When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, performance spaces across America dimmed their lights and shut their doors.
Two years later, venues in San Francisco are starting to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normal. And in that time, a new wave of artistic leadership has taken the helm of some of the city’s most longstanding and avant-garde arts institutions.
Mission District-raised, Campo Santo co-founder Sean San José took over as artistic director of Magic Theatre, a longtime Bay Area bastion of boundary-pushing drama, in summer 2021. Shafer Mazow, one of the first openly transgender theater leaders in America, officially stepped into the role of executive director of Z Space last April. David Mack joined the 36-year-old Joe Goode Performance Group as executive director, co-leading with Melissa Lewis Wong, last fall. And just last week, San Francisco Ballet announced Danielle St.Germain-Gordon as executive director.
This cohort of new leaders joins other high-profile appointments over the last two years, including Bay Area theater veteran and Blindspotting actor Margo Hall as artistic director of the historic Lorraine Hansberry Theater in September 2020 and lauded Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo as the first female artistic director of SF Ballet in January.
While each artistic leader faces unique challenges for their individual organizations and companies, a few unifying themes emerge: an emphasis on equity, an introspective look into their organizations’ practices and a reevaluation of how they can open their spaces to more San Franciscans as the city (hopefully) eases out of Covid.
Sean San José | Magic Theatre
It’s been about 35 years since Sean San José saw his first piece of live drama. Coincidentally, it was at the very same venue he now leads as artistic director of Magic Theatre in Fort Mason.
He doesn’t quite recall the play (probably one penned by the Magic’s longtime resident playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winner Sam Shepard, if memory serves him right), but he does remember the impact it had on his then-teenage brain.
“It was nothing short of an epiphany for me,” said San José, reminiscing in Magic Theatre’s administrative offices. “It shattered open a lot of things. ... The idea that people would be in a space intimately interacting and connecting was really mind-blowing.”
Now San José is on a mission to make that sort of radical re-shift available to more San Franciscans. His goals? Opening up Magic Theatre to more thespians, spotlighting artists of color and making it easier for locals from a wider spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds to enjoy theater.
Instead of picking an entire season of plays for Magic Theatre to produce, San José has invited four different theater-makers, including Campo Santo (the multicultural theatrical ensemble group he co-founded) to take up multi-week “residencies” in the space. Much of that work centers on artists of color, notes San José, and the marriage of “community reflection” with the development of creative works by great artists, he says.
Actor, writer, director and frequent Spike Lee collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith, whose solo show Otto Frank recently completed its premiere run at Magic Theatre, has relationships with both the Magic and Campo Santo that go back years. He is excited to see Campo Santo’s “homegrown” San Francisco ethos merge with the longtime theatrical legacy of Magic Theatre, which was founded by group of Berkeley graduate students in 1967 and has been an incubator for new theatrical works in the Bay Area ever since.
“There is an organic relationship with the community, which is now being conjoined with this great tradition of working at the Magic Theatre,” Smith told The Standard, adding, “it's tremendous to be in concert with Sean. He is being a very, very gracious host at the Magic not only to me, but to a whole generation of theater workers who I know will making great contributions not only to the stage but to the city at large.”
Visiting companies and artists to Magic Theatre this season also include Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (which focuses on works by Black theater makers and about the Black experience) producing Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, a play about Afrofuturism by second-generation San Franciscan Star Finch and a showcase of multiethnic, multi-genre dances from all-female dance makers.
San José has also invited a poet, five designers and a curator to put their stamp on the theater this season. He’s also commissioned muralists to transform the theater’s lobby into a hip hangout space for patrons, complete with a bar, plenty of hanging plants and a swanky midcentury-style couch.
San José says opening up Magic Theatre to more theater-makers and creatives not only widens the artistic scope of the venue—“it automatically goes from one vision to five visions,” he said—it invites intermingling and exposure between different artists, audiences and ideas. Another added bonus: it helps give local theater artists more opportunity to create in the city, where the high cost of real estate can be prohibitive to making theater.
“Living in San Francisco, living in the Bay, space is a dividend. Space is gold,” San José said. “And if you have it... why wouldn't you offer that back out to your people?”
More radically, San José has also done away with the typical theater subscription model at the Magic, replacing it a “season pass,” which includes the world premiere of Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play) and theatergoers’ choice of three plays or events for just $100.
“You can come on any night that they're playing and sit anywhere,” San José said.
Ultimately, San José wants Magic Theatre in this new era to not only draw in people from across the city, but also reflect the makeup of the city itself.
“We want the city to be in our space,” he said.
Danielle St.Germain-Gordon | San Francisco Ballet
Meanwhile, across the street from City Hall, newly appointed San Francisco Ballet Executive Director Danielle St.Germain-Gordon is also contemplating ways to welcome more San Franciscans to the 90-year-old War Memorial Opera House, where the world-renowned dance company of nearly the same age performs.
While the building is elegant and awe-inspiring, St.Germain-Gordon, who has been serving as the company’s interim executive director since last summer and comes from Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, sees how the venue can be confusing to navigate for those unfamiliar with ballet.
“That opera house is beautiful, but it's a tricky space,” said St.Germain-Gordon, remembering feeling lost the first time she was asked to meet at the venue. To avoid that experience for ballet newcomers, she’d like to station more “ambassadors” throughout the building to help new patrons find their seats and way around.
That’s one way that St.Germain-Gordon is actively reexamining how the classical art form, which typically expresses itself without words, can be more “extroverted” in welcoming newer audiences.
Currently, the organization is commissioning research to find out what might attract new audiences to the ballet and intends to redesign the entire patron experience from top to bottom—from the voice that greets callers to the ballet to how theatergoers are welcomed into the neighborhood upon arrival.
With incoming Artistic Director Tamara Rojo—the first woman to head up the ballet company in its 89-year history—as her leadership partner on the creative side, St.Germain-Gordon also hopes to explore more opportunities for SF Ballet to expand its season and perform not only in San Francisco, but also regionally and perhaps throughout California and the West.
Inclusion, diversity, equity and access within the organization internally and externally are also pillars upon which St.Germain-Gordon wants to build her legacy. During her tenure as interim executive director, the company hired a chief diversity officer and established a collaborative fellowship for emerging Black musicians with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to play with SF Ballet’s orchestra. It’s all aimed at creating a culture of belonging within the organization and beyond.
“Growth of audience, higher capacity… critical acclaim, travel in different in places” are all metrics of success for the new executive director. “But it won’t be successful unless people feel supported, and they feel like they belong,” she said.
David Mack & Melissa Lewis Wong | Joe Goode Performance Group
While the Magic Theatre and SF Ballet are working on bringing more of San Francisco through its doors, the Joe Goode Performance Group is taking the time to reflect on its organization’s internal structure over the next six months.
The dance-theater company, which also manages the Joe Goode Annex performance and studio space at Project Artaud in the Mission, is about to embark on a major strategic planning phase with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion and figuring out how to best serve and center its community of artists going forward. Executive Director David Mack, who stepped into the role last fall after serving as Executive Director of Invertigo Dance Theatre and working with numerous other dance and theater organizations in Los Angeles, is charged with stewarding that ambitious process.
While much is still TBD, Mack, co-lead of Joe Goode Performance Group with Communications Lead Melissa Lewis Wong, is excited for the discoveries that the planning process may unlock, particularly around creative uses for the Joe Goode Annex and ways to connect to the community through the space.
"Even though we don't know what the future is going to look like, even though it is a very scary time for the community in so many ways because of the pandemic… we still are trying to find a way to give opportunities for artists to do good work and to improve our community through their art,” said Mack. “There's so many possibilities of what we can do with the space.”
“I think there may be some things that surprise us,” said Wong.
More near-term projects include reviving GUSH Festival, a biennial dance-theater festival which the Joe Goode Performance Group initially presented digitally in 2020, for an IRL version in September. Wong believes GUSH Festival is an example of how the company and annex could “crossover” and “cross-pollinate” with other dance voices and audiences in the community and “create a shared platform” that everyone can access.
Ultimately, Wong believes communicating and connecting with the community about the Joe Goode Annex is key going forward for the organization, especially as the pandemic has closed or put a squeeze on affordable artistic spaces.
“How do we do outreach to people who have never heard of the annex? How do we think creatively about what could happen in here? How do we connect with people who want to make something happen in this space?” Wong said.
Shafer Mazow | Z Space
On the other side of Project Artaud on Florida Street, Z Space Executive Director Shafer Mazow is also meditating on how his organization, known for developing new, risk-taking works, can be a more accessible space and resource for artists, especially after the financial and racial reckonings of 2020.
After a “trial by fire” during the early stages of the pandemic, Mazow stepped into the executive director role in April 2021. One of the nation’s first openly transgender theater leaders, he is now doubling down on an initiative to subsidize rental space to artists and arts organizations who want to develop and present work there.
“Pre-Covid, and now certainly after because of Covid, arts organizations and artists are barely able to survive,” Mazow said. “So what we are doing now is trying to subsidize the space as much as possible. Give it away for free if we can.”
That includes big-time fundraising—Mazow estimates Z Space will have to raise $1 million over the next year—finding new sources of earned income, and hiring a new curatorial director. In January, Z Space brought on 28-year-old Filipino American and Bay Area native Nikki Meñez as part of a new distributed leadership model to oversee Z Space’s curated rental program and Subspace, a subsidized space-rental program for artists who cannot afford Z Space’s regular rental fees.
Mazow says the rental program and the subsidy program are being curated “through an equity lens” and Z Space leadership has “intentionally waited for Nikki's voice in order to solidify some of the other ways we're expanding access.”
Another idea Mazow is floating to increase revenue and turn Z Space into more of a community hub is transforming the theater’s bar into a “destination” that can support the salons and community conversations of pre-pandemic yore.
“Can we upgrade the bar and have people come here as a place?” Mazow muses.
The new executive director would also like to see Z Space become an administrative resource and “business hub” for artists as well as reinvest in the aging building and use the theater’s technical powers to push the boundaries of hybrid events and performances.
Ultimately, Mazow’s goal is to maximize the use of Z Space equitably “to support the telling of stories by those who have been silenced” or marginalized and better serve the organization’s artistic community going forward.
“I think that abundance will mean activating all of our spaces to their fullest potential,” Mazow said.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected]