SAN FRANCISCO: When Mina Morita was considering applying to be Crowded Fire Theater’s new artistic director, she was guided, she says, by the personal mission statement she wrote for herself at Lincoln Center Theater’s Director’s Lab last summer.
“When I was applying for this job, I was really thoughtful about it,” Morita says over tea at a café in Berkeley, Calif., where she lives. “The New York Times had this article about making your personal mission statement. Being surrounded by 73 other directors who were from all over the world created an upheaval in myself about what it was I wanted to think about as an artist—and to think about career differently, not about the usual Western methodology of career, but what is it in my heart I want to explore?
When it came time to write her own personal mission statement, Morita says, “What I realized is so important to me—I actually have it written down with me right now—is that I would ‘live life fully through a dedication to the practice of courage, curiosity, and love; creating and building community and unity through visionary and imaginative art and narratives.’ The moment I wrote that, I was like, ‘It makes total sense to apply for this position.’”
That explicit sense of purpose—along with an impressive artistic and administrative résumé—has served Morita well. On Wednesday, Crowded Fire announced her hiring. She will be among the few artistic directors in the Bay Area who is a woman of color. Morita will serve as the 18-year-old company’s fourth artistic director, succeeding Marissa Wolf, who announced her departure in the fall for Kansas City Rep, where she’ll will serve in the newly created position of director of new works.
This is not the first time Morita has succeeded Wolf: Morita received the Bret C. Harte Directing Fellowship at Berkeley Rep the year after Wolf won it. “I was making a joke—I’m just going to follow her wherever she goes,” Morita says.
Morita stayed on at Berkeley Rep after her fellowship, serving as artistic associate and helping to lead its Ground Floor program, the company’s new play development center, which has hosted artists and companies such as the Debate Society, Anna Deavere Smith and many Crowded Fire playwrights. Morita also brings to CFT great fundraising experience—she has been on the board of directors at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players for a decade, five of those years as president—as well as an abundance of freelance directing experience, for companies as varied as Just Theater, Bay Area Children’s Theatre and Shotgun. She’ll be directing her first play for Crowded Fire in April, Idris Goodwin’s Blackademics, when her artistic directorship officially begins.
Morita is thrilled about the place where Wolf left the company. It has, Morita says, “a legacy of being a true home for artists—and when I say ‘true home,’ I mean the company of artists. The staff has such a clear voice. She’s created such a collaborative space, even now on a national level. She’s increased the visibility of the organization to the point where artists from other communities, from Chicago to New York to L.A. to Minneapolis, feel like Crowded Fire is a touch point, a place they would come back to, because of how their vision was supported, how the art came first, the storytelling came first.”
If Crowded Fire doesn’t have the biggest budget in Bay Area theatre—with an annual budget of under $200,000, it produces three mainstage shows per season, along with its Matchbox staged reading series, casting some union actors in both—it’s nonetheless one of the most reliable local stops for high-quality new work by diverse voices. “It’s felt effortless, Marissa’s approach to supporting both women and people of color,” Morita says. Ineed, Crowded Fire seasons aren’t about checking off boxes; instead, Morita says, “The risk is about the everyday effort it takes to find a narrative that really reflects our current lifetime.”
The company has been instrumental in introducing the Bay Area to new writers who push the boundaries of what theatre can be, including Christopher Chen, Young Jean Lee and Thomas Bradshaw. This comes at a moment the Bay Area theatre community as a whole is defining itself as a center for new work, nationally and internationally. Companies big and small throughout the region are creating or amplifying new-work programs at a dizzying rate, from ACT’s commissioning program and recently appointed director of new work, Beatrice Basso; to Marin Theatre Company’s new play program and TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival; to Cutting Ball’s longstanding Risk Is This… Festival.
Morita defines her own philosophy about new work thus: “How do you create a space where people can, by failing and learning, succeed? It’s an authentic relationship that’s ongoing, not a flash in the pan. That’s what excites me.”