The American Theatre 2020 Survival Strategy – Part 6 – Rep Theatre of St. Louis

Hana Sharif On Theater: Our Work Is Essential

The Artistic Director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Stays the Course In Troubled Times

Interview by Michael Raver

In August, Missouri reported its highest number of COVID-19 fatalities since June. However, hospitalizations in Missouri have trended downward in the last few days. Health officials are bracing for an influx of new cases as school has resumed. And, of course, there was the anticipation of Labor Day weekend celebrations resulting in a bevy of infections.

“We won’t know what the impacts of the weekend are until another couple of weeks,” said Amy Westbrook, the St. Louis County public health division director, in an interview with ABC News.

The arts are, as they have been since the pandemic first hit stateside, at a standstill. Well, sort of. Hana Sharif, the Artistic Director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, has, along with a dedicated staff, managed to keep the company alive. For her inaugural year as AD, the road has had bumps and disappointments aplenty; yet through it all, Sharif’s optimism has remained intact.

She’s been busy. Some of the intended 2020 season was shifted online. Bekah Brunstetter’s play The Cake, which had opened to positive reviews, was cancelled the day after its St. Louis debut. However, the piece was made available for digital viewing for The Rep’s patrons. Their new play initiative was expanded to include The Play At Home Project, a ‘series of micro-commissioned short plays from some of the American theatre’s most exciting and prominent playwrights.’ Partnering with Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, The Public Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, these ten-minute pieces signify that the American Theater still has a pulse.

Hana Sharif, Artistic Director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

How has the pandemic affected your theater?

Hana Sharif: Like so many of our colleagues around the world, the pandemic has shuttered our doors for traditional live performances.  In March we canceled our final two productions as the dangers of the COVID19 swept across the country.  We canceled our production of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake the day after opening and canceled the World Premiere of Soma Kakoma’s beautiful new musical, Dreaming Zenzile, on the afternoon we were moving onstage for tech.  It was devastating to close our doors before our audience had an opportunity to fully experience the brilliance of the artists involved in both productions.

How have you kept your sanity? What are you doing to stay creative?

HS: That’s such a good question! I have been incredibly invested in leading my theater through the challenges of this moment. There has been very little down time as we have navigated pivots in funding, programming, scenario planning, and dreaming of the future for our community and the field at large.  I find great inspiration from the amazing ways artists, despite great challenges, have found to share their gifts and elevate our collective humanity – especially during the physical isolation of social distancing.  Stepping outside and hearing an artist giving a rooftop concert, or watching an artist dance in the street or share poetry on Zoom.  It has been such a profound reminder of how essential our work really is in the world.

Has The Rep produced any virtual content since the shutdown? 

HS: The Rep fully embraced the opportunity to connect and share art in our community virtually.  With a spirit of resilience, adaptation, and invitation, we collaborated with four other theaters to launch the Play At Home project, a series of short plays commissioned specifically for this moment of unprecedented isolation to inspire joy and connection for all. We were able to offer our patrons an opportunity to view The Cake digitally, and have shared a wide range of productions, artistic innovations, and a spectrum of education/ engagement resources for families.  

As we move into the 20-21 season, we have an exciting slate of virtual, site specific, and creative placemaking programming lined up for the fall and winter before we reopen our main stage for public performances in the spring.  I am excited about the innovative and unprecedented ideas the Rep Team is prototyping this season as we push the boundaries on how we produce and democratize access to the art.

What is your advice for staying creative during this era?

HS: This is an incredible moment for reflection, realignment, and reinvention. This is a moment to give yourself permission to pick up that pen and begin to tell the story that has been brimming inside for years. There are no limits to the act of creating and with buildings shuttered and curtains closed, something as simple as the phone in your pocket has the ability to connect your voice to the rest of world.

The stakes of this moment in time for our humanity have never been higher.  We turn to story, to song, to dance to help us process and make sense of a world turned upside down. So, I suppose my advice is to be fearless and to remember there are no barriers right now to sharing the creativity bubbling inside. If one single person connects, is healed, is inspired, or feels seen because of what you have created – then it is more than enough. The world is waiting for your voice.

Have you had to lay off any employees?

HS: Immediately following the shutdown of productions this spring, we made the decision to pay out all of our artist and seasonal staff contracts. In the face of the uncertainty of the future, it felt critical to honor our commitments to the artists, artisans, and crews that we contracted.  We felt the burden of the crisis should not be shouldered by the individual arts worker alone.  As the reality of the depth and breadth of this crisis became clearer over time, we have pivoted our focus to prioritize the long-term sustainability of our theater and crafted plans to maximize the long-term employment of our teams.  That has meant shared short-term sacrifice across the company, including a furlough for the entire organization and delaying the start of seasonal contracts until we are back in production for the 20-21 season.  The care of duty to our employees is unquestionably the thing that has caused the most sleepless nights for me, and so many of my colleagues in executive leadership.  Our theaters are fundamentally great because of the talent, dedication, and passion of the people that work in them.  There is no Repertory Theatre of St. Louis without the staff and artists.  My commitment is to leverage everything I can make sure there is an opportunity to reopen our doors and welcome our Rep Family home.

How do you think the current socio-political environment will reflect on the theatrical community when things do eventually reopen?

HS: Art has to be responsive to the world it serves.  There is no way to divorce the art from the realities of a nation struggling with a global viral and social justice pandemic.  The question we are exploring is how can the art we create help cultivate a safe environment for important communal discourse and connection.  How can our theaters be central to the reconciliation and healing of our communities? How can our institutions be meaningful and relevant to lives of the people we are charged to serve? How do we ensure the art rises to meet our communities as the moment requires? The future of our field depends on us being able to answer these questions in action and practice.  

Is there anything in particular that you’d like your audience to know at this time?

HS: We miss sharing space with you. We miss the collective breath as the lights onstage rise for the first time.  We yearn for the intangible magic of live theater and we can’t wait to welcome you back home to The Rep. We are pushing the boundaries of the art form to create for you and with you.  Thank you for your commitment, love, investment, and faith in our work.

Is there anything about our industry that you’d like to see change when we’re all able to get back to work?

HS: The deep inequities of our industry must be addressed.  The structural racism, bigotry, and toxicity of our industry practices are being brought fully into the light and must be reckoned with.  The future is now. 

For more information about The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, visit http://www.repstl.org/

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