Arena Stage announced Tuesday that Hana S. Sharif will be its new artistic director, becoming the first person of color to run the storied company in its nearly 75-year history.
“I’m so incredibly excited,” Sharif said in a telephone interview from St. Louis, during which she recalled her deep roots as a fan of regional theater. “When I was 19 years old, I said, ‘Some day, I’m going to be the artistic director of Arena Stage.’ I do feel like every part of my journey has been preparing for this moment.”
Widely admired in the theater industry for her managerial know-how and collaborative spirit, Sharif was the first choice out of more than 50 candidates evaluated by Arena’s 11-person search committee, headed by incoming board chair Catherine Guttman-McCabe. “She really checked all the boxes,” Guttman-McCabe said. “We started with our North Star; we were looking for the best person in the country to be the next artistic director for Arena. And we found that.”
Sharif assumes her new role at a particularly trying time for the nonprofit theater movement in the United States. Like virtually every major theater in the country, Arena is grappling with extraordinary challenges as it emerges from the pandemic and struggles to re-energize audiences. Edgar Dobie, Arena’s longtime executive director — who recently signed up for several more years in his post — noted that the company is in a period of “deficit planning.” He added that it has scaled back from eight to six productions a year, with spectators now filling 60 to 70 percent of the seats in Arena’s three theaters.
“I think I’ve convinced the board that 70 percent is the new 100 percent,” Dobie said wryly.
According to Guttman-McCabe, what steered the board confidently to Sharif were all those boxes she checked, revolving around “mission, vision and values.” And that Sharif seemed aligned with Arena’s trajectory. “We are not a theater that is trying to reinvent itself,” Guttman-McCabe added. “We like who we are.”
The search committee had been looking to fill the post with someone who could “bring their own artistic sense, their joy to it,” Guttman-McCabe said, adding that the panel found in Sharif the skills and attributes they sought: “Strong leadership, love of innovation and willingness to take risks, connections to other artists, and, of course a commitment to community engagement.”
It was the appeal of interacting with the communities of St. Louis that drew Sharif there in 2019, after spending five years at Baltimore Center Stage, where she was associate artistic director and directed both new plays and revivals. “One of the reasons I chose St. Louis is that it’s very similar demographically to Baltimore,” she said, “where it allowed us to create a higher relevance between the work on the stage and community. I truly believe in the transformational power of theater. I really believe theater can transform a community.”
Sharif grew up in Houston, one of five children of arts-loving parents: Her mother was an educator, and her father worked for IBM. “I directed my first play when I was a senior in high school,” Sharif recalled. It was titled “Black Butterfly,” for which she recruited “everyone who was a person of color, in a school with very few African Americans.”
“I convinced the principal to produce this play,” she continued. “As I look back in my life, my community needed to hear it, just being able to speak our experience. It was a marker for me, because I loved being behind the stage more than being on the stage.”
While an undergraduate at Spelman College in Atlanta, she co-founded a theater company, Nasir Productions — “We just told stories we needed to hear,” she said — and, after earning an MFA at the University of Houston, moved to Hartford for an internship with Hartford Stage. That would be a turning point for Sharif, as she stayed for a decade, became artistic producer and ran the company’s new-play development program. Then came the stints at ArtsEmerson in Boston, where she established an artist-in-residency program, and in Baltimore and St. Louis.
Smith, who departs on July 1, has programmed much of the 2023-2024 season at Arena, which will give Sharif breathing room as she plans for the company’s future. She said she’s thinking about the aspects of producing nonprofit theater that have to evolve, such as the subscription model for building audiences. “What I believe is, there is a level of R&D that we’ve never had permission to do,” Sharif said.
The pathway Smith has forged for Arena’s programming, stressing American plays, old and new, seems a route that Sharif feels comfortable traveling. “Part of the attraction, to me, of Arena was, there’s been a commitment to American writers,” she explained. “I was really clear that it was important to me, wherever I go, that it’s to a theater devoted to writers who are writing to this moment.”
The naming of Sharif seems to complete a cycle of appointments at top theaters across the city and region over the past few years. Some of the biggest developments have occurred in the diversifying of voices and visions in front offices. Karen Ann Daniels at Folger Theatre and Reginald L. Douglas at Mosaic Theater Company are among the leaders of color named to head companies during the pandemic, and they are going about the work of anchoring their organizations more steadfastly in their communities.
For Smith — one of only three people who have led Arena since its founding in 1950 — Sharif’s ascension has both practical and profound significance. One woman handing the reins to another still isn’t that common in the theater world. Like Sharif, Smith founded a theater company earlier in her career, Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska.
“She’s this beautiful mixture of gravitas and joy,” Smith said of Sharif. “Anybody who has started a theater is a pioneer. She isn’t afraid of making big ideas work, and I love that.”