Sean Daniels is about to start his dream job. Growing up in Mesa, Ariz., he and his family were regulars at Arizona Theatre Company. So when the job of leading ATC became open, Daniels jumped; he starts there as artistic director this month. His theatre gigs since his Arizona youth have ranged from Atlanta’s improv hub Dad’s Garage to Actors Theatre of Louisville and Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.; his most recent job was as artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations on the new job, and on going back to your home state (and mine). What is your history with the company you’re about to lead?
SEAN DANIELS: My parents were subscribers and donors, and I remember seeing an Our Town there that changed my life. They had a partnership with the Mesa Youth Theater, so I auditioned for everything. And every summer from when I was 7 to 14—formative, awkward years—I took every education class they had. So for a long time this has been the dream job.
You’ve been very upfront about your struggle with alcoholism, and in fact wrote a show about it, The White Chip. After being let go from Actors Theatre and getting sober, how did you make the transition?
You know, the amazing thing about the American theatre was that when I was trying to get my feet back underneath me, there were tremendous people who said, “Great, now that you’re together and you’re sober and you’re on it, let’s get you back to work.” It was really the Wendy Goldbergs [at Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center] and Mark Cuddys [Geva] of the world who really facilitated that, and made sure that years and years didn’t go by before they said, “Let’s get back at it.”
Tell me a little bit about Merrimack, where you’ve done some pretty interesting things. Where was the organization when you got there, and where have you taken it?
I’ve been here for four and a half years, and we’ve done 28 productions in that time, half of which were world premieres. What I’m really proud about is that we launched a national tour, we moved a show Off-Broadway, and my autobiography about recovery, The White Chip, is going to have a commercial run Off-Broadway this fall. And a bunch of the shows we did have been in the theatre’s top 10, in terms of best ticket sales. In Year Two, we had more subscribers than Year One; in Year Four, we had more subscribers than in Year Three. It really feels like this town has been very excited by the proposition of new work and really embracing of new stories and new adventures onstage.
And obviously you’re leaving because your dream job came up, not because it hasn’t worked out at Merrimack.
Yeah, and also we have a nine-month-old daughter, and that has really refocused what it is that we want. We don’t really have any family up here. When the ATC job became available, it was an opportunity to work at my dream theatre, and an opportunity to suddenly raise my daughter around my mom’s family, who are still out there. Free babysitting drives a lot of the choices we make in our lives. We’ve loved our time here, and I think this theatre felt a real revitalization while I was here. I’m sure they’re only going to run with that and take it to even bigger and better things after I’m gone.
Tell me about ATC. It’s had some rocky times, hasn’t it?
It’s an organization that has essentially been in transition for 5 or 6 years. First David Ira Goldstein said he was going to leave after 25 years, then suddenly there was an announcement of a structural deficit they had, so he stayed on to beat that. They were able to raise money, and then David Ivers came on but left almost as soon as he arrived. So even though those people have done great work, I think when I met with the staff I could tell that they’re just ready for some continuity. David Ivers reduced the deficit, but it’s still there, so that’s part of the work that we need to do going forward.
But even with all that going on, it’s still a fantastic organization. It’s continued to go on. If we have some continuity we can really just invest in, what does it mean to be the leading theatre in the state of Arizona? One thing that I really want to do at ATC is all the engagement efforts we did at Merrimack—the radical transparency, the cohort club, all those things. If we can bring those to a larger institution, we can hopefully get both of these cities, Tucson and Phoenix, to really buy into owning this theatre.
Tell me a little bit more about those engagement programs, because I don’t think everyone knows about them.
So we have a program where we invite community members into the process of putting on a show. They can come to any rehearsal, they can come to any production meeting, they get all the reports, and our only requirement is that they write about their experience each time they’re in the building. The purpose of that is to give them a fluency in terms of talking about the work that we do onstage. So when they go out into the community, they can talk about why it costs what it costs, why it takes what it takes, why you would like this show. There’s really no reason to believe us. We say everything is great! But if suddenly three friends of yours say, “You should really go see the show, it would speak to you,” you’re there. So it’s about how to equip the community with their own language to be able to talk about things. And because they write about it also, it creates a massive amount of content for about a show. Here in New England, one year The Boston Globe never made it out for the whole season. And that’s the level of arts criticism we’re fighting. We can either wait around and hope they come next season—or we can get people in the community to start writing themselves about the work that we do, and spreading that out.
Where is their writing shared, and is it totally independent—they can say whatever they want?
They can say whatever they want. In fact, it drives my marketing director crazy, but my favorite thing is when they say things like, “I read the script and I didn’t think it was funny,” and then, “I went to the first rehearsal and oh my God, it’s hilarious when these actors do it.” I feel like that’s an actual honest reaction, and then you trust that person. And we just ask them to share it wherever they feel like their community will see it. We’ve had people put it in church newsletters. We’ve had some people who were bartenders or hairdressers who just shared it with their people. If they don’t have a place, they can always send it to us and we’ll put it on our Facebook page, or a lot of people use their own Facebook page. The main thing is, we want to do more than just marketing. The goal has been, after each year you have 20 more people, so that now, after four and a half years, we have 80 people out in the community who can talk to anybody about why the theatre does what it does, why it costs what it does, why we choose what we do.
We started some amazing programs here. One I call the Confabulation, where if you wrote me a really angry letter about why you hated a production, I would invite you to a wine-and-cheese event along with people who had written in about how much they loved it. Then I would try to get out of the way and let them discuss it—like, not try to change anybody’s mind, but just say, “Okay, let’s talk about how it is that you both sat through the same show, and one of you thinks it’s ruining the theatre and the other thinks it’s great.” We even got a board member out of that. We never changed their mind about anything, but it’s just a way of saying, we don’t have to be defensive about it, they’re going to think what they think, but we always claim to be this home of conversation, and so rarely theatres are.
So we tried to do this level of transparency, to invite people in and have the conversation with each other, if not with us. We do a season planning process that involves the staff and board and community members.
I think these types of things that have been part of what the revitalization is at Merrimack. I want to take these to a bigger level and see if a LORT B theatre can have that same type of community ownership.
You know, when you do community theatre, everybody bakes, right? Everybody makes a dish for opening night. Somehow we when get to the professional theatre, nobody bakes, nobody brings anything. Somehow we lose that community component when we add rigor and structure and a level of artistic excellence. Our goal is to figure out how to really bring that community aspect back, so that any time there’s a show it should be a community celebration and not just thumbs up, thumbs down, did your subscribers like it or not?
Let me ask about the two-city thing. I get the sense that Tucson is more the home base than Phoenix. Am I right about that?
Yeah. One of the things we heard a lot from people was they wanted to know how to engage Phoenix—the staff is in Tucson, things rehearse in Tucson, so then Phoenix becomes this second thought. In fact Phoenix is the fifth biggest city in the country. If you’re looking for growth or even financial stability, that’s the city to to do it in. One thing we’re going to do is we’re going to bring in an engagement person who’s just focused on Phoenix, to figure out how they can feel like they’re not just a stop on the tour, but really begin to engage the community there. I think Tucson naturally just owns the theatre because so much happens there.
Are you personally going to live in one city or the other?
We’re going to live in Phoenix.
Well, that’ll refocus things a little right there.
Another thing we’re going to do is start doing more new work when we’re out there. At what other theatre can you say: You could have a world premiere of your play, then we’re going to do the same show again next week in a different city, in a different theatre with a different audience and different people, and you can continue to work on it? In many ways, what they’ve often thought of as a detriment could actually be one of their great selling points. Who doesn’t want that second theatre and second run built into your first one?
I want to ask about your impressions of Arizona. You haven’t lived there in a long time, nor have I—I was raised there, but moved away in 1989, and go back once a year. What are some of your impressions of it as a state and a region?
I think it’s a fascinating time to be a part of Phoenix, because, when we grew up, it was just a red state.
Though I like to remind people that Bruce Babbitt is from there.
That’s right, and my family is part of the Udall family, a group of politicians there. Mo Udall was a diehard Democrat and he represented the state for 30 years. But now it’s actually a fascinating time to be in Arizona because it’s closer to being a toss-up state in terms of what it could be or who’s going to be its senators. I think that’s exciting. Not that I we don’t love having Elizabeth Warren as our Senator at Merrimack, but we don’t really need call her on a constant basis to remind her about the issues, whereas we’re thrilled to actually be in a state where it feels like suddenly being politically active actually means something more.
Politics aside, do you feel like there’s a robust audience for theatre in Phoenix and Tucson? Actors Theatre of Phoenix closed in 2014 after 29 years of operation, and then ATC’s financial troubles—I’ve wondered and worried a bit for my hometown.
There’s a huge audience there, but the game of running regional theatres has changed drastically in the last 10 years. It’s about how you engage those audiences, how you diversify the work that’s onstage, how you reach out to new groups of people. If you’re at a theatre that wasn’t really aggressive about those things—well, the world is changing quick, and you get left behind, and the next thing you know, it feels like there’s not an audience for you. Phoenix is so huge, there are people there. We maybe just haven’t done the best job about continually putting ourselves out there, or the best job of reflecting the community that lives there onstage so they have a reason to come in.