By Christina Chastain
Catalyst Conversations is a new series from the Arts and Education Council featuring food, drink, and casual discussions with creative people, thought leaders, and experts from the St. Louis area.
The Nov. 13 Conversation was “An Artist Discussion” featuring The Rep’s next Artistic Director Hana Sharif, led by YoungLiars co-founder and SIUE Chair of Theater and Dance Chuck Harper.
Sharif, a fiercely independent and passionate playwright, director, and producer, is currently the associate artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage. She will take over The Rep from Steven Woolf, who has held the position for more than 30 years.
“The Rep’s national reputation for extraordinary production values and really interesting artists was the initial appeal in coming to St. Louis,” Sharif said in the Catalyst Conversation. “I felt through the process as I got to know The Rep family that I really found my tribe again. I could also feel and see that the foundation was incredibly strong and what I had done and accomplished in my career was in preparation for what I was supposed to do here.”
And what Sharif has accomplished in her career so far is quite extraordinary.
Sharif’s father was an artist at heart – a filmmaker, photographer, and journalist – who would bring his five children to watch him set up the cameras and conduct interviews of local artists on the public broadcasting network.
“I grew up in a home where my father was always in pursuit of his passion,” Sharif said. “Both my parents were passionate about the arts.”
Sharif’s mother encouraged extra curricular activities, such as writing and theatre, at a young age. It’s there Sharif said she really found herself.
“I found myself trying to understand the world I was in through words and writing and then through performance,” Sharif said.
Sharif directed her first show at just 17-years-old, which had a cast of 67, including the entire basketball team.
“It was one of the defining moments of my young life,” Sharif said. “I created the show for the artists who were there. I brought together the people and started to create from the energies and the talents of the people around me.”
In high school, Sharif found the voices of people of color were not being recognized. There was a lot of tension that had arisen out of the community; so she all but demanded her and her classmates have space on the stage, literally.
“I think they were afraid to say no because I was so clearly passionate and there was so much energy and so much unspoken in the space and in the environment,” Sharif said. “It was a wonderful bonding experience, not just for the students involved in the building of the production, but for the school and the conversations that happened.”
“Coming out the other side, I realized I could orchestrate movements if given access and resources,” Sharif said.
The other side of high school for Sharif was Spelman College in Atlanta, where she studied a double major in English and theatre.
“I would say going to Spelman college was the second best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Sharif said.
Unfortunately, the theatre department had major turnovers while she was there.
“By the time I graduated, there was no professor there my senior year that had been there my freshman year,” Sharif said. “Anyone who has gone through a training program knows that lack of continuity is problematic.”
Being the self-producer Sharif was, she and a group of artists decided to take control of their education sophomore year, because although there was frustration and turmoil within the department, their passion for art was not deterred.
“We got together in my living room and we created a manifesto and a vision for the company, we gave it a name, and we started self-producing, and I was the first artistic director of that company,” Sharif said. “It was the most free I think I’ve ever felt. There were no rules. And we didn’t know any better. We made art because we could.”
After graduating from Spelman, Sharif was offered a production assistant internship at HBO in New York City. Due to the Sept. 11 attacks, HBO decided to enact a hiring freeze. At that same time, Spelman’s mother was diagnosed with APL Lukemia and her sister was still in high school. Sharif decided that instead of a future in New York, going home to Houston would be the logical next step for her.
While taking her mother to the hospital for treatments, Sharif dropped by the University of Houston across the street to see what the theatre scene was like.
“If you really want to know what’s popping in the theater world, go find out where the young people are and what they’re interested in and what they’re engaging with,” Sharif said.
After talking to the head of the theatre department and a chance encounter, Sharif was selected by the brilliant and tough playwright Edward Albee for a semester mentorship at the University of Houston, which opened doors she could only dream about.
When HBO called back to reenact her contract, she declined.
“My entire career, the success of my professional career, all comes back to the decision to move home and be there for my family,” Sharif said.
She received her MFA from the University of Houston and began her professional career in 2003 as an entry-level artists assistant at Hartford Stage. Within seven years, she rose to become associate artistic director and served as the director of new play development.
In 2012, Sharif became the program manager at ArtsEmerson, and in 2014, became the associate artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage.
“I have always been an artist that’s seduced by vision. The people that I’ve come to work for, I have put my blood, sweat, and tears into the pursuit of their vision because there was something about it I thought was compelling to me as a human being and to my focus and belief in what art is supposed to do,” Sharif said. “I believe fundamentally in having a life of passion and service, and the way I serve is through art.”
And Sharif said she is excited to start serving St. Louis.
“This is a moment of extraordinary transition and transformation for the American theater. Many of our largest institutions are going through leadership shifts,” Sharif said. “For The Rep to be going through this transition at the same time as so many other sister theaters are going through this transition, it’s an incredible opportunity for collaboration and shared learning.”
But the first step for Sharif will be getting to know all of St. Louis’ different communities and what they have to offer.
“I want to have community conversations. I want to learn what is the heartbeat beneath the energy of the city. I want to know what art is happening. I want to know how people’s artistic lives are being fulfilled. And it doesn’t have to be through traditional art,” Sharif said. “I want to figure out how we at The Rep can collaborate to deepen impact and engage and support the work that’s already happening in the city and how we can expand our view of the art and our audience’s view of us.”
“What I’m compelled by are these essential questions of our humanity,” Sharif said. “I am always in search of truth. I am always in search of work that opens up some new understanding of my own humanity and the humanity of others.”
Sharif will officially join The Rep as Artistic Director in June 2019.
For more information on the Catalyst Conversation Series, click here. And don’t miss the next Conversation Dec. 4, “Cupcake and Cocktails”, an interactive tasting of food and drink with Stefani Pollack of Cupcake Project, Chef Elizabeth Schuster of Tenacious Eats, and Catherine Neville of Feast.