The Rep’s New Artistic Director on Her St. Louis Directorial Debut and the Larger Mission of Theater

 In Interviews, Sponsored

The new artistic director of the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Hana S. Sharif, will have her local directorial debut in December with the launch of “Pride and Prejudice.” She comes to the world-class theater in Webster Groves from Baltimore Center Stage, where she also directed a stage adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel.

Guided: St. Louis caught up with Sharif to discuss the play and how the theater is working to increase accessibility to the arts within the St. Louis region.

Guided: You’ve chosen “Pride and Prejudice” to be your directorial debut at The Rep. Why did you select this play?

It’s not a secret that I’m a huge Austenite. When I was 11 or 12, the first book I read was “Sense and Sensibility,” and I was swept away by the beauty. There’s something that feels universally compelling about Jane Austen’s stories. They teach you to believe in the possibilities of our lives.

Guided: Are there any themes in “Pride and Prejudice” that you think are particularly relevant to St. Louis?

The story literally encapsulates the title. The different characters show how pride makes you telescope in and obstructs you from seeing the whole picture. Pride becomes on obstacle. First impressions are not the whole picture. There’s a prejudice when Lizzy meets Darcy and it takes them two hours to realize that they are exactly what they are looking for in the other person.

Each person in the theater’s lens will determine their perception of the story. No two people will see exactly the same thing. Hopefully the play challenges us to put down the lens we normally use and think about a different perspective. When you are able to break through the myopic nature of your lens, you are able to see a situation from a different perspective.

Guided: Radical access to the arts is important to you. How do you plan to draw a wide-ranging audience to the Repertory Theater?

This is an evolving question that we are always talking about, and we view it as a metric of success. We launched a block party already that had a wide invitation list. All of the shows have partnerships with other institutions. It’s these partnerships that bring young people from every ethnicity to the theater.

We’re having a lot of conversations about what makes us relevant in this city. We want everyone to feel at home, so we’re thinking about how to create events that target many different people. We want there to be something happening that everyone will find relevant. We’re doing strategic work to think about how we serve the community. Putting on beautiful plays is only one part of the work we do.

Guided: You’ve had a long history working in the arts. How did you come to be interested in the field?

I’ve always loved theater and was always passionate about art. I was a writer very young. My parents put me in theater in elementary school. I loved telling stories. I directed my first play when I was 17 and started my first theater company at 19. When I went to college, my plan was to go to law school—and instead I pursued a life of art. Both are a service to humanity. The first play I remember seeing was “Porgy and Bess.” I have clear memories of the costumes and singing. I was swept away by it. Theatrical experience is transformative. It revolutionizes your life. The more I experienced great art, the more I wanted to be part of it.

Guided: There’s a leadership shift taking place within regional theater. Can you discuss your role in that change?

American regional theater began about 60 years ago. We’re in the midst of a leadership transition that’s unprecedented. It’s a generational shift. There are real structural issues within the field that are this next generation’s to tackle. There’s reinvention taking place across the country, and I’m excited to be part of it.

My colleagues and I are often on phone with each other to share ideas. In some ways there’s a spirit that we have a collective responsibility, not just to the city but to each other and the field. Sharing great ideas elevates everyone.

Guided: What do you see as some of the obstacles you have to face in your position?

Across the country, we’re all finding that we have a passionate but aging audience. … How do we make sure the theater is sustainable? It comes down to being relevant and accessible. Is the same art that’s appealing to our core patron appealing to a 30-year-old CEO of a startup? Are they interested in exactly the same art? The next generation is really interested in experiences, so we’re thinking about how to make the theater more experiential. It’s our responsibility to use the resources we have to serve and impact the largest portion of our community.

Featured image courtesy of Cheshire Isaacs.

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