BWW Review: Visionary Leadership During Challenging Times ~ Sean Daniels Moves Arizona Theatre Company Two Steps Beyond
In the world of theatre, there are exciting artists. There are exciting visionaries. And then, there are exciting leaders that fuse artistry with vision and translate concepts into inspiring action. Count Sean Daniels among them.
Acclaimed for his achievements as a director (guiding Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA; associate artistic director at Actors Theatre in Louisville, KY; resident director for California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, CA) and playwright (The Haunted Life, The White Chip), Daniels took the helm of Arizona Theatre Company in May of 2019.
The timing could not be more dramatic as the Company's 53rd Season has been waylaid by COVID-19. Yet, as is the case with action-oriented visionaries, Daniels and his team (Education and Learning Director Jasmine Roth and Will Rogers, Director of Artistic Programs) have strategized innovative ways to keep theatre alive, relevant, and top of mind.
In this interview, Sean, with a combination of insight and wit, discusses ATC's concerted effort to develop, create and post diverse content through a series of online platforms, including an exciting education program for teens.
Before we focus on ATC's new initiatives, let me offer a belated and enthusiastic welcome home to Arizona. Let's talk about what moved you to come to Arizona Theatre Company.
It's the theatre that made me fall in love with the art form. My parents were season subscribers and donors to the Arizona Theatre Company when I was growing up. They took me to every show. Looking back now, I realize they didn't do any investigative work on the show, they just took us to everything. For example, I do remember a production of Private Lives and I was wondering what everybody was laughing about, but now I know it's a play about middle-aged people having affairs.
Also, our family is here. We have a two-year-old daughter that we wanted to raise closer to our family.
But, as I say, it's the theatre that changed my life, and so I wanted to be able to get back.
And so you have, thankfully. Congratulations!
Obviously, circumstances have changed since your arrival. We both have participated in discussions about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the theatre community and its viability. Let me ask how the crisis has affected your vision and expectations not only for ATC but for the future of theatre in general?
I've been here for eleven months, so it's definitely been a full time of getting grounded. I guess there's a couple of different ways that it changes things.
First, we're a community leader and a civic organization. So, the safety of our patrons and of our artists is easily the most important thing, and that's why when it came time to decide if we were going to postpone or stop our performances, we said, of course, we don't want to do anything until we know that everybody coming into our place feels safe.
In terms of how it changes theatre, I think we're going to need theatre even moreso when this is over. What theatre does is we gather together with other people, we watch great stories, we're reminded of our community and what it means to be alive today. We all feel it ~ that we're trapped at home...that in Arizona, we kind of live in Paradise, it's great weather outside, and yet we're all stir crazy because we're missing that connection with other people. So, I'm hoping that when we come out of this, people are going to be so desperate to come together.
We've been on the phone with all of our patrons and donors. We ask everybody, when this is over, are you going to be nervous about coming back to the theatre, and every single person says I can't wait. So, I think our relevance is going to be back just in terms of wanting to gather people together, wanting to laugh with other people, wanting to applaud with other people.
I also think it's going to change the scope nationwide of how theatre works in our country. Let's be honest, there's not going to be a day when we say, "Theatre is back on," and suddenly we all go to theatres everywhere. I'm guessing it's going to be in waves. We might be back for a little bit, then quarantined for a little bit, and then back again.
I think in Arizona we have a unique responsibility and opportunity to really lead the country. For example, they're saying maybe all of Major League Baseball will happen in Arizona. Well, what if, instead of New York being the lead, theatre in Arizona is! Indeed, we might be up and running before theatres on Broadway are. So, does the same paradigm have to continue that if it's in New York, then it's worthwhile to do elsewhere?
For example, we (the Manhattan Theatre Club) did The Lion that toured for about two years. The economics about putting together a nationwide tour was amazing. It was budgeted to lose money during the run in New York, because they knew if it was played in New York, people around the country would want it. That shouldn't make sense, but that's the way it's been.
However, in the end, all theatre is local and people's tastes are different. For us, Tucson is not Phoenix and vice versa. So, why should New York be able to pick what works in arts and culture for both of those cities? It's just foolish. So, again, I think we're going to have the opportunity to take the lead in defining what works in theatre.
I also think there's going to be a real push from theatres to go back to safer more conventional work. I think a lot of theatres are going to push new plays and playwrights of color out to the margins. I think then we can and should also be a leader in terms of saying that diversity is actually what it is to be an American in 2020 and that, while other theatres retreat and try to find safer ground, we can continue to be out front in leading the cultural conversation in our country.
Let's talk about your new initiatives: the series of FACEBOOK LIVE BROADCASTS and the education program for teens. This week, on Friday, April 24th, at 4:00 p.m. (MST), you're hosting the first in the series.
We were like every regional theatre, not really that great in online content and online marketing. We have been forced to pivot and figure out how to make online the place you go to when our doors are closed.
I have to give credit to my team for really pushing forward to create online content at a quality that is commensurate with the organization that we are.
We now do all of our education programs online, live interviews, digital podcasts, and now, every Friday at 4:00, I'll be chatting with different artists with whom we're working. It'll be a place too where people can write in questions and get answers. In effect, it'll be an opportunity for great conversation.
I think what's important is that, when we're back in the Fall and we're producing, this is the level of online content we should continue to produce. We should be sharing the great work that we do. For example, after having to postpone the show, we were able, thanks to collaboration with the union, to send out live digital recordings of The Legend of Georgia McBride. It's amazing how many people wrote in ~ school teachers in Canada or people in London ~ saying how great it was to see the work of Arizona Theatre Company. It's given us the chance to reinforce our image and reputation as world class theater.
We also want to be connected with our artists. We just can't go away for five months and come back and expect everyone to be there. We need to connect with them and bring joy and comity and understanding through the internet. Developing these initiatives creates that opportunity for continued connection.
[This week's (April 24th) FACEBOOK LIVE BROADCAST will feature local actors Lucky Yates, Veronika Duerr, Brian Lowdermilk, and Mary Woll. The weekly series is part of Arizona Theatre Company's growing online content. To join in the conversation, go to @ArizonaTheatreCompany on Facebook.]
You're also launching a series of weekly podcasts, called Hang & Focus, to be released every Sunday.
The Hang & Focus podcasts will cover topics that we've been addressing during the course of the week. They will be longer more formal conversations in contrast to my Friday chats with different artists.
What's the focus of the education program, ATCteen?
One of the main things that we do is to be part of arts education in the schools. We have done residencies or invited students to attend performances and to meet the artists afterwards. Now, we all know that arts education has been ripped out and won't be back in the schools probably in our lifetime. Despite this, and just because we're not performing, we would hate for all of the opportunities we've created to end. God know that everybody that has kids are suddenly searching online for learning opportunities. So, we said, great, here's something we can do to fill the gap: We're teaching classes online; we're doing q&as on online; we're trying to make sure that all the great programs we offer are available. I mean, we're the State Theatre! So, for us to be able to say that anybody in the State or around the country can watch these for free, that helps us fulfill our mission and do so in a more inclusive way than we were able to do before.
[The ATCteen online schedule for students 13-19 years of age includes:
- Weekly classes every Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. on topics including playwriting, acting, dance, production, design and more;
- Playreader's Club every other week for students to choose a play to read with discussions. Playwrights may be involved on a regular basis;
- Private Coaching for students by professionals in a range of specialties;
- Improv Troupe for the ATCteen Improv to continue exploring and creating performances;
- Radio Drama Project for students to write, record and produce; and
- #ATC Create Anyway & Creative Challenges for students across the world to join in by creating and posting their own projects using the hashtag and offering creative challenges for students to think outside the box.]
Let's talk about your rooms, ATC's platform for delivering general content.
We have four different rooms tailored to people's interests, whether they want learning or a backstage feel. We understand that people are in different places and so we're providing different options from short to deep dives ~ in effect, different ways for people to connect with us in various forms.
What's great is that when I got here, we were not good at Facebook posting, and now we have this robust digital team pushing us forward. It's a necessary step for us as an organization to move forward. And it's am important step for the future of theatre.
[The ATC Digital Green Room where artists and friends hangout and talk, where you can find and start conversations among artists, staff, and stakeholders in ATC. This is a space where we check in with local and national theater makers to see what is on their minds, both artistically and personally in this time of creative evolution.
The ATC Digital Rehearsal Room where we dive deeper and explore plays, musicals, and topics that affect our communities; a place where we look at issues and productions from many angles and curate a conversation around them.
The ATC Digital Blackbox Room where readings, online workshops of plays and musicals live.
The ATC Digital Classroom for educational, creative and informative content for all ages featuring directors, designers, playwrights, actors, technicians and producers.
Each "room" will be available on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and ATC's own podcast and radio station, which is being developed. Video and podcast episodes will be released every Sunday. Daily content and updates will be found on Instagram and Facebook. Schedules and details can be found at www.arizonatheatre.org.]
Sean, thank you for your leadership and for taking the time to share your vision and the work of Arizona Theatre Company. Best wishes for continued success during these challenging times.
Thank you, Herb.
Photo credit to Arizona Theatre Company