“I thought, if I’m ever going to run an institution…it must be Arena Stage.” — Hana S. Sharif
Our Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif, visited Weekends with Jonathan Capehartto talk about the legacy of Arena Stage and her role as our fourth artistic director and first artistic director of color. If you missed it, you can watch her discuss her vision, and learn more about when she set her sights on working at Arena Stage (note: this aired before our sold out run of Swept Away closed on January 14th).
JC: For the first time in its 70 year history Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington D.C., the largest performing arts center to open since the Kennedy Center, has a person of color as its chief executive. Hana S. Sharif was named Arena Stage’s artistic director earlier this year. Sharif, a playwright, director, and producer was most recently the Augustine family artistic director of the repertory theater in St. Louis. Sharif is only the fourth artistic director in Arena Stage’s history. And joining me now here in studio Hana S. Sharif, artistic director of Arena Stage and welcome.
HS: Thank you so much for having me here.
JC: So this is, I found this really cute. At age 19 you said you wanted to run Arena Stage one day, and here you are. Here you are. Why was that a dream for you?
HS: When I was 19 I was a sophomore at Spelman College, and I had just started my own theater company called Nasir Productions. And I was studying the history of regional theater. And I stumbled upon the essays of Zelda Fichandler, who is known as the “mother of the regional theater movement” and is the founding artistic director for Arena Stage, which is one of the oldest theaters in the country. And I found these essays that were radical. She was writing 50 years earlier about the need for art that speaks directly to the community, about the need for there to be a decentralization of great art out of New York and around the country. About what bringing great art could do for communities. And then beyond that, I realized as I continued to research her, because that’s who I am, I find someone’s essays I fall in love with and I want to read everything. I realized that at the founding of Arena Stage, she did something that was absolutely unprecedented, which is founding a company in 1950 that was a fully integrated company. At a time that was illegal for there to be integration across most of the country. Not only was the acting company integrated, but also the designers, the creatives, the playwrights. And I thought, Who is this woman who understood and appreciated black and brown creative, cultural, intellectual ingenuity? And understood that it would be part of the precedent setting of an entire industry in 1950. And I thought, if I’m ever going to run an institution outside of my own, it must be Arena Stage.
JC: Wow, what do you think she would say about the current cultural climate that we’re in where you’ve got a political movement that is really putting the arts and freedom of expression under siege?
HS: I think that she would say that now more than ever, art is necessary and that we have a responsibility to double down on our investment in voices that are willing to break boundaries and challenge the norms. She was not just building a culture that celebrated voices that were willing to push boundaries, but also was willing to criticize the industry itself, and the challenges of oppression within the industry that she helped create. And I find that her legacy is one that I’m incredibly proud to be part of.
JC: I’m glad you said you said that because it was like, can we talk about you? She’s great and all but you are in the job now. And three of the four people who’ve held the posts of the past 73 years have been women, but you’re the first person of color to be the artistic director. What does that mean to you?
HS: You know, it’s an interesting thing. I will also just say that I was the first black woman to run a major regional theater in this country in 2018, when I was announced as Artistic Director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. And at that time, when I was asked this question, I said it was bittersweet. It’s wonderful, of course, to break through a glass ceiling and to be a first but what I recognize is that there were hundreds of women who came before me, who should have been in those seats, and who threw their bodies against that glass ceiling in order to create the fractures that allowed me to come through. And I think about my responsibility as artistic director of Arena Stage. It is a wonderful thing to be leading this theater, which is one of the largest and most influential theaters in the country, in this moment, in a city as diverse as intellectually curious. As a space in a city where policy is set, where the trajectory of our country finds itself. It is phenomenal for me as a woman of color to be able to expand whose stories get told on that stage, who has access to that platform, and to be a small part of how the arts can guide, lead, and embed in policy as well. So it’s an extraordinary gift to be in this position.
JC: So given all that…what’s coming up in 2024 at Arena Stage, what do I need to go see?
HS: Well, the first thing I would say is you must see Swept Away, which is currently on our stage, Swept Away is an incredible musical. It includes The Avett Brothers music, and it is a story at the turn of the century of whalers in a shipwreck. And it really is a story of redemption, it is a story that questions what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to survive, and whether those sacrifices are worth the survival. It is a question of humanity and it is a question of brotherhood. And it’s been an incredible success for us in this month, so much so that we’ve extended it so people have until January 14 to be able to see Swept Away and you’ll want to see it here. You’ll want to be able to say you saw it in D.C. first, because I have a feeling that this is a show that has legs. After that we have a mentalist, a show called Mindplay. It is a play that delves deeply into the magic and the mystery of the mind. It is unlike anything else you will see, it’s a theatrical experience in D.C. so you won’t want to miss that and that takes off mid January.
JC: Okay, mid January. I’ve got my theater assignments. I got my theater assignments here. Hana S. Sharif, artistic director of arena stage. Thank you so much for coming to the Saturday show.