Hana S. Sharif. Photo by Chesire Isaac. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

By Sheila Wickouski

In April 2023, Arena Stage announced that Hana S. Sharif, a theater veteran with decades of experience at regional theaters including Hartford Stage, Baltimore Center Stage and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, would step in as only the fourth ever artistic director of Arena Stage. 

As Sharif prepares to launch her first season at Arena, she draws on her experience telling a broad range of impactful stories. While leading Hartford Stage, Sharif co-created the Aetna New Voices Fellowship for playwrights of color and launched a training partnership with the University of Hartford’s Hartt School. At the Baltimore Center Stage, she helped guide a multi-million-dollar renovation and cultural transformation that included launching the “Third Space,” a 99-seat theater dedicated to adventurous and thought-provoking art and creating immersive preshow experiences for mainstage audiences.

In her new role at Arena Stage, Sharif succeeds two legendary women who shaped American theater. Arena co-founder Zelda Fichandler was a pioneer of the American regional theater movement and served as producing director of Arena Stage until 1990. Douglas C. Wager followed, leading the organization from 1990 to 1998. Most recently, artistic director Molly Smith capped off a distinguished 25-year tenure at Arena spanning more than 200 productions while driving the design and development of the Mead Center for American Theater.

In timing that aligns with Sharif’s new role, a collection of Zelda Fichandler’s writings on theater is scheduled to be released. In The Long Revolution: Sixty Years on the Frontlines of the American Theater, Fichandler covers topics like The Institution as Art-Work, the Profit in NonProfit, Race and a Deepening Aesthetic, and Creativity and the Public Mind as well as intimate portraits of artists she worked with and director’s notes from her major productions. Sharif first read Fichandler’s essays on theater when she was a student at Spelman College, and declared even then that she would one day be Arena’s director. 


The Southwester spoke with Sharif about how her vision as artistic director ties into that of Fichandler, who has been deemed the defining architect and builder of the most sweeping transformation of twentieth-century American theater, and Smith, who placed Arena in the spotlight of American national theater.

Arena Stage has been part of the Southwest community since it was first located here in 1960. During Molly Smith’s 25 years, Arena added a number of programs to engage neighboring schools and residents. 

The community Sharif joins today includes new restaurants and businesses, and many new residents, along with neighbors who have called Southwest home for decades, or perhaps their entire lives. Sharif spoke of the diversity of the community in age and nationality.  

Theater presents what is going on in the lives of people in the audience and of the world around them in comedy and drama. Sharif’s vision is of a diverse range of shows that have “something for everyone” but not “everything for everyone.” Her plans for Arena extend beyond the upcoming 2024/25 Season to a longer range vision of what theater will be in five to 50 years from now. 


The challenges that accompany this role are significant. Theaters have experienced many changes in recent years, including shutdowns from Covid-19 that led to canceled shows and dwindling audiences. Sharif is well-positioned to address this challenge, as she served as a planning team member of the Professional Nonprofit Theater Coalition, which helped secure access to $16 billion of federal funding for tens of thousands of theater workers across the country during the early months of the pandemic.

Sharif takes on the leadership role at Arena as theaters are beginning to fill up again. One sign is the recent sold out performances and extension of shows at Arena Stage along with themes for special nights. 

Another change is audiences’ expectations for theater shows. Sharif is committed to the  premise that each person’s experience of a theater performance is unique. While a video of a performance might always be the same, what live performance offers is a shared experience of the actors and the other members of the audience. Each performance of the same show can evoke different responses. 

Just as Kindle transformed the book publishing industry, Zoom and widespread live streaming affected attendance at live theater performances. While theater is dynamic and has changed over centuries, the setting of the stage design, which is inclusive of the audience as present in the place of the action, is yet to be reproduced by the newest electronic devices. In short, there is nothing like live theater.

Sharif also acknowledges that Arena is located in a highly political environment. Washington, DC is a seat of policy being made for the United States with potentially worldwide influence. Theater presents both the political and the personal and these cannot always be separated in shows relating stories of human interactions.

With its focus on American theater, Arena has provided a variety of productions, from dramas to musicals to modern tragedies. What is the future of the theater and the shows that will relate to its ever-changing audiences? Sharif’s approach is one rooted in the history of theater, with its unique value of experiencing art in person, as well as in the fresh ideas and energy she brings to the task of creating another page in Arena’s history. 

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