Folger Theatre’s new artistic director and director of programming lands in the District this October with a renewed sense of focus on accessibility and community in our performing arts landscape.
Karen Ann Daniels sees possibility in D.C. When the Folger Theatre tapped her as its new artistic director and director of programming this summer, the San Diego native was ready.
“I’m hyper focused on community and activating the resources of major institutions,” she says. “D.C. felt like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this. This is going to be a really amazing thing, especially with an institution like the Folger.’ There’s a lot of connectivity and healing that comes from doing this work.”
Daniels steps into her new role on October 1 after several years as director of Public Theater’s Mobile Unit in New York and prior to that, six years as associate director of arts engagement at Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The actor, director, playwright and musician has built a reputation for promoting accessibility within the arts and connecting underserved communities to the theaters she’s worked for.
At Mobile Unit, she created the Hip-Hop vs. Shakespeare program for New York City’s correctional centers, and at Old Globe, she was responsible for implementing the Globe for All, coLAB, Community Voices and Reflecting Shakespeare programs. In all cases, her primary goal was to create universal opportunities for community members to experience the arts.
Her move to the nation’s capital seemed like a natural evolution at this stage in her career because she views Folger as a place that wants to grow. The cultural institution’s hybrid role as both a theater and independent research library uniquely positions it — and Daniels — to build connections within the D.C. community.
“What separates the Folger from the rest of the theatre industry is that it can slow its pace just a hair to examine why we do what we do, how we’re doing it and how we can be intentional about making small shifts. A series of small shifts [allows us] to become a little bit more dynamic [and] relatable. Then overall, [we can] start inviting more and more people into the storytelling and inform that storytelling by where we are and who we actually serve.”
As Folger Shakespeare Library’s director of programming and Folger Theatre’s artistic director, respectively, Daniels is splitting her focus between two distinct channels of cultural connectivity. She’s eager to roll up her sleeves and get to work, which means letting new information soak in and listening very closely.
“In my work, my practice is deep listening,” she says. “That’s what I spend most of my time doing before I start making choices. Initially, it’s going to be very much about gathering knowledge and understanding and creating relationships.”
Relationship building within her team and the community at large is crucial, but so is getting to know her peers at other institutions. She says the presence of fellow artistic directors like Maria Manuela Goyanes of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Stephanie Ybarra of Baltimore Center Stage makes her new role that much more exciting. It’s this forward momentum and tangible energy shared among leaders in local theatre that helps motivate Daniels. She also wants to support the up-and-coming spaces that can benefit from the support of more well-established theaters.
“I would love to look at smaller arts organizations and figure out, ‘Can we do things that are feeding back into the artistic ecosystem, and vice versa?’ So that [way], there’s a little bit more of enhancing our entire artistic community versus just making headway for ourselves. I’m all relationship-based. We want to set up these relationships so that it is a give and take, and there’s a back and forth [and] a trust we can continue to enhance and build. That can only happen in collaboration as a field.”
Daniels uses Anacostia Playhouse as an example, and it’s clear she’s done her homework and knows who some of the key players — both big and small — are in D.C.’s theatre world. She’s just as quick to say she would rely on the Anacostia Playhouses of the area to help in Folger’s growth and connectivity, reinforcing the value of bringing a larger institution’s works and presence out into the community at a more intimate space.
Some might find it stressful to start a new position for an institution currently undergoing major renovations, but Daniels is here for it. While Folger has a myriad of virtual readings, talks and screenings this fall and winter, its first physical production since Covid will be next July and August at the National Building Museum in the form of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In the meantime, the Folger will continue to transform itself, adding new public spaces for maximum community engagement.
“Any time an institution has to press pause, there’s an immense opportunity to meet people where they are,” she says. “That is the number one goal at this time leading into producing again [and] reopening the building. It is about going back into the community and reintroducing ourselves — letting people know who we are, what we do [and] what’s here for them.”
She says this is a great opportunity to throw out old protocols, build new partnerships and “break it down to something introducible and palatable, and help people know we’re here and we’re here for them.”
Daniels is particularly amped to activate National Building Museum next year for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The self-described huge museum nerd can’t wait to provide locals with this immersive experience in a new setting. She’s also looking forward to the outdoor presence of Folger’s new garden, immediately drawing on her SoCal roots with visions of mariachi bands performing and families exploring the space.
“How do we make this place alive during the day? The theater is a very important piece of it, but we have this other mandate to activate and make these resources as accessible as possible. That’s the heart of a work in a theater, the heart of a work in a gallery. All of that work is about accessibility and [being] holistic in how we’re thinking about what we’re doing, so they [relate] to each other and aren’t working in isolation.”
She takes a different approach to the idea of accessibility. From where she’s standing, she doesn’t see a lack of theatre, music or dance in other communities. Folger, or whichever institution she’s at the helm of, isn’t bringing anything to folks they don’t already know or understand. Instead, she’s welcoming folks into the theatre community she’s building and making it an experience they want to have.
“It’s really important to understand what people actually need from us and then we can start to build that on-ramp to diversify who we reach and how we reach them,” she says. “We have control over how welcoming, inclusive [and] representational our work is by the choices we make day-to-day. It is about us saying, ‘You’re welcome here, and here’s the evidence.’ It [challenges] the thinking institutions must do in order to continue meeting all of our constituents in some way, shape or form.”
While the bulk of her time will be spent settling into her new digs in the District and absorbing the city’s theatre landscape, Daniels hopes to also work on her original musical “The Ruby in Us.” Her 2019 play tells the story of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate a white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. She worked in collaboration with a senior center in San Diego County, speaking with many of Bridges’ peers about the ripple effects of her actions.
“A lot of the community voices in the musical are their stories about how segregation and integration impacted their lives,” she says.
She hopes to bring the musical to D.C. at some point, and to “get it on its feet in a different way.” In the meantime, exploring the city’s cultural institutions (she’s particularly excited to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture) and ample green spaces after several years in the concrete jungle of New York are high on her list. But mostly, she’s just looking forward to the next chapter.
“I’m just ready to figure out what life is in D.C.”
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