Sean San José, new artistic director at the Magic Theatre, has plans to work collaboratively. (Courtesy Joan Osato)

Sean San José, new artistic director at the Magic Theatre, has plans to work collaboratively. (Courtesy Joan Osato)

Bold new direction at Magic Theatre, Golden Thread

Sean San José, Sahar Assaf lead troupes telling diverse stories

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Sean San José, the Magic Theatre’s new artistic director, is all about community.

As he takes the helm of the nationally respected San Francisco theater — which, since its creation by the late University of California, Berkeley graduate student John Lion in Berkeley in 1967, has welcomed such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Jessica Hagedorn and more, devoting itself almost entirely to world premieres — we can expect, as San José says, “a hub of activity reflective of our Bay.”

After all, he was one of the four cofounders, back in 1996 — along with Margo Hall (the new artistic director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre), Michael Torres and the late Luis Saguar — of San Francisco’s bold little Campo Santo, an ensemble that made a name for itself by developing local stories with local artists.

San José is nothing if not a local boy. He was raised here, saw his first play at the Magic and then was cast there in 1990 in his first professional production.

Still, busy as he is as program director for Campo Santo, plus acting and directing, and also lecturing at UC Berkeley, he didn’t expect to be at the helm of the Magic. When his friend and colleague Loretta Greco, who had been running the Magic since 2008, told him she’d be leaving, and asked if he’d consider applying for the position, he said, “Hell no, no way.”

But later, when the search committee called him and said many people had suggested he be on the list, he was surprised and reconsidered. He knew if he were to be hired, he’d want to propose changes according to his own experiences and viewpoint. The board liked that idea.

San José, whose parents were Filipino and Puerto Rican, had a proviso that Campo Santo be part of the Magic family. He learned from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts CEO Deborah Cullinan, back when she ran Intersection for the Arts and brought Campo Santo into the fold, about the value of partnerships.

Of the future, he says, “I also believe in building space and place first, before creating a perfect play. You get perfect plays from creating a lab in which to generate all these collaborations.

“What’s so significant to me,” he continues, “especially during my younger years under [former Magic artistic director] Mame Hunt, is, how do you support a playwright? [How do you] sustain a long-term relationship?”

He counts late Magic casting director Barbie Stein as instrumental in helping him, back when he was a troubled kid, form his own creative ethos, his belief in telling the stories you need to tell, allowing theater to take you to that personal, anything’s-possible place.

San José is among a rash of new artistic directors in local theaters: Hall at Lorraine Hansberry, Tim Bond at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Josh Costello at Aurora Theatre Company, Johanna Pfaelzer and Pam MacKinnon at, respectively, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and American Conservatory Theater and, most recently, Sahar Assaf at Golden Thread Productions.

San José can be expected to interact with all of them in various ways at some point down the line. The partnerships he develops as he goes along will undoubtedly deeply affect the Magic’s already esteemed role in the local theater scene.

For San José, both the past and the present guide him. He feels that figures like Greco, Hunt and others, plus spirits from the theater community’s past — Stein, Saguar — are guiding him along the way.

“Something unconscious drew me back to the Magic,” he says. “I believe in spirits and ghosts that keep this city alive and keep a building like the Magic going and push someone like me back there.”

The Magic Theatre will tentatively open Taylor Mac’s new play “Joy and Pandemic” this fall. New artists expected to join the Magic include Colman Domingo, Star Finch, Ellen Sebastian Chang and others, with music, dance, film and interdisciplinary works invited in as well; visit magictheatre.org.

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Golden Thread Productions’ Sahar Assaf will capitalize on her experience in documentary theater. (Courtesy Golden Thread)

Golden Thread Productions’ Sahar Assaf will capitalize on her experience in documentary theater. (Courtesy Golden Thread)

If San José’s overall driving impetus is to create community, newly hired Golden Thread artistic director Sahar Assaf declares, as her main interest, documentary theater. She’s already had plenty of experience in that form when acting and directing in her native Lebanon as well as through her education abroad — including in the United States — and her background in investigative journalism and sociology.

San Francisco’s Golden Thread was founded by director Torange Yeghiazarian 25 years ago as the first American theater of, by and for Middle Eastern artists. The work she has created there — including 102 world premieres of which six were commissions — has had a profound influence on the American theater scene.

When Yeghiazarian announced her departure, the board, headed by local actor and Golden Thread mainstay Nora el Samahy, launched a worldwide search. Assaf, who had been working in Beirut for the past 17 years, seized the opportunity.

In the five-year plan she proposed to the board, she told them she wanted to create new work with Golden Thread’s company of artists. She had in mind, among other ideas, a staged reading of a new piece that comprises testimonies of Beirut citizens who had been traumatized by a fairly recent explosion that took place only 15 kilometers from her home. The reading will stream in August.

“My own curiosity and interest in testimonies and personal stories make me a big advocate of documentary theater,” she explains. She’s especially interested in women’s experiences: oppression, injustice, sexual violence and more, and in following those stories always collaborates with organizations that are experts in those subjects.

“I’m interested in theater that breaks the theatrical architectures,” she adds. She has devised site-specific work in alternate spaces, “experimental work that challenges conventions,” she says.

Yeghiazarian emails that Assaf brings with her a “wide range of experience from teaching to directing to dramaturgy. And also, her lived experience and contacts across the Middle East can help her build on Golden Thread’s role as a bridge between the U.S. and the Middle East.”

Says Assaf: I’m overwhelmed and excited by the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Torange — taking the torch from such a big figure in the American theater world.”

Visit goldenthread.org.

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