Sean San José is an impatient man.
He was too impatient for the usual route of training for the theater in New York City “because every class I audited, I was like, I can’t see myself doing this every single day.”
He was too impatient for the years-long “rightful process of where, you’re going to do Shakespeare, and do Molière, and then you’re going to do Williams, then you’re going to do Miller, and then one contemporary [play]. Well, I’m too impatient for that.”
And once he became more invested in a life in the theater, he became impatient with theater companies that put on expensive productions that didn’t reflect the world beyond the proscenium, had no relationship to life as it was lived in the real world, life as he knew it growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District. With that in mind, don’t look for Sean at a “jukebox musical” like Jersey Boys.
His impatience, his need to be doing something, may be one of the keys to his widely applauded success at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.
A native San Franciscan (“I’m one of the few, the proud—born in San Francisco and still live in San Francisco”) Sean grew up in the predominantly Latinx Mission District. His parents migrated from the Philippines and settled in the Bay Area. He was raised in the 1970s in a large, loving family. “My mother was one of eight, and I’m one of thirty grandchildren, so we have a big, beautiful family. We had a lot of aunties who raised us, and of course my mother and grandmother, so we always had a lot of family around.” His upbringing seems to have been typical of immigrant, working-class families making their way in an American city that didn’t always welcome them.
When I first started researching Sean’s work at the Magic Theatre, I assumed that anyone of Sean’s stature and reputation in the theater community simply must have been a theater kid in school. “No, not at all,” he corrected me. “We know [the city] now for all of its cultural offerings, but as a kid in a working-class immigrant family, a lot of those offerings were never made to us. Even going to school, I was never aware of them. I went to public schools in this city, and there were sports and the band, but no theater, no shows. So I just wasn’t aware of it. We would see the buildings—on the 47 bus line on Van Ness Avenue, you see Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, the War Memorial Building, and on the 38 Geary bus you see all the theaters, the Alcazar, the Curran, the A.C.T. Theatre. But those buildings weren’t for us. For us, it was more the old movie theaters along Market Street. No idea that people could be doing live entertainment in them. We were very culturally naïve.” Well, maybe not quite completely naïve: “I had read plays and I had seen Raisin in the Sun, the movie, and I loved it, I was so moved by it. And I had seen A Streetcar Named Desire, the movie. Someone explained to me that those movies came from plays, and plays do this. It made sense, even though I didn’t really know what it meant.”
His cultural horizons burst open when he was eighteen years old. A friend took him to a revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child at the Magic, which had premiered the play in 1978. The experience was revelatory for Sean. When he first entered the theater, though, he didn’t expect much. “Even though the Magic back then was kind of funky, there was still this class difference involved with theater and a race difference. It was all white people in the audience and obviously all white performers back then. It was not welcoming in that regard. So the culture shock of that was not brand new for me. It certainly was not something that I thought would change me.”
After he settled into his seat and the lights went down, he experienced something that he describes as revelatory. “Seeing, not only seeing but feeling, another live human being telling stories in a space like that—it was an epiphany, nothing short of that, really.” He says that he is sure part of the reason for the play’s life-changing effect on him is that it was specifically a Sam Shepard play, awakening him to the fact that live entertainment could also be a probing, illuminating exploration of the world around us. “In my head, entertainment was never that, even movies, especially with movies. I think the idea that entertainment is a form of reflection didn’t translate for me conceptually.
“I saw what theater is in its basic element—live human beings telling you a story,” he said. “There’s a kitchen, and there’s a relationship that is obviously a family thing—I sort of got that on a basic level. And then seven minutes into the play, Shepard’s language explodes and he takes you on a journey. And it’s too late to turn back, you’re already in there. It did so much to show me the basic power of what theater can do. I could see something, I could relate to something and respond to something, but more than that it was the realization that the little stage was a re-creation of the real world.”
He also immediately understood the larger power of theater to enhance our humanity, our compassion, our understanding of other people. “I understood on some unconscious level that I was sitting next to people that understood the ritual of this theater that I knew nothing about, and yet we were responding to the same thing. So, in that moment, I sort of ‘got’ the power, that we could come and commune in this place and respond to the same things in different ways but at the same moment. So for that moment in time, we’re all reminded that we’re all in the same world together. And I think that’s an amazing thing.” He also recognized the healing power of theater for each individual in the audience, “just emotionally what it can do to you, that you have a place to really feel things that this world really just doesn’t deal with, especially in the States. So for a stupid young boy, that was really helpful. By ‘stupid’ I mean, someone who’s not in touch with their feelings, coming from a family of color, emotionally closed off, with the gauze of immigrant thinking of let’s keep this close here, let’s not reveal too much. But I realized that all of that shit I feel inside can go somewhere, or I can be connected somewhere.”
That epiphanic experience of Sam Shepard as an audience member led naturally to Sean’s becoming active in theater himself. “With no education in theater, or no rearing in it, from my first participation as an audience member I was pretty much hooked. I was able to start messing around with new playwrights right from the beginning, when I was only eighteen years old. I jumped right into it headlong. And from then on I haven’t stopped doing it.”
The Magic Theatre became his home. It was where he got his Actor’s Equity card as a performer, giving him a profession and a union. It was where he studied as part of the company, gained inspiration and ambition, and developed his desire to work predominantly new plays, new playwrights. In June 2021, after twenty-five years of finding, nurturing, and producing, directing, and acting in new plays, he became the Artistic Director of Magic Theatre in April 2021.
The Magic Theatre was founded in 1967, with a production in Berkeley’s Steppenwolf Bar of Ionesco’s The Lesson. In 1971, they produced the West Coast premiere of Sam Shepard’s La Turista; Shepard would join the Magic as Playwright in Residence in 1975, and the company premiered several of his plays, forever establishing the Magic’s bona fides. In 1982, the Magic was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Regional Theatre in America. San Francisco’s theater-going community would agree full-heartedly with that approbation.
In October 1996, the Magic Theatre premiered “Pieces of the Quilt”, a collection of new, short, one-act plays designed both to mourn and to celebrate those people who had died from or were living with HIV/AIDS, a testament of hope and an offering of love. The event was conceived, produced, and directed by Sean, a memento mori as well as a memorial.
Living in San Francisco during the 1980s and ’90s, Sean was of course aware of the devastation that the AIDS pandemic wreaked on the city. “Back then, we were more aware communally of the epidemic before the rest of the country. I would go down Castro Street every day, and you could see information posted in business windows, you could see sadness, change, uprising. So the epidemic wasn’t something ‘out there,’ it was right here with us.” But not even all the available knowledge in the world could keep AIDS away from Sean’s life. “One of my mom’s friends who ran a bakery got AIDS. And he died fast, it was just crazy fast, and I was just a kid, so even the idea of death was like, What?! We had watched a decade of it and saw it just go, and go, and go.”
And then the pandemic got even closer to Sean.
“Both my parents contracted AIDS. And at that moment,” he said, “I was so overwhelmed with how to live, how to respond to the world. I was living in this country that was just fucking maddening, man, living through that piece of shit Reagan and watching people dying. And so when it finally happened….My dad had been living with AIDS for quite a while; he was one of the odd pre-cocktail patients who was surviving. When my mom got AIDS, she was in UCSF almost immediately and pretty constantly after that.” Both parents died of AIDS-related causes.
For some time prior to his parents’ deaths, Sean had volunteered for various HIV/AIDS-related groups, what he humbly disparages as “my little volunteer shit, for ACT UP and others.” But by 1994 the volunteer work was not emotionally or spiritually satisfactory for Sean; he knew he had to do something more. He did some soul-searching for answers. “I was thinking about it one day, and I thought, what do you do and what can you do? Well, what I do is, I tell stories. I hadn’t been doing theater very long, but long enough to know that’s the only thing I can do. I also realized it’s not those of us who are being affected by and are losing people who need to know about it, it’s us as a community that needs to be aware that we need to come to a place where we can acknowledge the epidemic together. I could use what I do to try to make an impact.”
Even as late in the pandemic as 1994, when Sean began thinking about what became “Pieces of the Quilt,“ producing a play about AIDS was a risky proposition, even riskier for Sean’s conception of a truthful production. “It was a time when people were thinking, Should we talk about this? Should we not talk about this? So there was a lot of allegorical work going on. I read a lot of new plays where a vision would appear or a ghost would make an entrance and make some statement. Y’know, I’m all for metaphor and I’m all for symbolism, but I’m also overwhelmed by actual deaths of actual human beings that I actually know. And so, can we tell some of those stories?”
He conceived of “Pieces of the Quilt“ as a collection of short plays that could be packaged thematically, performing one or two or six of the pieces, for a specific community, in a church, a basement, a library, or even an actual theater. And since Sean loves working almost exclusively with new plays, the first task was collecting those pieces to quilt together. He and a friend began soliciting new works from emerging and established writers—including the notoriously contrary Edward Albee. “Edward Albee is Edward Albee! He was also just amazing, because after just talking with us, he said, okay I’ll do it, and I’ll tell others. He got Lanford Wilson to write for us. He asked who else we had invited, and we gave him the list, and he was like, Let me see. And a week later, Okay, I guess I’ll write one too. So contacting Albee was very successful.” Although the Albee play was not included in the premiere of “Pieces,” Lanford Wilson’s was. [Editor’s note: Read Albee’s play in this issue.] The other playwrights whose work made the cut for the premiere were Erin Cressida Wilson, Philip Kan Gotanda, Migdalia Cruz [A&U, July 1998], Danny Hoch, Octavio Solis, and Naomi Iizuka.
The Magic Theatre already had an extensive history of doing LGBTQ plays, AIDS-related plays. Still, there was no guarantee that they would be interested in “Pieces of the Quilt.“ Sean approached then Artistic Director Mame Hunt with his idea. “So I said, On Monday and Tuesday, if there isn’t a show, and we wouldn’t affect any of the lighting or the set, could I do a benefit and perform these stories with people? And Mame was the key. She heard the idea and said, No, we can’t do that. We’re not going to push this into the corner for just one night, this needs to be lived and seen and supported, and it needs to have a full theatrical life.”
“Pieces of the Quilt” received great reviews in both the gay and straight press. Robert Hurwitt, Drama Critic for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote, “Lanford Wilson’s contribution alone is a major event: an apparently confessional playlet written as if in answer to all those who have criticized him for not dealing with gay themes, AIDS in particular, often enough in the past.”
True to Sean’s dedication to his community, all of the proceeds from the premiere went to two HIV/AIDS-related service organizations in San Francisco, Project Open Hand, and the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt.
If Sean is still impatient these days, it’s because as the new Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre, he’s busier than ever, still working to make intimate theater accessible to all. “That’s always been the thing that draws me to theater. The real heart of theater is that reflection point, reflecting the city and the world in the work. That’s always been the most interesting to me. I think the thing I’m most excited about, being at Magic Theatre, is how much more expansive we can be by bringing more people in. If I hadn’t had that one day that someone brought me to a play, who knows what would have happened to me. I want that to become the norm, that more people are invited in along the way. That’s the way it should be.”
For more information about the Magic Theatre, log on to: magictheatre.org.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-one-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.