Magic Theatre announces leadership change

As San Francisco's Magic Theatre in Fort Mason Center is getting ready for its next production, Rebecca Gilman's “The Crowd You're In With,” Artistic Director Chris Smith said Friday that he will leave at the end of the season. A “national search” began immediately after the unexpected announcement.

The reason given for the resignation is Smith's wish “to pursue other artistic and directorial ventures,” a virtual code phrase for internal conflict, but on the other hand, the announcement emphasizes that he will be “a key part of the transition” and will be directing the two previously announced world premieres during this 40th anniversary season: Edna O'Brien's “Tir Na Nog” (“Land of Youth”) and Wendy MacLeod's “Birnham Woods.”

Smith, 44, is in the fifth year of serving as the company's fifth artistic director, and he has achieved a significant measure of stabilization after the turmoil preceding his arrival. He is emphasizing that aspect of his work by saying, “I knowthe Magic is in a great position for this transition. I will be leaving on an artistic and organizational high note.”

Stability was also the key word in Managing Director David Jobin's comment on the “clear and defined mandate as Chris has set for us… it's surprising how easily an institution can move forward and in such a stable manner.”

Smith's leadership helped to reassert the Magic's traditionally untraditional programming, important in its championing of new plays.

Since the 2003-04 season, the company has produced 20 world premieres, four American premieres and three Bay Area premieres. Fourteen of these plays have received subsequent national and international productions, and Stephen Belber's “Drifting Elegant” has been turned into a feature film. Well-known authors for the new works include Gilman, O’Brien, David Mamet, Paula Vogel, Charles Grodin and Tony Award-winning team Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.

Since Smith's arrival in 2003, Magic Theatre has doubled its operating budget to more than $2 million, increased subscriptions by 50 percent, and ended three of the last four seasons in the black, including last year, the company's important 40th anniversary season. The long list of accomplishments _ including contributions reaching $1.2 million annually _ are impressive, but raise questions about the sudden desire “to pursue other ventures” unless it's just a case of “going out on top.”

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