Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.
Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)
Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.
Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.
Among a handful of Bay Area theater people with astoundingly deep credentials, George Maguire has enjoyed a 52-year professional career spanning Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, the National company of Nicholas Nickelby and more than thirty feature films.
He was Artistic Director of Solano College Theater for eighteen years, directing fifty main stage plays and musicals and helming the school’s renown Actor Training Program.
A couple of years ago, Maguire joined the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle as an adjunct member and voraciously continues to see and critique as many theater and film productions as possible.
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
GM: I began in high school, first in Wilmington, Delaware in the chorus of both Brigadoon and Carousel where I had my first line: “Hey Nettie, ya burnin’ the lemonade?” Then we moved to Pittsburgh PA and it all ramped up quickly.
In one month, I played Freddy Eynesford Hill in My Fair Lady, graduated, went to prom, and got my AEA card at seventeen in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s Top Banana with Phil Silvers, Mr. President with Vivian Blaine and the rest of the originals, Tovarich with Ginger Rogers, South Pacific with Georgio Tozzi and Elizabeth Allen (I met Richard Rogers when he came to see her in that show and then cast her in Do I Hear a Waltz?), and My Fair Lady in the ensemble. Quite a feat for a seventeen-year-old who couldn’t read a lick of music and knew only one audition song — yep, one — “On the Street Where You Live.”
The choreographer of our high-school My Fair Lady was a major pro who worked with John Kenley and suggested that I and two others should audition for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. We all got in! I did the next five seasons, going from second tenor to baritone-bass. I returned twice to Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera—in 1979 as Asst. Director and actor, and in 1981 as Max in The Sound of Music opposite John Shuck and Maureen McGovern.
ASR: What was the first play you directed for a paying audience?
GM: The first play as a director was Matchmaker at my old high school where I returned for four years as a teacher.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
GM: Hundreds. Literally.
ASR: When was your present company formed?
GM: I formed Solano College Theater (SCT) in 1990 with Managing Director Dave Leonard. I retired from it seven years ago.
ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?
GM: I took the advice of one of my great mentors when I founded SCT — Hire people who do what they do better than you can and then do what you do superbly. I hired actors and teachers like Nancy and Joy Carlin, Ken Sonkin, Bob Parsons, Julian Lopez Morillos, Carla Spindt, L. Peter Callender, and Sacramento’s Christine and Luther Hanson. Jon Tracy was a student then along with Johnny Moreno.
I brought in friends like Tom Hanks to do a major fundraiser. Writer José Rivera and Dave Leonard produced José ‘s first big hit House of Ramon Iglesia ( I had its initial readings at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City.) I brought in guest lecturers like Meryl Shaw from ACT. It was a magical time.
I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
GM: I’d have to say Vincent Dowling who was Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. (He also mentored both Rivera and Hanks.) His testament to enormous insight is that all of us are still dear friends since 1978.
Then I would say Olympia Dukakis in the brief semester I had with her at NYU. She was brutally tough and honest and I had no clue until years later how influential she was. Whatever moments of truth I have had both on film and on stage, I owe to her.
ASR: What are some of your favorite plays? Musicals?
GM: Plays: Cherry Orchard, The Visit, Richard II, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, All My Sons, Angels in America. Musicals: Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Cabaret (I’ve directed all three versions), and, well, so many more.
Faves that I produced and directed at Solano College Theater: Equus, The Elephant Man, Distracted, Eurydice, among others. They are my children.
ASR: And your least favorites?
GM: Least fave? Long ago I recognized I had no real interest in directing Shakespeare and indeed have directed only Calarco’s Romeo and Juliet for New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC.)
Let others do it! I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”
I have done conceptual work: Sweeney Todd I set in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for example; and Equus, in the ruins of the Parthenon, but direct Shakespeare? Not me. Although to be completely open, I have done maybe twenty-some Shakespeare roles as an actor.
I’m often challenged as a director by musicals that flopped. Seussical I resurrected and completely re-thought. I had a blast!!
ASR: Can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?
GM: Has to be Jim Carpenter. So honest and real and kind!
ASR: Which theater friendships mean the most to you?
GM: Our friendships are vital but they do not always continue post-production. Those from the Great Lakes era have lasted more than forty years, with two Oscars for one, and an Oscar nomination for the other.
What is true about this is that for all of us the person we met way back when is the treasure we love and success is measured by compassion, not by a resumé.
ASR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be your apprentice and learn all that you know?
GM: Hmm. Tricky. OK, here goes…
1. Be true to yourself, and enter the workspace always with an idea.
2. Always breathe before you answer a question.
3. Research! Research! Research!
ASR: What are your interests outside the theater?
GM: I am a major museum freak. I love them, having studied art when I spent a year in Germany at nineteen. Also, opera and symphony. In Germany, I heard Schwartzkopf sing Der Rosenkavalier, for example. I am not a big contemporary music person, probably due to my hearing impairment.
ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” deal?
GM: A ticket to Dude, the Musical! I was there on opening night. Oy!
ASR: If you could create a 30-minute TV series what would it be?
GM: It would definitely be about Great Lakes days in a format like Schitz Creek.
ASR: Care to mention a favorite song?
GM: Having had health issues all my life — hearing impairment, Meniere’s Syndrome, etc, I resonate to “Being Alive.”
ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?
GM: I would never parachute, climb a mountain, etc. Fuck, I’m 73! Walking on stage while having a vertigo attack is risk enough for me.