Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Using the Past to Shape the Future: a Conversation with Sean Daniels, Artistic Director of the Arizona Theatre Company

Sean Daniels
by Gil Benbrook

Sean Daniels grew up in Phoenix and fell in love with Arizona Theatre Company. After working in theatres across the country, and also battling addiction, Daniels has come back to Phoenix to what he calls his "dream job" - as the Artistic Director of the theatre company where he first fell in love with the magic and power of live theatre - the Arizona Theatre Company, the only Arizona theatre in the The League of Resident Theatres (LORT).

Daniels' previous work included serving as the Artistic Director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts and he also worked as the associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. He was the Director of Artistic Engagement at the Geva Theater Center in Rochester, N.Y., and he also co-founded and led Dad’s Garage Theatre Company in Atlanta. Daniels is also a playwright.

I sat down with Daniels right after he'd recently come back from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where his wife Veronika Duerr's play, Glockenspielsexpartybavariagoodbye, ran, and right before he headed to New York for rehearsal of his play, The White Chip, which follows the wild journey from alcoholism to recovery.

This is a big week for Daniels as The White Chip begins performances Off Broadway this Friday, right before ATC's first show in their 2019 / 2020 season, The Royale, opens this Saturday in Phoenix. Below are edited highlights from our conversation.

You’ve had jobs working for some prestigious theatres across the country including ones in Atlanta, Rochester and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where I actually ushered when I was a teenager living across the Ohio river in southern Indiana! Your last position was as the artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts. You’ve said several times that this job at ATC is your dream job, what is it about it that makes you say that?

“When I was a kid, I fell in love with theatre coming to Arizona Theatre Company. My parents were subscribers here. All I wanted was a life in the theatre after coming to see a show here. I have such love for this theatre and how it inspired me. I took every education class they offered. Every summer I was in productions and so inspired by this organization.”

So, it’s almost like you’re coming home both literally and figuratively?

“Definitely. Attending this theatre changed the trajectory of my life in terms of where I was going and what I wanted to do. Because of that I went to college for theatre, worked for theatres, started my own theatre company. This place has been so special to me. I always joke that running a regional theatre is a terrible job. Don’t do it unless you can do it in a community that you really care about, where you wake up every morning and say ‘how can my organization better serve the community that we’re a part of?’ For me, growing up here and having so much family here I already had a personal connection. 

There are 72 LORT theatres so if you want to run one, the chances are you’re moving somewhere you may not know, and so many of the rest of my colleagues, when they get one of these jobs, they don’t know in advance if where they’re going is a good fit for them and have to convince their families to move and then get to know the community.  After my last job I really wanted to be at a theatre where I knew and loved the community and could embrace it and where I could get up every day and figure out how to make theatre more relevant for that community. For it to be the regional theatre I came to when I was a kid, in a community that I was already a part of those are the reasons this was a dream job for me to take."

You’ve mentioned in past interviews how your parents were ATC subscribers and how you took educational classes that ATC offered when you were a young kid living in Mesa. You also mentioned that it was an ATC production of Our Town that you said changed your life – what was it about that production that was so impactful?

Our Town is kind of mind blowing in terms of asking, 'how are you living your life on a daily basis and what are the things you’re paying attention to or not paying attention to?' The show will be performed for the rest of time because it’s timeless. For me it was the combination of fantastic writing and how I remember being in my seat afterwards and wanting to talk about it and just take it in. I didn’t know until then that an art form could do that.”

The power of theatre?

“That’s right. There was also a production of Private Lives where I didn’t get all of the jokes about affairs but great for my parents to still take me! (laughs). They also took me to a production of Sweeney Todd where I remember being very shocked. “

ATC is, I believe, the only LORT theatre company in the US that produces shows in two different cities. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of having to manage two different performance locations?

“The challenge is that all theatre is local and that, ultimately, your success is based on how much does your city 'own' you. No two cities are the same, in terms of tastes, politics, supporters, what the space feels like, so that’s all a challenge. What I want to do is figure out how ATC becomes a leader in the country, if not the world, for creating works that go elsewhere. Instead of us doing what New York did three or four years ago, why don’t we move to the top of the food chain and say ‘we’re going to create work that New York will do later or that other theatres will do?’ 

When you talk about producing new work it’s really hard to get a first production and nearly impossible to get a second, so what we’ve built is the dream scenario for anyone developing a new musical or new play. We do the show and then we already pay to bring everyone back to put it on in a new space, in a whole different city, a few weeks later. So often you realize after like the 3rd preview what the play needs to really click but you’d destroy it to try to shove those changes in now with only a few hours with your actors before you’re about to open. But if you knew you’re all gonna get together in a few weeks to work on it again, you could do that. When we talk about commercial producers wanting to develop new works here or even just us wanting to develop them, we have this amazing ability where we’re gonna do the show twice, we’re gonna gather everyone together and work on it again. The great thing about the cities is that they are two different cities and so you will have learned so much, like in terms of what’s funny and what people laugh at. People laugh at different things in Tucson verses Phoenix. So by then you will have learned so much and I think we’ve actually built this amazing mechanism where shows can be launched into the regional and the American theatre canon that are developed here. So, hopefully, suddenly when we announce our season everyone will be looking at what they are gonna be doing in two years.'

So basically, the negative of running two cities is also a positive?

 “I think so, yeah”

Some of the well-known challenges at ATC include reducing the deficit that almost shut down the company a few years ago. What other challenges do you believe ATC also has to focus on and overcome, and what are your plans for the future?

“I jokingly call them gifts left for me from previous people who have worked here. I think Billy Russo, who is the managing director, has done an amazing job holding it together and I think much of the success we’ve had is due to him. While we're continually working on that, on a day to day basis I'm focusing on community relationships and figuring out how we become a national theatre and how Arizona artists become more nationally recognized. It shouldn’t be that Arizona artists have to leave here to be successful. I want to figure out how we become an artistic home for them. Some of our playwrights are considering Arizona Theatre Company to be their new artistic home. That’s what we want, we want more people in the country to think that this is the place they go to develop and create work and that we are an artistic hub that provides something that no one else can. My hope is that now the focus is on how do we become a national theatre, where the playwrights that we work with are being produced all over the world. And every time we announce our season everyone (from other theatres) scours it to figure out what they’ll be doing or how they can be a part of it. That’s my goal."

I know you’re very big into instilling a sense of “community” both behind of and in front of the scenes. One of the programs you implemented at Merrimack you just launched a similar program at ATC. The Cohort Club is a community engagement program that gets a small group of dedicated individuals invested in the creative process while also getting them talking about their experiences by watching rehearsals, seeing how a show gets its legs, and are involved, basically, in the entire creative process. Why do you think that’s so important?

“The idea behind the Cohort Club, which we started at Geva, is we take 20 community members and have them write about their experiences in their building. I think people act differently when you know you have to report upon it."

They’re invested in it, instead of only being an audience member?

“that’s right. They have to pay attention to everything that’s going on. There’s a level of fluency that people leave with (from being involved) and they’d go out and talk about the shows in their communities. We market everything but there’s no reason to believe us when we say a show is great, since we say everything is great. But if you have friends of yours that tell you that you really should go see something you’ll respond differently. So, the idea is, how to we empower people to become 'evangelists' for our organization and to go out into the community and talk about the shows, the company and their experience."

Your work at Merrimack was very successful – helping to increase their subscription base while also having numerous world premiere productions. Was there anything you did there that wasn’t as successful?

“One of the things I didn’t do as well at Merrimack was I was going to be the Artistic Director and run the Cohort Club program but I didn’t feel like I was able to give them all of the time that they needed. People come in hungry to learn, why does something cost what it does? Who does what? What is a lighting designer?, and while I was able at Geva to answer all of their questions at MRT or there for them on a daily basis.  One of the changes we made here at ATC is we have a dedicated person in Tucson and also one in Phoenix who serve as the Cohort Club representatives so if you want to know more about something we can easily facilitate that. “  

How are the first few weeks of the Cohort Club program going?  

“They’ve really been blown away by it. I think we all know the more you’re involved with something the more you root for it. So, what if you have a whole community like that? With competition TV shows like American Idol everything is either a thumbs up or thumbs down, so at the end of a season you might have someone say they liked 4 of the 6 shows we did so they aren’t gonna resubscribe. That’s a losing conversation. So the question is how do we get people more invested in everything for the long haul?"

What can you tell us about the ATC Teen program you just launched?

“I think it’s the most exciting thing we do as not only is it a program where they get to decide what they want to do. They decide what plays they want to do. It’s not only just giving them education opportunities but letting them be in charge of their own artistic life. How they want to invest their time. Even if none of them grow up to be artists they will learn skills here like collaboration and leadership and empathy and go on and be better lawyers or better doctors with better bedside manners or better city council members because someone at a very early age said 'we trust you to make the decisions you need to make about your life' and that’s the time of empowerment I don’t think they often get."

Let’s talk about the 6 shows in ATC’s 2019 / 2020 Season. It’s a wide-ranging offering of diverse shows, including new works, a classic musical from the 60s that seems incredibly timely today, and what I think is one of the best dramas of the past 40 years, an autobiographical play about apartheid.

First, let’s talk about the 4 shows that were already on the ATC season schedule when you got the job. 


Silent Sky

“I was so lucky that this one was already in place when I got the job. I met Lauren Gunderson when she was a junior in high school, before she was the most produced playwright in the country, which she was last year. She actually married my wife and I. She’s made a long career of writing about women who didn’t get the credit they deserved. Henrietta Leavitt, whom most people don’t know, created one of the greatest breakthroughs in science that exists today, which was to understand where are we in the universe. Everything else is based on that. They wouldn’t let her use the telescope because they thought having women up to use it would be distracting to the men, so all of the breakthroughs she made were from the notes and the glass plates the men made. So she’s smarter than them and yet she got none of the credit. With films like Hidden Figures and this play, so many people are realizing there is a whole part of history they didn’t get taught. When you say the name Henrietta Leavitt nobody knows who she is but when you say Hubble everyone had heard of him, but his work is actually based on hers!"


"Master Harold"...And The Boys 

“I think it’s brilliantly written and what’s great about it for 2019 is when you realize that, when talking about white privilege, the world has been organized by past generations to your benefit. But, what are you gonna do with that information? I think for any person that is white and male there is a moment in your life when you realize, ‘oh, the system has been rigged in my favor.’ But what do you do with that information? You could ignore it, and just reap the benefits, which many do. I could try to dismantle the systems that are part of the problem. That’s the question that Athol Fugard is asking as he’s writing from a very personal place of it being somewhat semi-autobiographical of saying ‘I may not have always made the best decisions but now I understand what a place of privilege I sit in.’ I think that question in 2019 is the question that people are still asking. Will you be more active for people who look different than you or are you gonna turn away because you’re already in the group that’s in the power so you’re just gonna ride that out? It’s been done on Broadway twice and is already a very important play for us to do, but the question it asks is still very important in 2019."

The Legend of Georgia McBride

“First of all, Matthew Lopez has The Inheritance opening on Broadway, it was a huge hit in London and won all of the awards. He’s on the verge of being the hottest playwright that’s out there so to be able to have something of his in our season is exciting. I also think there is nothing wrong with coming to the theatre and having a great time. Coming in to this show you know it’s gonna be fun but it also pushes a little bit of boundaries. So we end the season with two shows where people should be tired from screaming and laughing at the stage "

Cabaret

"One of the great musicals of our time. I believe we have a responsibility as a state theatre to present theatre at a level you may not be able to see. Cabaret has been done before but not to the level that we’re able to bring it in at. It’s also a story with current undertones – facism is on the rise but many think, 'it seems a lot of work to go out and fight it, I’m sure it will take care of itself. Could things possibly get any worse? They’ll probably get better.' This is the same thing I think we’re all talking about every day; ‘Oh, we’re at a new low but it can’t possibly get worse.’ And then the next day it does.  To be able to talk about the cycles that go on in terms of where these things are and the people involved in it and the personal stories that are in it. We just did auditions in New York and so many actors came in saying how much they love this show so much and that it feels like we have to be doing this show right now. 


That’s what we want for every show, you come to the theatre to ask, ‘what does it mean to be alive today?’ The best shows, even the classics, you see that people had the same issues 400 years ago that we do. We’re all human beings on the same planet. When theatre’s at its worst you feel ‘I don’t have any idea what this story has to do with any of us.’ Cabaret, for good or for bad, feels like it’s a great conversation for us to be able to have.  Cabaret, The Royale and Silent Sky are all stories about the past which have stories that were relevant in those times but how have people changed or not changed since then? Maybe we haven’t. But that’s a big part of programming your season and I love having all three of these right in a row. They are all from different time periods and different angles but they are all giving us a bit of distance and saying ‘here’s where the conversation was years ago, how do we feel about it?’ because a play that is about politics today seems so knee jerky about something I’ve already made my mind up about before going. But having these three plays that are set in the past, yet looking back at those periods of time from 2019, it gives us a bit of distance.”

There were 2 TBD slots in the season when you accepted the position. What made you decide to choose The Royale and Women in Jeopardy, the opening and closing shows this season, and what can you tell us about them?

The Royale

“For very different reasons they are both by incredible playwrights that I wanted to instantly make this be their theatrical home. I think Marco is an amazing playwright and when you see The Royale you realize there isn’t a single word wasted in it. It won Best New Play in London and New York.  It’s a conversation about family as much as it is about race. Phoenix is a sports town and I feel people here can understand it and lean into it. It’s also theatrical and powerful. You really want to make a statement with your first show to say ‘this is the type of work we want to be able to do. This is the type of playwright we want to support. This is the type of diversity we’re gonna continue to put on stage’ For me this was a no brainer as it’s just a fantastic evening at the theatre.”

Women in Jeopardy

The average theatre goer in the country is a 57-year-old married woman. Women in Jeopardy I just think is hilarious and Wendy McCloud is writing plays and comedies that are about our average theatre goer. I’ve done this shows three times now and every time it’s instantly packed because the power of seeing yourself on stage is something you don’t always get to see. To celebrate that and see yourself reflected on stage is amazing. It’s also just a ton of fun. “ 


You’re about to head to NYC for the Off-Broadway production of your play The White Chip, which talks about your struggles with addiction and alcohol. Can you briefly talk about your past and what made you decide to write about it in a play?

“When I was in the thick of it and when I wasn’t sure if I was gonna live through it, I was trying to find something that felt current and had a sense of humor that wasn’t religion based and I couldn’t find anything. I thought that if I live through this I have to write the thing that I couldn’t find. I got out, I lived and I got sober and there were so many theatre people that said things like ‘I’m so glad you got sober. I’ve been sober for six years.’ And I thought ‘where the fuck were you people?’ I was happy for them but there is this level of shame that is a part of addition. The way that we respond when someone goes through it is just not part of the national conversation so I really wanted to try to write something with a sense of humor to be able to say ‘this is my experience. This was my way through it. I in no means have answers for anybody else but to try to live a shame free way.” I was lucky that Tom Kirdahy, who is producing Hadestown and The Inheritance on Broadway, read a draft of it five years ago and has really been key in shepherding it through and keeping it going and to make this production happen in NY and find a way to tour it afterwards. “  



You’re clearly very open about your past. How have the experiences of facing these problems and getting sober, and in writing this play, helped you in your theatre leadership roles?

“I think it was a very humbling experience to go through and a lot of my ideas about community and diversity come from going through this. The one thing that doesn’t really care about race or gender or economic status is addiction. You go to rehab and you will see America: high priced lawyers next to high priced hookers. Everybody is there trying to figure out the same thing. A lot of my ideas about community and empowering people that look differently than me, or telling stories that are different from mine, come from that experience. We have a responsibility to the represent the world community and with whatever power we have we should be using it to reflect the actual world that we live in. "

CLICK HERE for more information on Arizona Theatre Company's upcoming productions

CLICK HERE for more information for The White Chip, running Off Broadway October 4-26

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