Anita Shah begins her new role as managing director at ACT Theatre this month, and she has a lot of work to do. The theatre put on its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” but its true relaunch begins with a truncated season, taking on plays that were in the works before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
She comes to Seattle from New York and Boston, where she began as a technician, moving into production and leadership roles. Shah helped open Rose Theater at the Lincoln Center, worked on Broadway and spent four years with the parent corporation of the Blue Man Group, among others.
In a conversation with Real Change, Shah was open about the challenges and opportunities faced by ACT and other arts organizations struggling with a lack of diversity in cast, content and leadership. She didn’t shy away from issues of equity and how to make theater a welcoming place for diverse communities.
She did not want to touch the question of Boston versus New York cuisine, however.
“I’m going to stick our conversation to the arts,” Shah said. “We’re going to stay away from the controversial food topics.”
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: Can you tell me just a little bit about your background?
Anita Shah: Yeah. Sure. I was one of those kids who just loved art, music and especially concerts, and it just sort of was the original doorway that opened for me into the art scene. And I loved going to see concerts, and I loved the lighting. I loved all the production value. And really that sort of started me on my trajectory as a young kid kind of doing all the things that young kids do, whether it’s doing the play at school or whatever, as a technician. And I went on to study technical theater and production management at college in Boston.
And that’s really where my career began.
That is a pretty wide field of work, Good Morning America to Blue Man Group.
Yeah. And like I said, my career has been nontraditional in the sense that I just knew that I wanted to do a lot of different things, and I always was interested in more. So, every time I had an opportunity to do more or learn more, I took it, and then that would take me along different paths. And I was just ever curious and still remain so.
It’s a pretty big shift from New York to Seattle. What made you want to make that jump?
Like so many folks during this pandemic — 12 million alone just in our industry, but certainly millions more across the country — the pandemic brought a lot of change to our family. And the biggest thing it did is it gave us a moment to sort of stop and think about what we wanted for our lives and for our family. And ultimately, the move to Seattle was driven by a combination of being able to be near some family and also the opportunities that we thought would be possible.
So, tell me about the managing director position. What are you going to be taking on and what are you most excited about?
Well, one of the things that most excited me [were] my conversations with the board, with my colleague [ACT Theatre Artistic Director] John Langs and the various other folks I met during the interview process. What ACT has been doing in this moment of time, and obviously this has been an incredibly challenging time, across the board. Staff have been let go, and again, this is not unique to our industry either. It’s very challenging times. But what really heartened me was that ACT didn’t just say, okay, well, we’re just going to sort of sit here until the moment comes or we can get back to same old, same old.
They stopped and said, okay, well, we need to work on ourselves, and they have really started a beautiful exploration of what it means to be theater makers. What does it mean to be an organization? What does it mean to be representative of our community and of the makers within our organization? And the work that they started and the earnestness and the sincerity with which they spoke about the journey they want to take as an organization is really what drew me to this role in this organization, because I think that for all arts organizations that are lucky enough to make it out of this pandemic — and there are so many that have not and will not — for those of us who are in the very, very lucky position to make it out, we have a responsibility, absolutely, to look at who we are, what we should be doing, how we represent the work we make, the environment in which we make it and really ask ourselves some hard questions.
Can I ask you just to be a little bit more specific about what kind of conversations those are?
Really, the largest part of this conversation [is that] ACT has traditionally been a very white-led organization, and it’s something as an organization they acknowledge fully. But there’s multiple factors that go into that. And those include access, that includes sort of a pipeline, there’s sort of inherent biases about trust and all of these things are things that need to be examined, and they need to be upended and we need to be willing to look at ourselves first and foremost.
[T]here needs to be multiple ways in which we come at things, and there can be programs that organizations and institutions put in place, but we also have to carry responsibility as individuals and how we function within the organization. What is it that we bring to an organization when we go to make decisions, whether it’s hiring, whether it’s promoting, whether it’s what play do we present? How are we arriving at those determinations? Are we being helpful? Are we being representative of our community and really asking ourselves these hard questions?
And one of the beautiful things that ACT has done is really involved our core companies, which are artist-led, and really involved them in the curation process. And I think it’s revolutionary, in some ways. Most organizations are very top down, and an artistic director is going to make a decision, and that’s the end of it. And John is beautiful in his approach towards inclusion and really getting all of our artists together and talking about how and what we are going to do going forward.
What can [audiences] look forward to in terms of how that manifests on the stage?
Well, obviously this is a truncated season, at best, and we just had our opening night last night, in fact, for “A Christmas Carol,” which is obviously a Seattle tradition that is deeply beloved. And we have a shorter season coming to the stage in the winter and spring of three pieces. And there’s a lot of diversity that you will see within those stories. And our first one, “Hotter than Egypt,” is actually a welcome here from one of our core company artists. It’s really exciting to be able to be in a position to bring that to life.
I feel like people are really ready to come back to art here.
One of the things that I hope that we have realized as a society is how important the arts are to us. They were abruptly taken away and they’ve been gone for a long time. And I think you’re right. People are hungry because it is a need, right? It’s actually a need. It’s not just a frivolous thing. We need to come together as a community. We need to connect. We need to tell stories, we need to share music, and this is an integral part of who we are as humans.
And I think what I can hope is that individuals, certainly, but hopefully even our governments, in terms of where funding is put and priorities are set, really saw how important these things are to our society’s overall health and really will keep focus in these areas going forward.
Is there any work or anything on the horizon ... to help people use art to process what has been happening over the past two years? Does ACT feel like it has a role there to play?
We do. And it’s a great question and an interesting one and I think one that we are starting to formulate answers to. I think it’s something that we’re going to be putting a lot of energy towards. And there are some things in our upcoming season that we are planning for, that, I think, will really speak to that, because processing is a huge part of any experience we have. And that’s one of the wonderful things that art has always done for us as a society — has helped us process, helped us understand, revisit, reflect.
And again, our goal is never going to be to present answers. It’s going to be to present questions and to provide a forum, conversation and dialogue and introspection and be partners with our audience in asking these questions. So we have some things that we are looking at in the next season that I think will speak to this, and it’s an ongoing conversation for us as well to talk about how to best do that. I think we do feel a responsibility that we need to be a part of that conversation and a part of that healing for our community.
One part that you’ve mentioned there is access. And I imagine that’s access to getting into theater, to moving in as a child or at a young age or to even getting to attend the theater. How do you hope to get that kind of access to people who are low income, people who feel alienated by white, “traditional” theater? What kind of steps do you take to make that happen?
So that’s one of the things we’re looking at. It’s funny. I’m the daughter of immigrants. And so my parents were never going to spend money on the theater, right? That’s just not the mindset they came from. I grew up right outside of New York City and our public school system, we would have field trips, like I saw an opera at the [Metropolitan Opera] in the 7th grade as part of a field trip. I guess I’m biased in a way in that because that’s how I grew up.
And so I think that at ACT, we’re going to be looking [at] how can we not only bring previously underserved audiences into our theater, but how can we get out of our theater and get to those audiences, whether that’s in schools or in communities. This is a big part of the work that we wish to undertake in the coming weeks and months and years, and really develop education and engagement programs that do just this, provide access, provide opportunity and let people know that art is for everyone.
I believe deeply that art is for everyone.
Is there a difference between the type of plays or productions that you like working on — the lights and the hands-on aspect — versus watching as a consumer?
I find it impossible to just be a consumer, even if that’s the role I’m playing. Any performance, it’s hard to separate my work-self and my work-brain from anything I’m experiencing. But I would say the through line — whether it’s something I have had no participation in, I’m just experiencing as an end user, or something I’ve worked on at any stage of my career — even now, the thing that resonates the deepest with me is when people take a chance, and that can be so many different things. That can be taking a chance in your subject matter.
It can be taking a chance in how you present something. It can be taking a chance at just the format or the physical setup of the space. But I love the trying, and I’m actually less bothered by a failure of it. I’m invigorated by the trying, by the reaching, by the exploration of what it means.
Coming back onto the scene right now, as in-person is starting, do you have any concerns [about the coronavirus]? What does that feel like for you kind of entering back into that?
It’s funny. So, I was actually in the offices yesterday, and there was just this jittery excitement about the fact that there was going to be an audience coming into the building. And it was funny because I was thinking if you rewound the clock two years, it wouldn’t feel as jittery or as exciting because it was just what you did every day. So, it was really wonderful energy to be around yesterday, because again, as we spoke about, it drives home how important these things are for all of us.
Of course, our number one focus in everything we do coming up is going to be safety. Of course, we’re going to follow all the precautions and guidelines. This is twofold. We are a public organization that opens its doors to the public. So, we want to keep our public feeling safe. But we also are an employer. We’re an organization that wants to make sure our staff is feeling safe. And then we go from there.
But it’s exciting. It’s so thrilling. Stages aren’t meant to be empty for this long. It’s just not natural. And so, we’re so excited to have that energy and have the audience come back, and they’re excited, too. And it’s palpable. You can just feel it.
Read more of the Jan. 5-11, 2022 issue.