Setting the Stage – Meet MRT’s New Artistic Director
Courtney Sale could not have started her new job at a more challenging time. It was March 23, just 13 days after Gov. Charlie Baker had declared a COVID-19 state of the emergency in the Commonwealth, when Sale sat down for her first day as Nancy L. Donahue artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT). She was new to the area — fresh off the plane from her former residence in Seattle.
“It definitely has been a bizarre time to begin a new theater leadership role,” she says with a laugh. The understatement is not lost on Sale, who has built a career around a field for which in-person connection is key. “But being adaptive to challenges is what we’re all about, and I know that MRT will survive and thrive well after this pandemic.”
Sale’s new role has been decades in the making. A longtime theater buff, she developed a passion for the performing arts at the age of 15, when she participated in a summer performing arts training program at Boston University. She calls it “one of the most transformative experiences” of her life.
“I grew up in a very rural part of Virginia, so up until that point there was very little access to professional performing arts opportunities,” she says. “When I was able to finally afford this, I jumped at it. It was the defining moment that solidified my career path.”
And she never looked back. After studying theater as an undergraduate, and later as a graduate student, she moved on to the world of directing, eventually becoming the associate artistic director at Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis and the artistic director at Seattle Children’s Theatre, where she served for three years.
When the job posting for artistic director of MRT came up online, Sale says she couldn’t have been more thrilled. Despite the cross-country move that the position would require, she found herself instantly enlivened by the theater’s mission to support new scripts.
“MRT is one of the nation’s premier stages for new and emerging artists,” Sale says, “and when I looked into it, I knew I needed to be part of their journey. … More than anything, I want to help infuse the field with more diverse voices. I want to be a part of a progressive conversation.”
Sale’s interviews and discussions with MRT staff and patrons only solidified her decision to take on the role. She found herself inspired by MRT’s consistent commitment to promoting equity in the arts, and by its ability to engage audiences with work that has never been seen.
“This theater really asks audiences to be adventure seekers,” she says. “Culturally we’re accustomed to being spontaneous with many of our entertainment platforms. We’re less inclined with theater, so I love that our audiences lean into that. They enter the space not knowing what will happen. That’s the joy of it.”
Throughout the spring and summer months, spontaneity took on a new meaning for MRT staff as they scrambled to address the unique challenges brought on by the pandemic. The theater, normally bustling with energy, was suddenly left with curtains drawn.
For Sale and her team, that meant putting more focus on content online. A scan of MRT’s social media pages reveals an array of new interviews and talks with emerging playwrights and artists, all of which have helped MRT stick to its goal of advancing innovative theater while ensuring the physical and psychological safety of its audiences.
Asked what she is most looking forward to in the coming year, hurdles aside, Sale is quick to take the conversation back to the appeal of the theater’s physical space.
“Above all things, I’m looking forward to that first opening night,” she says with a smile. “The idea of everyone sharing this beautiful space again — that’s what keeps me buoyed.”
Courtney Sale talks about her unique journey to the MV, what makes Lowell unique, and the role of arts and culture in the age of COVID on mvm’s weekly podcast, The 495. Listen to all episodes here. >>>