Meet Sean Daniels
Sean Daniels is the artistic director for Lowell’s 37-year-old Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Daniels came to the Mill City in the Spring of 2014 after a three-year stretch as director of artistic engagement and artist-at-large at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y. He spoke with mvm about his plans for MRT and his first impressions of Greater Lowell.
When did you first realize theater was a part of your DNA?
My parents went to see theater all the time. It was a big part of our culture, and I didn’t realize that other people just didn’t do it. I started doing theater early; I remember doing ‘Winnie the Pooh’ when I was 11.
One of my very first [audience] experiences was when my parents took me to see ‘Sweeney Todd.’ … I must have been 12 or 13 … and I just loved it. It was theatrical and dark and scary … .
I actually also have this memory of being taken to a production of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and thinking it was the most life-affirming, life-changing thing I have ever seen, and I’ve tried to make a point of never seeing that musical again because I am sure it will never hold up to what I thought when I first saw it.
What are some of your initial impressions of Greater Lowell and the MRT audiences?
During my first days here, everybody who came by to turn on the electricity, the water, all shook my hand, looked deeply into my eyes and told me, ‘Lowell is coming back.’ Then they’d turn on my cable or whatever and leave.
I thought, ‘Whoever is in charge of this campaign for the city is doing a great job.’ We are going to be a leader for new plays in this country, and I feel like the city is just ready for that. There will be very few theaters like us dedicated to doing new theater all year long.
I got to speak with the mayor and city council members the other night. I don’t know how many members have ever come to the theater, but when I said we have two shows this year transferring to off-Broadway after playing here (‘I and You’ and ‘The White Chip’) … suddenly everyone’s posture got a little better, and they were clearly excited about that idea of things going from here, and being able to export rather than import the culture that happens here.
Why do you think the MRT audiences are ready for seasons of basically all new works?
I don’t think people know what gold they have in the MRT audience. They are already game to go to shows they don’t know the titles to. They’re just interested in new stories and hearing other people’s stories being told, and every other theater in the country is trying to get that audience.
Every other theater in the country is taking some of the same 60 plays we all know and doing them, and then trying to sneak in a couple of new plays. But when I came to Lowell for my interview, it was a Sunday night, there was a big Pats game … and the place was packed for opening night.
I heard someone say on the way out, ‘I didn’t think I would like it, but I really enjoyed it,’ which I think is an amazing compliment, because I think the vast majority of theater audiences, if they think they are not going to like a play … they just don’t go.
The MRT has done new plays for a while. They’ve done the hard part: convinced their audience to take a chance on plays they don’t know. What has to be done now is the easy part: Be loud and vocal about the great work going on here.
Do you really think Lowell can be a major player in the theater world?
The really odd thing about our industry is that it only happens for short periods of time in one location. So the majority of us don’t see the vast majority of theater that happens in the country because we are not in Portland or San Francisco or New York.
But we do track where plays with a long life come from. That’s the main switch we are making here. It will be the same quality and the same types of shows, but the world premieres will go from here to New York City, as opposed to the past, where we might have been waiting to see what came out of New York City or other cities to come here. We will be investing in new plays, and all we need are a couple of them to have huge success for theater people to say, ‘Where can I go to see new plays when I think of programming for my theater?’
For more information on the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s 2016-2017 season visit MRT.org.
Top photo by Meghan Moore.