Magic turns 40

San Francisco theater celebrates anniversary with Shepard world premiere

It all began in a bar. The Steppenwolf Bar in Berkeley, a locale steeped in politics (its original owner, Max Sheer, went on to found the Berkeley Barb) and frequented by those who wanted in on the revolution.

The year was 1967 and John Lion decides this is the joint to direct Ionesco’s “The Lesson.”

This is where the Magic Theatre, which celebrates its 40th season this weekend, was birthed.

It would have a few different homes before settling into its current digs at Fort Mason, but never would it stray from its mission to produce new works, despite the risks that such an endeavor can pose.

Yet risks, while dangerous, are the very things that keep the Magic breathing, heaving if you will, with life.

“Frankly, I believe it’s miraculous that any nonprofit arts organization devoted to new works is still around after 40 years,” said Chris Smith, now in his fourth season as the Magic’s artistic director.

It’s a miracle for sure, especially when the prestigious alums who fill the pages of the Magic’s yearbook, had the uncanny knack of oftentimes making enemies before making friends.

The company’s founder, Lion, held a tight grip on the theater’s reins for 24 years. He oversaw the production of some of the company’s most celebrated, albeit at times most controversial, works, such as Michael McClure’s “Meat Poem,” which debuted at the Magic in 1969.

McClure, who was seen raising the arm hair of close to 100 at the opening of the Beat Museum in North Beach on Wednesday, also premiered his most famous and provocative work “The Beard,” at the theater house in 1974.

Sam Shepard climbed on board the following year and in 1978, Shepard premiered “Buried Child” at the Magic. The next year it snagged the Pulitzer Prize for drama and garnered more than 400 productions of the work worldwide.

Shepard also debuted “True West” and “Fools For Love” in 1980 and 1983 respectively.

The playwright’s newest work, “God of Hell,” opens the Magic’s 40th season on Saturday, and by the looks of things, is bound to weild that edge for which the theater company is so well known.

“That edginess is part of what we always have to hold on to,” Smith said. “I celebrate the sort of the rawness of thespaces we’re in.”

Besides raising eyebrows, however, the Magic has had its share of raising its glass to toast numerous victories.

“A Moon for the Misbegotten,” staged in 1988 to celebrate the late Eugene O’Neill’s 100th birthday and directed by Lion, ran for 165 performances. It stands as the longest-running play in the theater’s history.

The theater company also received a Tony nomination in 1982 for best regional theater in the United States.

Larry Eilenberg took the reins from Lion in 1992. He became the theater’s second artistic director, but would only hold the position for one year and had to leave for personal reasons.

Mame Hunt took over next and oversaw the production of “Playland” by Athol Fugard, which opened the same night as Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. Mandela sent a personal letter to the Magic on the play’s opening, which was read to the audience that night.

Then in 1998, Larry Eilenberg came back to the Magic. His return included the production of “The Late Henry Moss,” another Shepard world premiere starring Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and Cheech Marin.

A veteran of New York City’s burgeoning theater scene, Smith took over for Eilenberg in 2003 and the following year welcomed David Mamet to the theater for his direction of “Dr. Faustus.”

That same year, Charles Grodin’s “The Right Kind of People” also debuted at the Magic.

Nurturing new talent and giving life to new works continue to be a staple of the Magic’s mission statement, but Smith said it has also turned a keen eye to the future and technology.

The company is collaborating with the Exploratorium to produce seven-minute plays, to be streamed live.

It continues to collaborate with Z Space Studio on its New Works Initiative which is committed to producing new plays with nine small to mid-size Bay Area arts organizations.

A three-year grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation helps the theater company fund new works that dive into the worlds of science and technology.

Having a seat on the well-worn barstools that gave this company legs, while tempting, is not an option.

“We can’t let this fall down. We have to keep picking it back up,” Smith said. “We must be the ice breaker. We must keep going forward and risking failure, every single day, with every single play,” Smith said.

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