The Curran Theater in downtown San Francisco is alive with (please forgive me) the magic of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play with visually unrivaled effects and a hefty runtime of five and half hours. Audiences are unlike what denizens of the theater typically look like; they’re young, vocal, and often costumed, willing to pay anywhere from $50 to $289 per seat, per part, with many willing to do it more than once.
The seats are filled with grown-up fans of the Harry Potter book and film series. Now in their twenties and thirties, they were anywhere from 8 to 15 when J.K Rowling’s novels first hit shelves in 1997. Converging on the theater from all over San Francisco and the West Coast at large, they arrive eagerly for the story of angsty and withdrawn Albus Severus Potter (Benjamin Papac), the middle son of now 36-year-old Harry Potter (John Skelley), as he sets out on a dangerous time-traveling mission that threatens to change the lives of everyone around him.
To be sure, the audience is no monolith. It’s a diverse group that also includes a large amount of more traditional theater fans, not steeped in Potter lore. This includes folks like Zach Nelson of the Mission who says, he’s no “Potter fanatic,” but that if you have “any connection to Harry Potter at all, you would enjoy seeing this shit.” He adds, “no matter where you came from before you got here, it’s a great show.”
Many of the Harry Potter fans in the audience have never seen a play before. Bonafide Potterhead Olivia Vagelos of the Mission, who works in design and education, shares that she is “not a musical theater, not a theater person; this is definitely an anomaly.” Joe and Genie Scimonelli also of the Mission, a middle school history teacher and nurse (respectively), tell me that counting the stage version of Aladdin, these are “the two plays we’ve been to in our adult life.”
The show is a way for new and old Potter fans alike to congregate. Production stage manager Rachel Sterner sees lots of fans bring their young children to experience the universe for the first time. There’s a large contingent of teenage girls, many who show up in groups dressed as brand new characters exclusive to Cursed Child. Sterner remarks that, “those young ladies are doing their homework, they’re coming prepared.” There’s a new generation of devotees and the Cursed Child is their public debut.
The show runs every week Wednesday through Sunday and all crowds are enthusiastic, but Sterner says she thinks Sundays are the loudest. And based on my experience, this tracks. During the Sunday show I attended, people were alive with auditory responses and applause, but in the lobby or waiting for the bathroom in the stairwell, they were subdued or celebrating privately in their cluster of friends. Visible Potter paraphernalia abounds, but no one makes a big deal about it. Bored middle-aged parents wait quietly in line with Gryffindor scarves and stuffed Hedwigs on their shoulders.
The Cursed Child, in addition to narratively being about visiting and revisiting the past, is an experience audiences seem to want to repeat over and over. Everyone I spoke with either has plans to see it again, or is very open to it. They love the show, and seem resistant to even discuss minor issues or criticism they have, even when pressed. Mr. Nelson demurs, “It wouldn’t be fair to critique it.” Part of the experience is embracing a kind of unbridled excitement and positivity and reliving that as many times as possible.
Unsurprisingly, the effects and visual world of the play is cited by everyone I speak with as to what makes the play so amazing, but for many, Cursed Child is also a chance to just re-enter the wizarding world. Vagelos of the Mission reflects that, “for me, the magic is actually in the mundane. It’s less in the plot and more in moments of herbology class or sitting down for breakfast in the Great Hall … ” She continues that “you can only relive plot a certain number of times, but if you have a world with details that feel so tangible, it’s a place that you can explore.”
Sterner further boils down what attracts people to the show. “What an exciting thought, the fact that a giant could break down your door and change your life.” Whether it’s fans returning to a world they’ve been many times, or Potter neophytes arriving for the first time, for the unique crowds at the Curran, Cursed Child is a chance to embrace the freedom and awe of pure fantasy.