Hana S. Sharif recently took over as the first African-American artistic director of Arena Stage, replacing Molly Smith.
She told WTOP, “Following in the great footsteps of the iconic Zelda Fichandler and the visionary Molly Smith, it is such a joy to be artistic director here at Arena Stage and something that in some ways feels manifested. I remember when I was 19 years old saying and writing down that one day I would be artistic director of Arena Stage, so it does feel like a gift to be able to lead this company in the next phase of its life.”
The Atlanta native explained that her mother enrolled her in theater since she was a dramatic child. Sharif began writing plays as a child, and by the age of 17, she had produced and directed her first play, “Black Butterfly.”
She said, “This combination of poetry, movement, and monologues that I had written for my high school. … It really was this transformative, catalytic moment in my life. … It blew open my idea of what might be possible in terms of a career.”
She also began her own production company, Nasir Productions, during her sophomore year at Spelman College. According to her, “The chair of our theater department, who really was a foundational figure, left at the end of our freshman year. A bunch of us were on the floor of my apartment, talking about all of the work that we wanted to do and just made a decision that we could go get it, that we could create our own work, that we could learn by doing. Over pizza and soda and some folks with some beer, we sketched out a mission statement and we were off.”
She continued to polish her theatrical skills even while attending the University of Houston for her graduate studies. She was even able to take care of her mother, who at the time had a cancer diagnosis.
Sharif’s graduate degree brought her into contact with industry greats such as Edward Albee, who coached her in playwriting; Sir Peter Hall, who mentored her in directing; and Stuart Ostrow, with whom she collaborated on new musicals. She then began an almost ten-year career at Hartford Stage in Connecticut.
Sharif recounted how she jumped into a car with her former college roommate and ventured cross-country on an experience that led her to this position. She scheduled a thirty-minute interview with Christopher Baker, the associate creative director, but the conversation stretched to three and a half hours.
After having her first child, she moved to Boston with her husband and began working as a consultant. There, she received a phone call from a coworker who had heard she wasn’t working for a company. He offered her a job, which she declined.
“He said, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’… At the end of lunch, they were like, ‘Great, you’ve got the job,’ and I was like, ‘What job?’ … I worked for two years at ArtsEmerson,” she said.
After receiving a call from Kwame Kwei-Armah, Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic director at the time, she landed a job at the center, where she spent five years. She took both the position of director of The Fourth Space and the position of associate artistic director that he was looking for.
Sharif made history in 2018 when she became the first black woman to lead a significant regional theater when she joined the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. She knew she had to take a chance when she heard Smith was leaving Arena Stage.
“There was no way that I could not throw my hat into the ring. One, Molly is truly a visionary leader for the last 25 years. She’s been at the forefront of the field. As a woman coming up in the field, she really has been an inspiration for myself and so many other female artistic directors. … It felt like the universe was calling. For me, there was something almost spiritual about the opportunity. … I feel very fortunate and excited about the future,” she expressed.
Smith said of her, “I know her magic will be mesmerizing and I, for one, will be cheering from the audience,” according to a statement by Arena Stage.
Out of over fifty applicants, Sharif was the first pick of Arena’s eleven-person search committee, according to The Washington Post.
The board chair of the Arena Stage, Catherine Guttman-McCabe, told the news outlet, “She really checked all the boxes. We started with our North Star; we were looking for the best person in the country to be the next artistic director for Arena. And we found that.”