Exclusive Interview: Anthony Runfola, Artistic Director of the Magik Theatre
When the Pandemic struck in 2020, it hit the San Antonio theater community hard. Some didn’t survive the lockdown, but others managed to navigate their way through the new ways of delivering theater
The Magik Theatre was one of the survivors,. In fact, it thrived, and Artistic Director Anthony Runfola talked to ArtScene SA about how they did it.
Can you give us a brief overview of your background and how you got started in the field?
I grew up in Phoenix. In the 90s, after I was out of school, I started a theater down in Tucson, kind of a storefront theater company called Upstairs Theater. That was me and three friends, and that went on for about five years unexpectedly. We just kept going, and I just say that’s kind of like graduate school, to start your own theater company.
I sort of accidentally got into theater for young audiences. I was looking for a job, and Childsplay was hiring. And that’s what drew me into the field. I though I might be there for three or four years and then move on to something else. But 20 years on, it’s become a career.
I’ve always been drawn to imaginative work that isn’t sort of realistic. It lets you dream a little bit and stretch your imagination a little bit more than “kitchen sink” dramas might. So that’s why I do it.
You folks did an impressive job of keeping the theater going during the pandemic. How did you manage that?
We were just very lucky. A lot of it was due to the generosity of our donors and the foundations that are supporting us. Some of them offered more money to make sure that we could keep our doors open. We also did a lot of online work. We were doing a lot of Facebook Live story readings. We were doing a live game show on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
None of that makes you any money. You can’t charge for Facebook. We were doing it to keep our name out there and letting people know that we’re still here — knowing that families needed us to provide something for their children to do while we were all stuck at home.
In the Fall of 2020, we started producing shows for touring and for streaming. We did shows at the Botanical Garden. We had one show that went up to Texas Performing Arts at UT Austin and we performed up there. We just did everything we could to be ready to perform in whatever venue we could get into, whether it was outdoors or online.
Ella Enchanted is starting up again on Saturday. What can you tell us about the rest of the season?
That’s right. Ella Enchanted runs until the 24th [of December], and then in January, we’ll have The Snowy Day and Other Stories, which is based on the series of popular books by Ezra Jack Keats. That runs through the end of February.
Then the next show, which I’m really excited about, is called Selena Maria Sings. This is by playwright Miriam Gonzales, who’s from Corpus Christi. It’s not about Selena Quintanilla. It’s about her impact on the culture and her legacy. It’s about a young girl finding her own voice while still honoring previous generations.
Then the last show is a brand new premiere of a Junie B. Jones adaptation by Allison Gregory. Allison has written several other Junie adaptations, so Magik’s doing the premiere of this latest script. She’s based up in Austin, so there’s another Texas connection.
Now that we’re getting back to business, are there any new initiatives or changes you want to implement with the theater?
A lot of it was what I wanted to do from the start. Like I said, we’re premiering two new shows in our season this year. We’re in development on two more shows for the 2022-23 season. It’s really my hope to have at least one world premiere script in each season.
We’re slowly working in new things. For example, Magik had never done a “Pay What You Wish” performance, just to open up accessibility to folks who might find the ticket prices a barrier. We’ve changed our touring program a bit as well. In the pandemic, we were making bigger shows with more production value that we could take anywhere. Our goal is to do more of that. To bring theater into schools and parts of town where people need it who might not be able to get downtown or schools that may not be able to take a field trip. We want to make sure we have another option for them.
People from other theaters in San Antonio have said that the pandemic has actually given a lesson to everybody in the way that they’re staging and producing theater.
What I think that in some ways there’s no replacing it, you know? There’s nothing like having the shared experience. At the same time, we’ve learned that there are other ways that we can bring it to folks successfully.
With Sondheim passing recently, it reminded me that my first interaction with him was Great Performances on PBS — watching that at school. And I found it interesting that so many people had that same experience. It’s a different experience watching theater on a television screen, but there is still value to it. It can impact people in the same way.
Does the downtown theater still have safety measures in place?
Yes, we ask that folks wear masks. We also do temperature checks at the door. We’re still spacing out the seating. Right now we’re at 50% capacity, so groups are still distanced from each other. We’ll see how that goes. We watch what’s happening, and it’s our hope that by the end of the season we’re back to 100%. We need to be.
What does the future look like for the Magik Theatre?
It’s interesting to have come in during the pandemic in a leadership position. Quite often, you want to come in and make changes right away, but the pandemic forced me to go a little slower and take some time with it. Even right now, we’re not back to normal. I don’t think anybody knows what that means.
But I do hope that we remain a place where the community can come together and the audience feels like they have a stake in the theater. That they feel welcome, and their stories are reflected onstage — and we can build empathy for others as well.
Feature photo: Alyssa Cavazos and Mariel Ardila in Ella Enchanted (photo: Siggi Ragnar).