Magic Theatre

It was just an ordinary university theater directing workshop, a class project at UC Berkeley, a one-act play, Ionesco’s “The Lesson.” John Lion, a young, bold, brilliant director, invited the manager of a local bar, The Steppenwolf, to see the show.

The Steppenwolf was a storefront watering hole in a rather dodgy neighborhood composed of boarded-up storefronts, empty lots, pawnshops and liquor stores. The Steppenwolf bar seemed to have two personalities, like Hesse’s book, half man and half wolf.

Some nights the place was inhabited by folks dancing on tables to deafening rock ‘n’ roll; on other nights patrons played chess to Vivaldi and Bach. There seemed to be no in-between. The agreement was made. We would perform on weekends.

The era was the ’60s. With the draft, the Vietnam War and violent war protests in the streets, the absurd plot of a linguistics professor raping and killing his student with the word, “knife,” seemed somehow pertinent.

On two risers in the back of the bar, The Steppenwolf’s manager had stretched old sheets on 2-by-4s, making two small flats for the play’s set and a backstage. I remember noticing the mold on the sheets as I was about to go on as The Maid.

John wrote our first rave review in the local radical rag, The Berkeley Barb. Somehow we gathered an eclectic and sometimes volatile audience. Showtime was at 7:30, a good time for theater. We brought customers into the bar that wouldn’t ordinarily arrive until later in the evening.

Altogether we performed “The Lesson” 42 times. Other productions evolved and, on the way, there developed an exceptional ensemble of actors.

John Lion directed a wild and grotesque cartoon version of “Ubu Roi,” a hilarious story of naughty children playing at politics. An all-male cast and I were joined by the Berkeley Improvisation Ensemble. The stage picture resembled paintings by Hieronymus Bosch.

As the play had no ending, I appeared as a conservative, well-dressed, upset and possibly unstable theater patron disrupting the proceedings by denouncing the play as “not theater” and the cast as “just a bunch of crazy people.” I would then harangue the audience all the way out the front door and into the street. Occasionally a freelance improviser would join in. A woman carrying a bag of groceries would show up regularly but unexpectedly, stand up and throw a fit, showering the audience with vegetables. She fit right in.

One night I found myself whirled around, somersaulted upside down, buffeted through the audience by a big bear of a man. When I landed, I saw a gaunt young man staring at me holding a sharp silver knife glittering in the light. I paused and moved quietly away. The two turned out to be an eccentric professor and his student.

Jazz columnist Ralph Gleason put the theater in his San Francisco Chronicle column. He named us The Magic Theater; after all, we were in The Steppenwolf. Then things changed. Limousines pulled up outside and ladies in fur coats stepped in. About that time The National Endowment for the Arts arrived with a grant for development and production of new plays.

The Magic Theatre is now in San Francisco, having nurtured a generation of playwrights, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Terrance McNalley, John O’Keef and Michael McClure to name a few; featured such actors as Sean Penn, Joe Spano, Woodie Harrelson and Peter Coyote; and hosted directors including Nagel Jackson and Elaine May.

Last month I visited The Magic Theatre and saw “Evie’s Waltz” by Carter W. Lewis. The play portrayed a small, grim and hopeless upwardly mobile family at their pristine suburban back yard barbecue, crouching, terrified, trapped in the scope of a high-powered rifle, living targets of their wacked-out tragically misguided teenage son, in an era that is now known as Post Columbine.

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