By Susan Meister
Elsa Con is an internationalist: born in Holland of Holocaust survivors, she first studied theater in Lugano, Switzerland, where a beloved mentor introduced her to what would be a multi-dimensional education in the creative arts. Returning to the United States where her parents had emigrated, she crisscrossed the country by way of Vermont, Colorado, and southern California, earning degrees in theater arts along the way, culminating in a PhD in psychology.
To her the link between theater and psychology was a natural one, and after some time running a clinical practice in New Hampshire, she and her husband, Bucky Jackson—also a psychologist—decided that the much warmer west coast was the place to be. After much consideration, a hike in Garland Park finally led them to decide to follow the sun to Carmel Valley.
Moving cross-country provoked a review of life goals, and based on her years of education in dance, theater direction, and psychology, Elsa decided that what she really wanted was to start her own theater. What better way to use her skills as a psychologist than to help actors develop characters? With the enthusiastic support of Bucky, she retired from her psychology practice and acquired the building that we know as the Magic Circle Theatre. In 1999 it opened with a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Elsa’s dream of being a director and theatre owner was launched.
But several years later she found managing a theater, directing all the plays and trying to make it a financial success required help. So she hired staff, including one person who functioned as a grant writer/executive director. As a result she ran into the first financial crisis when 2004 Workers’ Comp issues forced them to close.
Resourceful and determined, though, Elsa and her Board came up with a different business plan that did away with full time staff and instead relied, with few exceptions, on contract employees. They reopened. With the new plan, full houses, and more efficient operations, Magic Circle finally broke even in 2012. But then, another financial crisis occurred as a result of an unexpected tax obligation that blew the budget. That, coupled with an unexplained dramatic fall-off in donations that had kept the theater afloat, has led to the possibility it might be closed permanently.
Magic Circle, according to Elsa, is pretty much a common regional theater story: very few grant giving organizations will fund operations, and to attract audiences theater reviews are essential. Elsa believes that The Monterey Herald’s transition to on-line theater reviews has really cut into their house numbers. “Our audiences, like all of the theaters across the country, are older. They are not online readers.” The fall-off in publicity has hurt. But even with full houses, this 60-seat theatre cannot produce enough revenue to keep it afloat. “Like most small theaters,” Elsa says, “box office makes up only about 50 percent of our budget.”
So an appeal has gone out to Magic Circle supporters to help finish the season, and perhaps go beyond it. “If our angels don’t spread their wings, then we will have to close,” Elsa says. And what will that mean to her? “I would like to continue to work in theater. I want to keep directing, but the venues for that may be limited. I don’t have an answer to that question, yet.”
Elsa Con and her husband don’t plan to leave the area, whatever happens, but “it’s one day at a time for us,” Bucky says. They are aware that grant funds are not readily available for theater in this area, and they have been thankful for support that groups like the Lions and Kiwanis clubs have given them. But they need more.
The last production planned for the year is The Mountaintop, about the final day in Martin Luther King’s life. Elsa expects it to be among their most powerful—another in a series of emotionally affecting productions in which Magic Circle has specialized. “If we can find a way to make this little theater continue, it would be wonderful,” she says. “But whatever happens, I want everyone to know how much I have loved doing this, and I am grateful for the run.”
It’s now up to the community to see if Elsa Con’s run will continue. (Please see Philip Pearce’s At Large piece on local theater. Click HERE.)