When the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis begins its season this week, it welcomes Hana Sharif as its first new artistic leader in decades.
Sharif said that, historically speaking, American theater audiences are predominantly white and well-off. One of her top priorities is to expand the reach of the Rep and attract more people of color and audience members of modest means.
“I have a personal, philosophical belief that no matter who you are — whether you’ve been a subscriber at the Rep for 50 years or you’ve never entered into the Rep’s doors — that you deserve access to the highest quality of art and the tools to tell your own stories,” she said.
In previous jobs as associate artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage and artistic producer at Hartford Stage, Sharif led efforts to connect communities with theater. She said her first year at the Rep will be her “year of listening,” as she gets a sense for the organization’s place in the broader community and the partner organizations that she may reach out to.
“We’ll be working to create these community conversations in all of the different niche communities in St. Louis,” Sharif said. “It’s an opportunity for me to learn about the idiosyncrasies of each community, the passions and the needs. And to learn where in the ecosystem the Rep can serve.”
To help with that effort, Sharif is hiring a community organizer.
“I believe in partnership. I believe in collaboration,” she said. “I believe in amplifying the great work that others are doing, as well as filling the holes that would help elevate our community.”
The playwright and director is one of a number of women who have seized the chance to lead American theaters in recent years. She’s also the first black woman to take the artistic reins at a large St. Louis theater. Steven Woolf had led the Rep since 1986.
American theater has long been short on female leadership; a 2016 study by Wesley Centers for Women found that, as of the 2013-14 season, 80% of the 74 League of Resident Theaters members had male artistic directors; only one had a woman of color as its artistic chief.
Sharif said she is the first black woman to be artistic director at a member of LORT, the nation’s largest professional organization of regional theaters. She described a surge in the number of women assuming artistic directorships in the past three years as “an unprecedented transformation of executive leadership” in theater.
“When it came to who was actually making decisions behind the people you saw onstage,” in the past, she said, “the directors that were being chosen, the designers that were being chosen, none of them — or few of them — looked like me. That has a real impact on the type of stories that get told.”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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