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Regional Interests

Two Distinctly San Francisco Theater Companies Announce Bold Leadership Changes

In a year of massive fluctuation throughout the Bay Area theatrical ecosystem, several leadership transitions at notable companies have been announced—most recently the appointment of Sean San José as the new Artistic Director of Magic Theatre, and the stepping down of Allison Page, currently both the Executive Director and Artistic Director of Killing My Lobster.

For Sean San José, stepping in as Artistic Director of Magic Theatre is a full-circle moment. He’d first acquired his equity card at Magic Theatre in 1990, while working on Erin Cressida Wilson’s Soiled Eyes of a Ghost—a significant flex for a working-class kid from the Mission district of San Francisco.

“San Francisco (is) such a union town, the idea of a union meant a lot to me,” San José reminisces. Three years later, during an early production of Giants Have Us in Their Books, by José Rivera, San José met actor Margo Hall, and the rest, one could say, is history. As founding members (with Michael Torres and Luis Saguar) of Campo Santo, a theatre collective dedicated to community development of new work, the two have been collaborators and artistic leaders for over 25 years.

Gendell Hing-Hernandez and Sean San José in Oedipus El Rey, the 2019 revival, at Magic Theatre. (Jennifer Reiley)

San José’s affinity for new works complements the Magic Theatre’s own emphasis on new plays and cultivating long-term relationships with various playwrights. In fact, many of Magic Theatre’s most artistically exciting collaborations in recent years have been with playwrights who’ve developed significant work with Campo Santo—including Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Jessica Hagedorn, and Richard Montoya.

A welcome outcome of San José’s appointment is that of making Campo Santo a company-in-residence—ending a long period of homelessness precipitated by their loss of their long residency with Intersection for the Arts. And it’s this idea of making Magic Theatre a home—not just for Campo but for the greater Bay Area—that really has San José excited for the future of the space. A future that includes public readings, live music, creative partnerships, and a concentrated push to make Fort Mason and Magic Theatre the destination place that San José remembers it as being.

Sean San José and Sabina Zuniga Varela in Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at Magic Theatre. (courtesy of Magic Theatre)

“I don’t believe in the sustainability of the LORT season structure,” he explains. “’We do a play and we’re open when the play’s happening. And then we’re not doing the play (so) nothing’s happening.’ But to me, like, some of the most beautiful stuff happens when you’re building, when you’re creating, when you’re learning. And then the dance at the end of the night is the premiere of the play.”

And while San José stresses that he didn’t “set out” to lead an institution like Magic Theatre, he’s confident in the necessity of a vision centering BIPOC experiences and voices. A “POC power move,” as one of his collaborators termed his ascendancy.

“People have to understand that empowerment is beauty,” he emphasizes. “Empowerment is love and creativity and openness. That’s a beautiful gesture, that’s a beautiful act…I don’t want to be so bold as to say ‘revolutionary,’ but in a certain respect it is, in that we’re going to believe in that over brick-and-mortar, over finance, over a known history.”

SUBHED

For Allison Page, the Executive Artistic Director for Killing My Lobster, San Francisco’s 24 year-old sketch comedy company, the pandemic brought an unexpected realization. Accustomed to operating in almost constant motion (in addition to her myriad duties with Killing My Lobster (KML), Page is also a playwright and sometime performer), being stuck in what she describes as the “limbo” of the slow, uncertain push towards reopening live performances exhausted her in new ways.

The pandemic shutdown gave her time to examine other aspects of her life, too, leading to her and her musician husband Al Kong to decide to move to Nashville, Tennessee in 2022. While Page’s announcement of her pending retirement from the company she’s called her artistic home for over a decade comes a full year before her departure, the search for her replacements has already begun. The company plans to hire an Executive Director in July, and then an Artistic Director by January of 2022, giving each new leader time to overlap with Page, whose institutional knowledge of the company and its many operations runs deep.

Allison Page in her award-winning role in ‘How Does That Make You Feel,’ with Killing My Lobster. (Clinton Nelson)

Page is no stranger to the work of leading a company with limited resources and staff. At the age of 18 she applied to direct the high school fall production in her hometown of Thief River Falls, Minn., after the theater teacher retired. This early success gave her the momentum to found her own community theater company—Big Al’s Traveling Theatre— which she ran for five years until moving to San Francisco in 2008. To raise money for her productions, Page would participate in medical trials.

“I’d take these not-name-brand versions of drugs to test their side effects against the name brand version and be locked in, basically, a hospital for a month,” she remembers. “But I got…five grand out of that so I could produce a show.” After arriving in San Francisco, she became a cast member for the long-running Tony and Tina’s Wedding, did stand-up comedy, and participated in playwriting ventures such as Pint Sized Plays, Diva Fest, and the SF Olympians Festival. In 2010 she was part of the ensemble cast for KML Preaches to the Choir, and has been active with the company since.

Allison Page, second from left, in ‘KML Presents 1997,’ with Killing My Lobster. (James Jordan Pictures)

One initiative Page is particularly proud to have implemented early in her tenure as staff are the Diversity in Comedy Fellowships, currently offered to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ applicants both in comedy writing and comedy acting. These fellowships were designed, Page says, in order to ensure that these communities were represented in the writer’s room and the acting pool—as fellows are guaranteed a spot on a show after “graduating” from the program. Some have gone on to be instructors at KML, founded their own companies and ensembles, and even moved out of the Bay Area to pursue opportunities in LA and elsewhere.

“If you can create a system where more people are getting to have experiences that they’ve not been able to have before, and then use those experiences to not only push themselves forward—but also to bring other people along for the ride—that’s always going to be better for everybody.”

Allison Page in the director’s seat at Killing My Lobster. (James Jordan Pictures)

As for her own ride, Page isn’t sure what her future holds, or even if she’ll stay in theater. But what she hopes for KML is that it will continue to be a place that “prioritizes, the needs and passions of the artists who work there.” Recently the company released an Artists’ Bill of Rights (inspired by HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis), a Student Bill of Rights, a “Needs to Create” access questionnaire, and an update on their DEI and anti-racism action plans. All of which, Page points put, is work-in-progress, but work she hopes will become normalized across the industry.

“It’s complicated because just to tell people what their rights are or to ask them what they need does not necessarily mean that they’ll believe that they have those rights, or they’ll believe that you believe they should have them,” she muses. “But they’re something that hopefully someone who’s never worked with us before would come in and see and go ‘Okay, I feel at the very least, like maybe it’s okay that I’m here.’”

Copyright 2021 KQED