Dad’s Garage might seem an unlikely name for a theatre company, until one of its cofounders is revealed to be director Sean Daniels, who, at the time of its inception, was 22 years old, flying by the seat of his pants and holding fast to fraying purse strings. That was nearly 20 years ago. The money never ran out, and the show still goes on.
An accomplished director and creator of new works, Daniels was recently appointed Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s (MRT) new artistic director. Named by American Theatre magazine as “one of the top 15 up-and-coming artists in the United States, whose work will be transforming America’s stages for decades to come,” Daniels brings to MRT’s stage a trove of ideas, a cache of connections, and an enthusiasm impossible to contain.
His most recent credits include a stint as artist-at-large at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York; four years as associate artistic director at the Tony Award-winning Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he directed 17 productions including five Humana Festivals; and time as associate artistic director and resident director of the California Shakespeare Theater, where he was in charge of all the young audience programs (while there, he quadrupled the number of young people attending the theatre).
The secret to his success? Excellent audience engagement. “People always want to see themselves on stage,” notes Daniels, who started staging plays written and acted by people in their 20s at Dad’s Garage. At work was his notion that if you want people to come see your shows, you need to speak their language, or teach them yours.
Imperative to Daniels’s objective as a director is this idea of how to engage not just the audience but also the community at large, particularly on behalf of a larger institution like MRT.
While at the Geva Theatre, he conceived and implemented the Co-hort Club—a group of 20 Rochester residents of various ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds who were granted access to the entire creative process. Participants went to rehearsals, saw previews, attended openings, and spoke directly with Daniels, the playwright, and the actors in order to gain a fuller understanding of what’s involved in producing a show.
“Each of those cohort members [acquired] such a fluency in terms of what it takes to make theatre— who does it, the difference between local theatre and a tour, a League of Residential Theatres venue versus a nonprofit…all these things that we say, but they don’t always understand,” explains Daniels.
Inspired by a Chinese proverb that translates to, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand,” Daniels plans to bring the nationally recognized audience engagement programs he developed at Geva to MRT. “I want to figure out a way to really use this place as a community center, where people can get involved and learn more about what the art form is,” he says. “Then, they [will] invest more in it because they can understand it. Education breeds excitement.”
MRT Interiors / Photo by Meghan Moore
As he did at Geva, Daniels will look for 20 to 30 individuals who reflect Lowell’s demographics. In this way, he hopes to engage new community members, in addition to those already attending the theatre. “There are two ways to create audi- ence engagement: One is to attract new people, the other is to deepen your engagement with the people you already have. This is a way to do both.” Opening the doors and of- fering a greater level of transparency will help keep the audience they have and diversify future audiences.
Cohort participants will be asked to write about their experiences and “publish” them in their communities—whether that’s via social media or a church newsletter or through storytelling. “That’s a way for us to get the word out…it markets the theatre in their own language,” notes Daniels, who believes this approach is the difference between friends’ recommendations and mass media messaging. “It’s not just us saying it’s great—someone involved in it is saying so.”
With respect to MRT’s current audience, Daniels shows much admiration. “The thing that is different and a plus about this audience is that [they] are committed to the theatre, not just the names of the shows, which is why I think the theatre is able to do so much contemporary work and take risks in terms of its programming.” It seems most large theatres are forced to do familiar plays in order to keep a full house. According to Daniels, MRT’s audience, though it may look like other audiences, differs in terms of the depth of their dedication to the company.
It’s that commitment that has him feeling hopeful MRT can become one of the great theatres for new play production in the country. “We can start programming plays we think are going to take off and travel to the rest of the world.” Of particular interest to Daniels are comedic works. The entire regional theatre movement “grew up as serious theatre” in order to be taken seriously. Daniels thinks an opportunity has been missed. There are many theatres producing new plays, but, says Daniels, “There are not a lot of joyful new plays being done.” Comedy writers are instantly swept into television. “Getting writers to come back to the theatre to write comedy is something nobody else is doing,” he notes. But it is something MRT will actively look to do when planning future seasons.
In terms of putting together a winning season, variety is key. “Planning a season is a bit like planning a great dinner party,” says Daniels. “You have to figure out who goes with whom—one loud guy is fine, but two loud guys is a disaster.” When lining up shows, Daniels considers what it would mean to watch all the plays and looks for “the conversation” happening between them. “We hear from our audience that they love to be challenged and they also love to have fun. They never want to have a season where it is just one or the other.”
Daniels plans to work, not only with the internationally recognized artists with whom he already has relationships, but with Boston–based artists as well. “It’s very important to me that the [greater] Boston community feels like we are engaging with them, and this is a home for area artists.” Daniels and his colleagues track where the next great artists are coming from and where plays are being produced. “For us to position ourselves as that [place] is an exciting thing for the theatre to do.” His aim is to do work that will have a long life in the American theatre canon. “Some shows should start here,” he says, “and then, in a year or two, everyone will be doing them.”
Gathering people together to see the world through somebody else’s eyes and to experience empathy is also very important to Daniels, who thinks turning off one’s phone and listening to someone’s story for two hours is one of the most radical acts that can happen these days. “I love to be able to be a revolutionary in that [way].”
Daniels is quick to credit former artistic director Charles Tower with having built the theatre into one in which the audience knows the shows will always be good—full of high-level writing and fantastic acting. He also readily recognizes the people of Lowell: “This community has such civic pride around the town and around the theatre,” enthuses Daniels. “By giving them more information and allowing them to run with it, I think we can make big things happen here.”
ABOUT THE THEATRE
MRT has been the only professional theatre in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley since its founding in 1979. The 36-year-old company attracts more than 35,000 audience members each year. Its September through May season of seven productions features primarily contemporary work and frequently regional and world premieres. It has become known for its high production standards and is a centerpiece of the region’s cultural identity.
Director of marketing and public relations Kate Brandt says, “MRT is easily accessible and there’s plenty of parking. You don’t have to drive to Boston to get really high-quality, affordable theatre. We are for people who want to add a lit- tle variety to their theatrical diet, and are looking for something that is more intimate—who want to get a bit adventurous. But it is going to be some- thing familiar, too.” mrt.org