The sound of a marriage is captured in the Magic’s ‘Reel to Reel’

An exploration of a marriage through sound is captured in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of “Reel to Reel,” running in San Francisco through Feb. 25th. (Magic Theatre photo)

In many instances, when a married couple who seems to have all the boxes checked for wedded bliss announces their divorce, it is shocking. Two names that are sawdered together for eternity find themselves broken in two, and a marriage that begins with vows which include the words “in sickness and in health” and “’til death do us part” ends with “sign here.”

But is it really shocking? After all, a marriage exists in two different worlds. There is the public view of what is known of a marriage, and then a private reality. When a marriage either comes apart or thrives, not much is really known outside of that couple as to what might have really happened to reach that end. Many factors must break correctly for a marriage to reach the “death do us part” phase.

It’s a phase that John Kolvenbach witnessed through his own parents and their nearly 60-year marriage. And even though Kolvenbach viewed many of those years up close, he admits that his parents’ marriage is a mystery to him.

“Their privacy was sacrosanct, and growing up with them, I had no idea what went on in their world,” said Kolvenbach. “I guess that sort of fascinates me, and I’m fascinated by all of it. I’m interested in the shifting dynamics in a relationship. I’ve found myself asking why do two people get along and the match is actually workable.”

When Kolvenbach says that this dynamic “sort of” fascinates him, that is a massive understatement. Kolvenbach, a playwright making a return to San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, is bringing his newest work to Fort Mason. The world premiere of “Reel to Reel” is a study of a 55-year marriage examined through recorded conversations, arguments and household noises. The play is portrayed by a four-person cast who plays the couple at various stages of their lives, on stage for the entirety of the show. These sounds create a collage that encompasses three critical components of marriage – love, aging and death, all captured on audio tape. The sounds are created live and incorporated into the action that ensues.

“The actual fabric of relationships is made up the everyday, and it is interesting to find how these moments holds in it the deepest and most intimate connection between two people.” – John Kolvenbach

“The original idea is that you can’t ever really know about someone’s marriage, because their actual private life is unknowable by everyone else,” said Kolvenbach, who is also directing the piece. “In this play, we want to make the unknowable known, by taking one marriage in particular and try to make the discreet, smaller moments of the marriage manifest on stage, using sound as a vehicle to do that.”

Those sounds are the soundtrack of a long marriage, and for Kolvenbach, it was important that every sound had an organic quality.

“We had to learn what’s the best way to amplify sound in a non-electrical way, which leads to deeper realities,” said Kolvenbach. “The thesis of the play is that we remember that these relationships are made up of everyday moments and more common events. The actual fabric of relationships is made up the everyday, and it is interesting to find how these moments holds in it the deepest and most intimate connection between two people.”

Kolvenbach is in familiar territory in multiple ways. He himself was married for 12 years, and in the past 10 years, he has brought three other works to the Magic. For him, the characters might be inspired by real life couples and experiences, but that doesn’t make any of the piece biographical.

What Kolvenbach wants is for the audience to have an experience. This is not a play that moves in a linear way with a straightforward plot. It is a series of audial snapshots that capture more of the nuances of marriage.

“This is intended to be an experiential piece, and we want the audience to be immersed in an experience,” said Kolvenbach. “What the audience will take with them is the sensation of living inside a relationship. That is our ultimate goal, to impart on the audience that sensation.

“What you are showing the audience is something that is relatable to their own experience, the peculiarities of their own experience, and showing them something that is outside of themselves.”


The Magic Theatre presents “Reel to Reel”
Written and directed by John Kolvenbach
Through Feb. 25th
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D
2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94123
Tickets range from $35 – $80
For tickets and more information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit

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