WASHINGTON, D.C.: Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater today announced that its board of trustees unanimously selected Hana Sharif, current artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, to be its next artistic director, succeeding Molly Smith, who will retire at the end of June after 25 years with the company. Joining executive producer Edgar Dobie at the helm of the landmark regional theater, the trailblazing Sharif will be only the fourth artistic director in the company’s history.
“I have the honor of following three visionary leaders, two of whom are women, who have led the organization for 65 of its almost 75 years,” said Sharif in a statement. “I see my appointment as a natural and exciting extension of that leadership: creating, presenting, and producing art that continues to explore how we tell the story of an evolving America. Staying rooted in the American voice is really important, and a mission that truly excites me. There are many theatres, but there’s only one Arena, and I can’t wait to begin the journey.”
“Hana is a brilliant artist and transformative leader who honors history, builds on legacy, and looks to the future,” said Decker Anstrom, chair of Arena Stage’s board, in a statement. “We set out to find the best artistic director in America to write the next chapter of Arena Stage’s story, and we did.”
At the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Sharif shepherded the organization through a cultural transformation after the retirement of iconic leader Steven Woolf in 2019. Her directorial debut at the Rep was with a 2019 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, which turned out to be the highest-grossing show in the company’s history. She expanded the theatre’s commitment to producing world premieres, including Dreaming Zenzile, Feeding Beatrice, and House of Joy. Her most recent production as director was of Ken Ludwig’s stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Among other firsts to her credit, Sharif diversified the Rep’s programming to reflect the region’s spectrum of genre, thought, form, and culture, including its first all-femme design team (The Gradient, also a world premiere). She piloted a range of new programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a drive-through illuminated puppet experience (Glowy Snowy Day), and a virtual theatrical series that brought together famous local chefs, mixologists, local bands, and media personalities (Cooking, Carols, and Cocktails). She also produced high-quality streams of the Rep’s mainstage productions in its 2021/2022 season.
“Hana’s own origin story has prepared her like no other artist for this moment at Arena,” said Edgar Dobie, Arena Stage executive producer, in a statement. “It’s a great day when human values, grace, and authenticity—which Hana owns in abundance—rhyme with the rich opportunities available at our about-to-be 75-year-young enterprise. Hana brings joy with her, and our arms, minds, and hearts are wide open to that joy.”
Sharif’s origin story dates back to 2003, when she joined Hartford Stage as an entry-level artistic assistant. In just seven years, she was serving as associate artistic director, as well as Hartford’s director of new-play development. At Hartford Stage, Sharif broadened its commissioning program, expanded its Brand: NEW Play Festival, co-created the Aetna New Voices Fellowship for playwrights of color, and launched a training partnership with the University of Hartford’s Hartt School.
After that she worked as an associate artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage (BCS), where she helped guide a multi-million-dollar renovation and cultural transformation over her five-year-tenure. This included launching the “Third Space,” a 99-seat theatre dedicated to adventurous and thought-provoking art, creating immersive preshow experiences for its mainstage audiences, and prototyping its signature community programs, BCS Mobile and BCS Park.
The search process that led to Sharif’s hiring was supported by Management Consultants for the Arts (MCA). I spoke to Sharif recently about this momentous hiring. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations, Hana, on another auspicious appointment. When we spoke about your last job, about five years ago, you said how excited you were to be part of an “historic moment of transition within the American regional theatre.” Little did we know then what kind of transition was coming!
HANA SHARIF: It’s like you say one thing, and you think you know what it means, and then very quickly, less than a year later, you’re suddenly faced with an evolution that is completely unexpected. And yet I continue to think of it as our class—those of us who came in as artistic directors five or so years ago, we still often meet and keep each other abreast of what’s going on, and really work as a brain trust, which has been part of how we have not just survived the pandemic but really started to think about how we can adapt our institutions and solve some of the fundamental problems of the field. I often remind myself and my peers that I still believe we are the right leaders for this moment. This isn’t what we expected, these last few years—no one thought that we would be shutting down our theatres, then fighting to reopen, and now to be in this recovery moment. But I also think that there’s a level of adaptation and experimentation and of R&D that I feel compelled by, and a level of excitement behind the possibilities of breaking open some of these major challenges we’ve been facing for two decades and finding a new way forward.
At St. Louis Rep, it’s been an incredible and unexpected journey. I was appointed in 2018, then had a year of transition where I was kind of back and forth between Baltimore, helping Stephanie Ybarra on-board, and St. Louis. I took over full-time June 1, 2019, and of course that first season was interrupted by the global pandemic. There was a world premiere musical called Dreaming Zenzile that was supposed to close out the mainstage in my first season, and we shut down the theatre on the day we were moving from the rehearsal studio to the stage for the sitzprobe. It was also the day that we were opening The Cake in our studio. It was a grand-opening-grand-closing journey, so to come full circle, to reopen and be thriving and to have more seasons under my tenure to move forward some of those key initiatives—it’s been really a gift.
You did get a chance to do some programming, both before and after the lockdown. Do you also think you were able to make changes at the Rep that will stick?
Part of what happened, not just because of the pandemic, but also because of the murder of George Floyd and the We See You, White American Theater document, and other the activist groups that were popping up really calling for the theatre as an industry to take a very close look, not just at how we reopen but who we are and what our practices are, and how we actually create a sustainable pathway forward—because we were facing all those things, there were so many wonderful opportunities that arose. I was able to lead my organization through a strategic alignment where we articulated our mission, vision, and values, so we’ve been really specific in how we use theatre to be transformative to community, how we use theatre to build bridges, to amplify and elevate humanity. That wasn’t just about creating new language. It also became the DNA of the work that we built. During the pandemic, we spent a lot of time building meaningful relationships with communities. I think this year has seen the most diverse audience the theatre has ever had, and it wasn’t just because we program diversity—it was because we spent the last four years building collaboration and meaningful relationships with communities, offering an invitation that feels real, that feels authentic, and trying to shape-shift the idea that the Rep is a home for everyone. I feel really proud of the world premieres we have produced and the deep investment that we’ve made, both in local and national artists. It’s been a tumultuous time for the field, but I think that when I look back at my time at the Rep, it has been extraordinarily fruitful.
I spoke to your managing director, Danny Williams, recently about the health of the theatre, and to Molly Smith, your predecessor at Arena, and both said that the highs and lows have been extreme since reopening—there have been some blockbuster shows and others that have just not filled many seats. Does that sound about right?
Absolutely. The financial challenges of the industry are real, and there really aren’t any theatres that are unscathed. I have a philosophy that the institutions that have the ability to be adaptive, that are willing to do the R&D, that are willing to prototype new processes, that are focused on having meaningful resonance and relevancy within their communities—those are the ones that are going to survive and thrive and really be thought-leading institutions for the field moving forward. And I feel honored to be entrusted with the leadership of Arena Stage, because it’s an iconic legacy institution. Zelda Fichandler is like the mother of the regional theatre movement. And for the majority of my career, Molly Smith has really been an iconic, visionary leader, and a model for women artistic directors. Many of us would be hard pressed to envision ourselves in a world without Molly and her leadership.
When I spoke to Molly about what she brought when she was first hired at Arena, she talked about focusing on new American plays. Is that a focus you’re committed to continuing?
Absolutely. Looking back at my career, I have always had a deep investment in new-play development, starting with my days in Hartford; by the time I left I was the director of new-play development, as well as associate artistic director. I consider myself a generative, interpretive, and curatorial artist, so I’m a playwright, a director, and a producer. And because the way I entered into this art form was as a writer—the way I understood myself in the world was to write, to answer the questions I had about the world through writing plays—my entire career has been deeply invested in creating and nurturing American voices. I think it is incumbent upon regional theatres to fulfill the mission that so many began with, in terms of being a home for resident artists, of being spaces where the work of, for example, Tennessee Williams could be created. Our art form requires us to be telling the stories that represent the evolving reality of our lives.
You know, I’ve been very specific about the choices I’ve made in my career. At this point I wasn’t looking for a job. It just happens to be that Arena has been one of those institutions that I have been inspired by my entire career. When I was 19, I said, “One day, I’m going to be artistic director of Arena Stage.”
I did! And the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of turnover in the field, and I’ve hit a point in my career where I get every call about every job. I turned them all down until Arena. Because there’s only one Arena. It is a theatre that has a history and a legacy of being a game changer for the field. Not just Molly’s investment in new work, and the way that she has shifted the conversation around the field’s investment in American writers and in the American voice. I also think about the fact that Zelda created a company that was intentionally integrated at a time when it was illegal to be integrated in many parts of this country. There was a bold vision that centers our humanity from the very beginning 74 years ago.
I look at this moment with great humility and great responsibility and great excitement about being part of the natural evolution of a theatre company that has been fully committed to elevating and reflecting our evolving humanity. I also think about this institution, which has had three wonderful artistic directors, but in particular 65 years of women’s leadership—it is again an honor and a gift to continue that legacy.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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