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 announcedâmost recently the appointment of Sean San JosÃ© 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 JosÃ©, stepping in as Artistic Director of Magic Theatre is a full-circle moment. Heâd first acquired his equity card at Magic Theatre in 1990, while working on Erin Cressida Wilsonâs Soiled Eyes of a Ghostâa significant flex for a working-class kid from the Mission district of San Francisco.
âSan Francisco (is) such a union town, the idea of a union meant a lot to me,â San JosÃ© reminisces. Three years later, during an early production of Giants Have Us in Their Books, by JosÃ© Rivera, San JosÃ© 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 JoseÌ in Oedipus El Rey, the 2019 revival, at Magic Theatre. (Jennifer Reiley)
San JosÃ©âs affinity for new works complements the Magic Theatreâs own emphasis on new plays and cultivating long-term relationships with various playwrights. In fact, many of Magic Theatreâs most artistically exciting collaborations in recent years have been with playwrights who’ve developed significant work with Campo Santoâincluding Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Jessica Hagedorn, and Richard Montoya.
A welcome outcome of San JosÃ©âs appointment is that of making Campo Santo a company-in-residenceâending a long period of homelessness precipitated by their loss of their long residency with Intersection for the Arts. And itâs this idea of making Magic Theatre a homeânot just for Campo but for the greater Bay Areaâthat really has San JosÃ© 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 JosÃ© remembers it as being.
Sean San JoseÌ and Sabina Zuniga Varela in Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at Magic Theatre. (courtesy of Magic Theatre)
âI don’t believe in the sustainability of the LORT season structure,â he explains. â’We do a play and we’re open when the playâs 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.â
And while San JosÃ© stresses that he didnât âset outâ to lead an institution like Magic Theatre, heâs confident in the necessity of a vision centering BIPOC experiences and voices. A âPOC power move,â as one of his collaborators termed his ascendancy.
âPeople have to understand that empowerment is beauty,â he emphasizes. âEmpowerment 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.â
For Allison Page, the Executive Artistic Director for Killing My Lobster, San Franciscoâs 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 âlimboâ 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 Pageâs announcement of her pending retirement from the company sheâs 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 companyâBig Al’s Traveling TheatreâÂ 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.
âI’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,â she remembers. âBut I got…five grand out of that so I could produce a show.â After arriving in San Francisco, she became a cast member for the long-running Tony and Tinaâs 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 writerâs room and the acting poolâas fellows are guaranteed a spot on a show after âgraduatingâ 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.
âIf 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 forwardâbut also to bring other people along for the rideâthat’s always going to be better for everybody.â
Allison Page in the director’s seat at Killing My Lobster. (James Jordan Pictures)
As for her own ride, Page isnât sure what her future holds, or even if sheâll stay in theater. But what she hopes for KML is that it will continue to be a place that âprioritizes, the needs and passions of the artists who work there.â Recently the company released an Artistsâ Bill of Rights (inspired by HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis), a Student Bill of Rights, a âNeeds to Createâ 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.
âIt’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,â she muses. âBut they’re something that hopefully someone who’s never worked with us before would come in and see and go âOkay, I feel at the very least, like maybe it’s okay that I’m here.ââ
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