On an overcast Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, Chris Smith looks around his Magic Theatre office searching for the right way to describe it. “Creatively chaotic” is the phrase he settles on, with evident satisfaction.
No question the office is chaotic. Smith’s desk is run-down, surrounded by mismatched chairs and tacked-up fliers. From the music school on the other side of a wall comes the loud and dissonant buzz of an electric guitar being played badly.
Apologizing for the racket next door, Smith shrugs. “It’s a trade-off,” he says. “Where this lifestyle may involve more mayhem, what I gain is the opportunity to explore and to stimulate.”
A year and a half ago, Smith became artistic director of the Magic, a storied playhouse once known as a hotbed of new and newsworthy productions. In recent years, however, the Magic had lost some of its luster. During Smith’s brief tenure, he has pulled off a rare theatrical hat trick: raves from critics, gratitude from playwrights, and standing ovations from audiences.
Smith’s strategy for the Magic’s makeover has been to mix fresh dramatic voices with new works by established playwrights. For his first season, 2003–04, he assembled an innovative six-play program composed entirely of world premieres. Four of those plays were written by emerging playwrights and two by literary luminaries. Pulitzer-Prize winner David Mamet, whose past credits include Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, premiered his new take on Dr. Faustus. And celebrated Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, author of The Country Girls Trilogy and In the Forest, ventured onto the stage with Triptych. So far, Smith’s formula is clicking. In a single season the number of Magic subscribers rose 35 percent, to 1,400 season-ticket holders.
Smith also introduced a Hot House festival of three plays in repertory as a way of presenting new works from budding playwrights. The thirty-seven-year-old Magic has a long tradition of introducing scripts by young and little-known writers: its roster of past debuts includes Sam Shepard’s True West and the first plays of Nilo Cruz ’94 MFA, who in 2003 won a Pulitzer Prize. “New plays demand adventurous audiences,” Smith says. “It’s very different for someone to see a classic in a stylized production. But I think the risk is balanced by the new plays’ immense potential.” The festival’s collective energy, he asserts, “gives a boost to each of the productions.”
An articulate and passionate representative of the Magic, Smith seems as suited to the company as it is to him. Ever since he landed a chance to stage-manage an off-Broadway show in 1986, he has championed new plays, something he continued to do as the artistic director of Manhattan’s Youngblood theater, a company dedicated to young playwrights, and subsequently as the associate artistic director of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, also in New York City.
Smith’s challenge now is to continue last season’s winning streak. The Magic’s 2004–05 lineup includes two national and five world premieres. Actor Charles Grodin, with whom Smith has collaborated in the past, has written The Right Kind of People, a send-up of a tony Fifth Avenue co-op board. Robert Jess Roth, the Tony-nominated director of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, will direct The Opposite of Sex, a musical adaptation of the 1998 cult film. Rebecca Gilman, a 2002 Pulitzer finalist and author of the 2002 hit Blue Surge, will see her script The Sweetest Swing in Baseball make its U.S. debut. And like last season, this one will conclude with a festival of new plays, this time by John Belluso, Victor Lodato, and Betty Shamieh.
“There is a lot of creative fuel out there,” Smith says. “And I love being a guy with a match.”
Connie Loizos is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.