By Bridgette Redman
Sean Daniels has a message for every kid who walks through the doors of the Arizona Theatre Company: They, too, could someday be an artistic director.
Daniels is living proof. He was recently tapped as the artistic director for the 52-year-old theater company, which performs in Tucson and Phoenix. His first theater experience was thanks to the ATC. His parents were season ticket holders until they moved from Mesa to Florida when he was 14. He says he took every theater class ATC had and was in a production of “Winnie the Pooh” there.
“There was no bigger dream of mine than to have a life in the theater,” Daniels says.
“It never occurred to me that I’d be able to work in, much less run, the place. I want every kid who walks in to know that is 100 percent a possibility for them.”
From those beginnings, Daniels has had a successful career in theater. He co-founded Dad’s Garage in Atlanta after graduating from Florida State School of Theater in 1995. It is now an award-winning theater company that boasts an annual audience of 30,000.
After that, he was associate artistic director/resident director at San Francisco’s California Shakespeare Theater associate artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville; and the artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts.
The American Theatre Magazine named Daniels one of the top 15 up and coming artists in the United States whose work will transform America’s stages “for decades to come.” It also says he’s “one of seven people reshaping and revitalizing the American musical.”
And now he’s coming back to Arizona, the birthplace of his theater dreams.
“My family loved theater,” Daniels says. “I didn’t realize until later in life that not every family subscribed to every theater in town.”
He says that while his family would go to New York a few times a year to see theater, it was the quality of work happening in his home town that was really exciting to him, quality he wants to see continued.
“I want (ATC) to be a local theater that the world pays attention to,” Daniels says. “I want it to be the place where work is happening that the rest of the industry is paying attention to.”
How does one do that? It starts with the “local” part of the theater. When Daniels knew he was returning to Arizona, he researched plays that took place in the state and found a dearth of them.
“When I got the job, I thought, ‘Let me Google the great plays about Arizona heroes and we’ll do one of those,” Daniels says. “I didn’t find any. We’re commissioning shows and doing shows, but not telling stories about our own state and how it made our country what it is today.”
That’s something he wants to change. He wants to avoid the danger of doing theater that is only relevant on the coasts.
“A lot of theater over the past 20 years have become a bit of an Ivory Tower,” Daniels says. “It is a lot of artists from New York and you get it or you’re stupid. I’m not interested in that.”
Rather, he says, he is focused on the belief that all theater is local. He wants to develop programs that help the community understand why ATC does what it does, what it costs and what the barriers are—real or perceived—to people attending theater.
One program he plans to launch is something he’s developed elsewhere—the Cohort Club. It gives 20 community members access to all rehearsals and production meetings. Those members learn more about how the organization works on the inside so that they can become advocates for it on the outside.
“By the time you get through five years, you have a hundred people who can talk fluently about what you do, why you make the choices you make, and why things cost what they cost,” he says.
While Daniels has directed shows around the world and created new works, he says what he is best known for in his past two jobs is bringing radical transparency to an organization and engaging artistically with the community.
“Being an artistic director is often not the most glamorous job,” Daniels says. “It was once explained to me that you are running for office, but you never get elected. If it’s going to be a tough job, it needs to be a labor of love and it needs to be a community you feel passionate about.”
Arizona is a place he can be passionate about.
“I really believe Arizona deserves a world-class theater and we can be a leader,” he says.
Daniels expressed the importance of ATC’s arts education and says no other organization can make a donor’s dollar go further. He acknowledges that arts education has been ripped out of schools and it isn’t coming back.
“If we’re not doing it, it’s not happening,” he says. “It’s easy to go out and ask people to fund it because that is for the betterment of the community that we all live in.”
Daniels plans to take a hard look at the programming. He wants to make sure shows engage with communities they haven’t traditionally reached, and the community’s diversity is reflected on stage.
“A lot of programming is for older, white audiences,” Daniels says. “Without displacing those groups, we need to look to other groups and say that this is your theater too—from race to economic status to age—to say there is room for you here. Maybe it won’t be that all six shows are for you, that’s cool. But here is one.”
To do so, he’ll involve the entire staff, board members and community members in the season planning. He wants to open all the doors so people can see how theater is made and to learn how it all comes together.
Reaching out to diverse groups isn’t just the right thing to do, he says, it is also smart stewardship.
“If ATC is going to exist in 40 years, it has to better reflect the community it exists in,” he says.
He also points out that each city has its own personality and he wants to focus on really getting Phoenix to own the theater the same way Tucson does. He and his wife will be living in Phoenix and he’s going to bring in someone focused on audience engagement.
“Tucson owns that theater and that’s great,” he says. “We want Phoenix to feel just as excited about the work and that it is theirs, and not just something that comes in from another city.”
Meanwhile, Daniels is looking forward to walking back through the doors of the theater that was so important to him in his youth.
“It is a chance to help to grow an organization that has meant so much to me, that has positively affected my life,” Daniels says. “To give back to that—that is the main thing I’m grateful for.”
For information about Arizona Theatre Company shows, visit arizonatheatre.org.