddly, not easy to do in the Bay Area. We would think, “We love new shit, we love creativity. We love breaking boundaries. We love immersion. We love ideas. We love writing.” But still and yet you look around, at the field as it were, of theatre and performance making. And the shit is just not easy. It’s definitely not supported in a major way. I don’t mean by us, the people that like to watch it. I mean by institutions, by big time donors and such.
So I set out to say, it’s kind of stunning to walk into a place that has a big impressive history. First of all, when you walk into a place that has legacy, and then also for me has personal impact – this is the first place I had seen a play, so I have my own personal experiences wrapped up in it – is to carry on tradition in a certain respect. But in the very same breath, what we’re trying to do is tear open a whole new chapter. The real task of taking new energy into an institution, into an artistic organization, is what you do with the energy of the place. Because I’ve been lucky, I’ve been working with new writers ever since I started working in theatre. So I know how many dope amazing writers there are. It’s like fruit on trees. It’s amazing. And we’re in the Bay Area. People come here for this, you know what I mean? We were a beacon call for it, through through the decades, through the centuries. So people want to be here for that boundless experimentation and creativity. So the work, in a way, it is not at all secondary, but it has to be married with something else.
And so I think these writers, in the longest answer to one question is, these writers are reflective of people that write with great power, but are also reflecting our world. And so I think it’s about who they speak for and about. What we’re trying to do here is to continue that tradition, but the decided sort of focus is to center people of color throughout the organization. So it’s the same work, but the viewfinder is different. The centering of it is different and these writers certainly do that. I think the Magic Theatre for me as an actor, when I worked here, taught me the power of writers in theatre and not just their words, but the power of an organization meeting a writer…I’m talking about a place that says, “Your voice is important. We’re going to do your voice. You have stories to tell, and we’re going to follow your stories.” It’s so easy to get cynical and jaded by by things. I mean “that play has to do this” and “write this shit for that, and you got that little fucking grand for this and doo doo doo doo doo.” And so by time that you get into the room, the cookie cutter has taken over the thing, and the size of the imagination is down here. You’re talking about writers. Writers, right, way out here, and then all of a sudden you get in a rehearsal room, when it should be the most explosive, the most generative – and the lines to draw on are just hella small all of a sudden.
When I came here, actually, there was a great leader here, the artistic director Mame Hunt, and she was the one that taught me. I knew that writers led the game for theatre, because that’s all you’re doing: you’re reading their words. But it was how she supported it. You know, she had said at one point, she was like, “We’re going to do all of her plays.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” and she was like, “Whatever she’s gonna write.” So that gives you the sense that what we’re doing in theatre, is it’s just a series of relationships. Not “just,” but it’s a series of relationships. And what I mean by that is, I have a relationship with you on that, like we’re talking, we’re meeting each other in the company, obviously, we have relationships with each other. But with the writer, you want to start a long relationship. You’re not writing about some shit out of the front page, and you write it for that time and it’s temporal and it’s gone. You want to write in a way that we all grow and breathe and learn and change our minds and then come back to something together. So these are three writers that I think both artistically pushed bounds but also are people that I would love for them to lead us into the next era. So that was one question!
David: One of the funnest things I did two years ago is transcribe that. And that was cool. Enjoy that. Seriously! It was a great time like what do I keep in, what do I do? [No lies! -Issue Editor] A lot of shows that you’ve produced here have included members from Campo Santo. And, you know, yeah [Applause for Campo Santo] Yeah, I heard that! Even though you’ve worked with and alongside the Magic for for many years, how would you describe the successes and challenges of inviting members from one company into the other?
Sean: I wouldn’t call it a challenge at all in any way. I think that the whole viewfinder should just be squashed and broken open. I mean, it’s so funny with theatre, you know, it’s all communal, all ensemble is necessarily collaborative. And then we get no money. So everyone just argues and protects these little fake plots of land. But so by time we get together, everyone’s like, doing a rebound or something; it’s totally the opposite. There’s no challenges. It’s all opportunity. And I don’t mean that in a fake way. Like, “Oh, it’s all opportunity. We turn that frown upside down!” I mean when I interviewed for the position here, one of the questions that the committee asked was like, “You have this history with your group that you work with, Campo Santo. How would you separate them if you were to get the thing? How would you separate out the work that you do with Campo Santo with this?” No, it was like, we wouldn’t at all. We were putting them all together. That’s the idea. The idea is to make this place, you know, like a circle or like make it a center. So you want everyone in the room. You don’t want to set a goal like well, that’s just over there. And then when I’m here, I can do these things. And over there, we can play with those tools. And those guys get to play with those toys. I don’t see how you how you learn and grow with each other that way. And so the joy has been to sort of say, like, take everything that we do, and put it in this playground and then that playground gets to play with these other group of kids and these other group of kids get to play with these other group of kids.
It all comes from a place I had worked for, Intersection for the Arts. It used to be in the Mission District when the Mission District was still alive, it was this amazing place on Valencia Street, between Valencia Gardens and all the soon-to-be-hip bars and stuff. But what was so cool about this little building in the middle of the block is that it was tiny, it started with the stage and then went up three floors. But inside of that building, they did jazz, and poetry, and a visual art gallery, and plays, and dance, and everything just kind of fell on top of each other. And it wasn’t messy. All it did was, everyone’s art informed each other, like having a crystal in the middle of the room where the light hit back. And so you could see a visual art show and you’re like, “Oh, this is the way this artist is looking at water and time. I never thought about telling a story that way,” or “That inspired me.” You hear someone play on their horn. You go “Oh my gosh, that makes me feel this!” and you see someone else tell a story with their poetry that way. And so all of a sudden, there are no boundaries around anything. There’s no fake borders around it and then you start getting to what the bigger stories are to tell. And that’s kind of the vibe here, is to get that energy where you’re all reflecting and responding to each other, and hopefully that creates something generative, that the audiences vibe off of, or if they’re not vibing off of it, then that creates a conversation out of that conversation. It makes the writer think this way, and then you see something else. I mean, we need to be constantly fed and inspired. The more the merrier kind of vibe. And the more the merrier not just in theatre, but all forms of live performance storytelling. I think it not only makes it fun, but it makes it it limitless in that way, and that that feels really exciting, especially for the form that we’re in, this live theatre form.
Look at the shit that’s happening now. The fucking dinosaur’s dying, but we don’t know how to make a truthful sentence to the public about what we’re doing. “Oh, we’re changing the legacy of the thing.” And then they come out with some bullshit, and another theatre closes. Then they tell you that they care about this and then they show you that. And you’re just like, wait a minute, the whole thing is supposed to be about reflecting real life, where you’re supposed to be super honest in the theatre storytelling of it. And yet the whole thing is wrapped up in this, this bow of bullshit basically. I’m supposed to believe it’s a real situation where these two people sit and fall in love with each other? I’m supposed to believe they really have feelings, but everything that has led up to the moment when you’re watching it is bullshit. “But we care about the community. That’s why we charge 898 fucking dollars for the shit. Oh, and at the door we’re gonna let you in, but we’re gonna make you feel funky about coming into the space before we’re gonna ask you to turn your shit off because you know, we don’t want anyone to know what the fuck is happening.”
How are we going to survive? You know what I mean? How is this industry supposed to continue when obviously, we’re up against it? Like we’re still trying to say: please come back. Please come back. You know, don’t be afraid. Come back, you know, and there’s not money for it. Because now everything’s getting shorted. So I just think in a real kind of old San Francisco Bay hippie vibe, where it’s just like, we gotta start with honesty and openness. And if we start with honesty and openness, it’s gonna make it a lot cooler. Like, for instance, everyone knows City Lights, books, right? The vibe there is always good. It’s always, you know, they want you to come in there. “We believe in books. We believe in writers. We believe in the vibe.” And every time you walk in that store, that’s what it feels like. You know what I mean? There’s nothing sort of like “Gotcha! Now we’re gonna say, ‘Oh, here’s some bullshit.’” They’re like, “There’s the poetry room upstairs and, you know, the revolutionary books over here.” And I appreciate that. I appreciate like a real relationship started even if it’s basic, even if it’s transactional in that moment. I think we could learn from that a little bit more. Because all we are is people talking to people. And if you treat the people like they can be lied to, what the fuck are you doing? You know what I mean? Like then why would you expect any of us to come back to it? So I say all that to say I hope that we can. I just hope that we can all learn to be a little bit more honest and therefore, learn to be a little bit more generous about it.
This isn’t 1983, when, you know, the government was giving a whole bunch of money to build big new theatres. All those big buildings are now sort of caving in from that structure that was built, you know, 30-40 years ago, so we have a 30-40 year old structure. And then we also have this whole cultural sort of, I don’t know what you want to call it, either upheaval, arising, or just evolution, and no one knows how to respond to it. And it’s gonna make for a very dicey next decade of a theatre making if we’re not a little bit more honest about it. Which doesn’t mean like, every theatre has to be the same and everyone needs to be led by people of color. I just think you need to just be honest about what your thing is, you know what I mean? We’re not marketing geniuses. We’re not here to pay sales people. So just say what your shit is, and then let people respond.
I know. I sound like “He’s so cocky. He swears the whole time, he thinks the other theatres are full of shit.” I do think they’re full of shit. But it doesn’t mean that I think “Oh, and I have all the fucking answers.” But what I do know is that we can we have a clear idea what we want to try and we’re gonna put it out there and if people don’t show up for it, lesson learned on us. We believe in that. That means a lot to me.
You know, again, like all we’re doing is what we’re doing here, which is to say a person sits in the middle of the stage and talks to 200 some-odd people out here, and tells you a story. And if you’re going to lie, I just … the math won’t match on that one at the end of the day. Something will come up, and it’s all going to come out in the wash. And so hopefully, we know enough great writers and great artists that the art is going to be good, but let’s hope the energy feels good around it. Answer number TWO!
David: I have time for one more, maybe? Maybe a half question. All right. One of the more I think, awkward relationships that theatre companies have is with their critics. Journalists, people that cover and people that have a they’re part of the ecosystem but they’re outside that, you know, you invite people you have a great press agent that I worked with for years. And, but but it is an awkward relationship, because you could be like, “Hey, what’s up?” and then they give you a terrible review, like “screw you,” and whatever. And so it’s always kind of a conversation we have. So the question I have for you as a theatre leader, and artistic director, is how do you see a holistic relationship between arts producers and the journalists who cover arts as an industry or the writers who come to review shows?
Sean: Well, I mean, I think it’s similar to what I was just saying: if it’s honest, if it’s based on honesty, I think that helps. I think what you’re talking about too, with theatre, and so called critics, is the elitism that is sort of inherent with theatre critics. And what I would call the false power that’s associated with it. People are responding to some shit that’s not even real. What I mean by that is so many theatres are like, I want to get the crown of cool, because the Chronicle reflects the city and the Chronicle is powerful. And if that powerful thing can put a powerful fucking cartoon in their review, then intelligent human beings will respond and come to our play. And I’m just like, that’s a fallacy. That’s a lie. That’s a joke. That’s, you know, it’s a fucking cartoon. You know what I’m talking about? In the Chronicle. They have a little thing. It’s a little guy. I don’t know when the fucking thing was created, and why in the Bay Area of all places. You know, people that are into reading, you don’t even want to have the review? You want to have the cartoon tell you like, “I felt tired.”
All that to say I think a lot of it comes from the theatres themselves, like they’re coming out of “I want the review because the review equates to this.” But that model is dead. A critic’s review doesn’t equal 48 sales per Thursday night after the Wednesday review. The idea that folks are still operating on is some shit, like as if there’s three newspapers, major newspapers, but in reality we don’t even have a single fucking paper in San Francisco. You know? And so that’s point number one that makes it a very funky relationship. So why don’t we see each other? I’m worried because of all this pressure is on it as opposed to like: come be one of the people that sees it. And then write your shit. I think that the beef that I have with critics is the writers that write about live performance, and don’t write about the live performance aspect. They they sort of exalt themselves in the position of like, I saw this thing and I will tell you, my narrow, non-live reaction to it. What I mean by non-live is like, no one mentioned what the shit felt like if it was hot in the room. If fuckers were laughing, if people seem pleased by it, if people clapped, if people were young, if people were vibing off the subject. I don’t know how you can, or why you would, review a show and not talk about the theatrical experience of it.
I mean, to me, like you said, on that show, it was you know, half baked that should didn’t work. I mean, something if there’s no sort of like, we want no homogeny at like every one of our gums are better love it. I love them all. But whatever you know, I mean, we wouldn’t be doing bold shit like we say we do bold shit. If everyone’s going to come out. Yes, it was both. Some people don’t think it’s not Oh, that’s a phony or you know, it was half-baked or whatever. So I say all that to say like, I think people who go to the theatre got to check themselves in terms of expectation. What do you expect from a critic? You want a critic to to validate your shit? I say all that to say in the theatre world, our issue is, we’re not reaching for the audience. And if we think that through the critic, which is really through the paper, those advertisers are gonna get us a new audience, then the critics aren’t sure, but the theatres are tripping. And it’s usually the theatres are tripping. And then there’s just like, in any other industry, there’s just some racist writers. And so though, for a group like our group, you’re just like I could give a fuck if you like the play, but to say some racist shit? That’s when you just got to be like, “Man, I can’t. I really can’t with this writer anymore.” I never have like, kind of moral issues with with those writers. But if you are a theatre person that has to read reviews, and wants to read them, that’s the only part where it really gets funky. If someone is super out of pocket, if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t like it. I mean that’s the whole point of the power dynamic thing. The theatres ourselves, we have perpetuated the thing where the reviewer is the opinion. And you’re just like, you mean 140 people came, and that one person wrote the thing and you’re so worried?
I think the story part of it is getting lost – meaning. We’ve had many great conversations about culture, about organizations, about structure, and we don’t even talk about the place or the writer or the performer. And I think that’s exciting. That’s the seed planting that we need in terms of conversation. We want to know, what’s the story? Who are you writing it about? And what were you responding to? I think that’s really on the theatres like that. You know, the regional theatre model has has a lot of dead branches attached to it. And one of them is the way that we sort of invest in the idea of what a critic can do for your ticket sales. And then what are you praying for? Because ticket sales is not the same as audiences or community.
David: Last thing I want to ask you and then we could wrap up: You took over in 2021, you’ve been doing this for almost two years. And of course, coming out of pandemic, no one knew, no one had any experience, it was something that we were all experiencing for the first time together. But you know, going into a whole new era of theatre, what is one thing that you think that you didn’t maybe realize? When people started coming back, that you learned and maybe you adjusted? What’s something that you, you thought this way, and then you’re like, you know what, I might have not been correct on that. Let’s readjust. And let’s refocus.
Sean: Yeah, I mean, that’s a very resonant question, because I think we came in, we really, in a certain respect, questioned everything about the organization in a cool way, in a positive way. We wanted to shake every definition and every structural thing and say does that hold merit anymore? Is that resonant anymore? Things that have worked for us, anything from a job title to a job description to the way that the lobby was arranged? Or what plays, or what pay scale, or how many days a week? So all of it I think we’ve been continuing to sort of like shake it like, “Why the fuck do we use that term?” In theatre, you know, because the tradition is so old, it keeps getting passed on. Just pass on, the new guy’s gonna take this thing just sort of swallow it whole, all the definitions, all the nomenclature, all the structural things. I mean, I would never do that.
And that part has been cool for us, because it’s allowed us to attempt to be more holistic in our approach to what all the things are. But I think the biggest thing is like, you get so excited about the shit in the ideas – you think that glow, that vibration is just gonna happen. You’re gonna be like, “This motherfucker is going to be filled every night!” And I think that’s a good lesson, in a way, for all theatres to sort of have to go like “Oh, so every time, we got to really, really think about who you’re addressing, who you’re inviting, and how you’re inviting.” So I think we feel really great, especially this year, this calendar year, or whatever year we’re in right now about how we’re reaching that.
David: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Sean San José is a blessing to the Bay Area, and a treasure to Bay Area theatre and theatre in the country. So thank you, Sean, for this incredible talk. Such a pleasure.