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Arena Stage welcomes first black artistic director

The District’s Arena Stage welcomes its first African-American artistic director, Hana S. Sharif, this fall.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley Welcomes Arena Stage’s New Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif (Part 1)

Artistic Director Molly Smith retired this summer after a prolific 25-year career in the nation’s capital.

Now, Arena Stage welcomes its first-ever African-American artistic director starting this fall.

“Following in the footsteps of the iconic Zelda Fichandler and the visionary Molly Smith, it’s such a joy to be Artistic Director here at Arena Stage and something that in some ways is coming through,” said Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif at WTOP. “I remember when I was 19, I said and wrote that one day I would be artistic director of Arena Stage, so it feels like a gift to be able to lead this company into the next phase of its life. »

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Sharif grew up primarily in Houston, Texas, discovering theater at a young age.

“My mother said I was a bit of a dramatic child, so very early on she put me into theater,” Sharif said. “I started writing plays at a very young age. I produced and directed my first play when I was 17. We called it “Black Butterfly,” this combination of poetry, movement, and monologues that I wrote for my high school. … It was really this transformative, catalytic moment in my life. …It exploded my idea of ​​what could be possible career-wise.

During her sophomore year at Spelman College, she started her own production company, Nasir Productions.

“The chair of our theater department, who was really a founding figure…left at the end of our first year,” Sharif said. “Several of us were on the floor in my apartment, talking about all the work we wanted to do and just decided we could go get it, that we could create our own work, that we could learn by doing. . Over pizza, soda, and a few people with beer, we sketched out a mission statement and headed out.

She continued to hone her theatrical talent while attending graduate school at the University of Houston, which allowed her to care for her mother, who had by then been diagnosed with cancer.

“I said I was going to steal the master’s tools, I was going to learn what made the country’s biggest theaters successful, and then bring that learning back to my scrappy little theater,” Sharif said. “It (just) happens that in my graduate program…I was mentored in playwriting by Edward Albee, I was mentored in directing by Sir Peter Hall, I wrote new musicals with Stuart Ostrow, just these incredible, truly historic figures in the field. .”

After college, she went to work at Hartford Stage in Connecticut for nearly a decade.

“I got in the car with my old college roommate, who was starting graduate school in New York, and we drove across the country on this huge adventure for the rest of our lives,” Sharif said. “I came to meet the associate artistic director, Christopher Baker. It was supposed to last 30 minutes and we spent three and a half hours together. I really loved the conversation. We had a similar passion for art, we struggled a lot with ideas, and I felt really alive.

After giving birth to her first child, Sharif moved to Boston where her husband got a job as a consultant.

“On my second week in Boston, I got a call from a colleague who worked at Arena, David Dower (and) was at ArtsEmerson in Boston and said, ‘A little bird told me that you was in town and you didn’t work for an institution,’ I said, ‘That’s right,’ so he offered me a job and I refused, but he said, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ …At the end of lunch, they said, “Great, you have the job,” and I was like, “What job?” …I worked at ArtsEmerson for two years.

She went to Center Stage in Baltimore where she spent five years.

“My phone started ringing,” Sharif said. “One of the people was Kwame Kwei-Armah, who was the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage at the time. … He was looking for an associate artistic director and the director of a project called The Fourth Space, this connecting space between art, technology and digital theater. … I remember calling Kwame and saying, ‘OK, I’ll come over, I want to work for you, but I don’t want one of the jobs, I want both.’

In 2018, she joined the Repertory Theater of St. Louis as the first Black woman to direct a major regional theater.

“St. Louis had very similar demographics to Baltimore and St. Louis also had very similar challenges as a city, so I thought I could continue this work and I could make a significant impact across regional theater in the city of St. Louis, so that’s why I really wanted to become an artistic director there,” Sharif said. “I will say it was one of the great honors of my life to serving as artistic director during my five years in Saint-Louis.”

When she heard Molly Smith was retiring from Arena Stage, it was a no-brainer.

“There was no way I couldn’t throw my hat in the ring,” Sharif said. “First, Molly has truly been a visionary leader for 25 years. She has been at the forefront of the field. As a woman just starting out in the field, she has truly been an inspiration to myself and so many other artistic directors. …It was like the universe was calling. For me, there was something almost spiritual about this opportunity. … I feel very lucky and excited about the future.

She remains honored to make history as Arena Stage’s first Black artistic director.

“It’s bittersweet because every time I break a glass ceiling, I recognize that I come as one but there are 10,000,” Sharif said. “I understand that I am here only because of all the black women before me who have pushed open these doors and pushed against this ceiling. …It is an honor and a responsibility to be the body, the vessel that carries the hopes and dreams of all those who have blazed the trail before me and those who follow me.

Learn more about the Arena Stage here.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley Welcomes Arena Stage’s New Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

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