Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Sam Hurwitt
When Magic Theatre announced last fall that artistic director Loretta Greco would be stepping down at the end of the season after 12 years at the helm, it was amid a wave of long-serving artistic directors of local theater companies that have chosen to move on in the last few years. Still, she couldn’t have predicted that her departure would come at a time when practically all theatres were closed for months on end because of a pandemic and no one knows how long it will be until it’s finally safe to gather again. While a national search is underway for a long-term successor, associate artistic director and dramaturg Sonia Fernandez is stepping in as interim artistic director. Greco is currently scheduled to leave Magic at the end of August.
What made this feel like the right time?
I think it’s important to leave something when you still love it. I was still really happy in New York, and then this opportunity came. I love what I do, but 12 years just felt like it was time. And this is to no offense of anybody who stays longer at an institution, I just feel like you have a certain time span where you’re at your best. I just felt like I’ve given everything to the theatre, and it was probably time for me to find my next adventure and for the theatre to find its next leader.
What did you set out to do when you took on this job?
The charge from the search committee was so compelling, because they were so clear that they wanted to get their adventure back on. They felt like the Magic was still only known for Sam Shepard, and enough time had passed since Sam’s heyday in the late 70s into the 80s, they felt like we weren’t distinguished from the other theatres. I feel like we’ve done some pretty distinct work, and you know, it’s hard to compare to Sam, but we have a beautiful cohort of playwrights that really have pushed the culture forward and that feel as vibrant as I imagine Sam did when he first came to Magic. So in that way, I feel really good about these 12 years.
Magic Theatre has long been defined by a lot of very short runs of artistic directors, from one to five years, but yours has been the longest run at the Magic since founder John Lion.
You know, it’s a hard job. Running a company this size is incredibly challenging. And so having shorter tenures, that I understand. I am ridiculously loyal and I really came out wanting to do something. I really did want to give opportunity to people who no one was saying yes to, who were brilliant. And for me, I just didn’t see how to do it in three or five or six years. And so when I would get headhunted, I would just say, I didn’t come out here as a stepping stone to the next big job. I came out because I thought Magic’s mission and visions and values were incredibly unique and becoming rarer and rarer nationally.
I feel like we’re at a great place with the writers that we’ve really focused on giving a home to, and it does feel like the time is right for a whole new cohort. But committing to people like Taylor Mac and Lloyd Suh and Mfoniso Udofia and Linda McLean, you can’t just do it on a one-off. You can’t just give them a slot and think that that’s going to help further their craft or their career or their position in trying to alter the course of the dialogue culturally. And I really feel like in 12 years we’ve been able to do that.
What are you really proud of about your time here?
I really believe in saying yes. Just by the way the American theatre is set up, if you’re an artist you receive so much rejection. Your life is about a series of nos. And I just wanted to try and find a way to flip that proposition. Because making art is a crapshoot, right? It’s always a risk. There’s no guarantee. There’s no play that comes that is going to solidly promise you that it’s going to be a big hit and make a big impact. I just felt like the culture was right for it at Magic. Because Magic is so specifically focused on writers, it just made that proposition focused and intentional.
Magic has always sought excellence, and that has always meant that incredible writers of color and inclusive writers have been part of our major cohort. I feel like the work that we’ve done looks like America. And it hasn’t been because of any grant or any kind of numbers game. It’s been because that work has been the finest nationally and is now part of a growing American canon that I think we can all be super proud of.
What would you say really defines Magic Theatre as an institution?
I think it’s one of the few theatres left that truly puts the playwright at the center of everything it does. And that means that it’s not for the faint of heart, because the playwright sits there and is a part of the creation and part of the day to day, all the way through opening.
And nationally, [Public Theater artistic director] Oscar Eustis said that we’re seeding the field. The plays that we’ve made, 20 of the 26 world premieres have gone on to have multiple productions. And it usually takes a while. This is the thing about saying yes, is that the culture is cautious. It may take a little while for people to come around to the work, but they feel safer doing it because we’ve had success in doing it first. We’re able to seed the field by saying yes to brilliant, adventuresome writers who want to talk about the substantive things that make our world better.
Obviously this is all coming at a very weird time. The total shutdown has affected everything, but how has it affected the conclusion of your time at Magic Theatre?
I think it makes everything we do easier in some ways and harder in some ways, because we’re so small. It may turn out that nobody opens for another year, God forbid. But I feel like we’re in a mighty position to be one of the first people out of the gate when and if that is safe, because we’re so nimble and so willing. We have like six different plans as to how Magic may move forward and have some kind of 2021 season.
What do you want to do next?
I’m not altogether sure. I know I want to try and get as involved as I possibly can with the election and get the vote out. I would very much like to run another organization, but I’m also looking forward to being an artist and thinking about what that means right now in this moment in time. And I’m always going to work with great playwrights. I’m working with Taylor on his new play, called “Joy and Pandemic.” But I’m going to take a little reprieve and then I’m going to work on the election, and then we’ll see what happens. But I’m going to be advocating for diverse, inclusive writers that are going to push the culture forward for the rest of my life, in one way or another. That’s for sure.
Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Follow him at twitter.com/shurwitt.