AMERICAN THEATRE | The Folger’s Karen Ann Daniels: Making the Shakespeare We Want

Karen Ann Daniels. (Photo courtesy of Garlia Cornelia Jones.)

Karen Ann Daniels (she/her) has long had an interest in Shakespeare. From a trip to the Old Globe in middle school to seeing Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington in the film of Much Ado About Nothing (still her favorite Shakespeare play) or Laurence Fishburne in Othello, Daniels wasn’t just impressed—she also saw a place for herself. “Oh, I guess I could do that,” she thought, she recalled in a recent interview.

But Daniels, a San Diego native who joined Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library in a dual role as its director of programming and as the artistic director of the Folger Theatre at the beginning of this month, originally didn’t think she was going to go into theatre at all.

“I thought I was going to go into film,” Daniels said in a recent interview. “That was actually my ultimate goal.” She added, with a laugh, “I got sidetracked.”

Daniels’s focus early in her life was as a singer and musician, including a stint at performing arts high school with a focus on vocal performance. That influence hasn’t left her, with her career as an actor, director, playwright, and musician including The Ruby in Us, a musical she co-created that premiered with the Old Globe’s coLAB project. The creative side is one she said she hopes to continue to stretch in her new position at the Folger, a place she said she feels has space for that side of her.

“That’s part of who they hire,” Daniels said. “I plan to keep writing, I plan to do some directing after a bit, and I really plan to keep working with community, because it’s the piece of it that gives me joy.”

Building community has already been a significant part of Daniels’s career thus far. At the Public Theater, Daniels served as the director of the company’s Mobile Unit, where she led projects that brought Shakespeare and theatre to incarcerated communities and oversaw partnerships with National Black Theatre, the New York City Department of Transportation, and the People’s Bus to bring a four-week tour to public plazas across New York’s five boroughs. Prior to her stint at the Public, Daniels also served as the associate director within the Old Globe’s arts engagement department. Daniels said she hopes to continue this community work as she moves to Washington, D.C., and the community that surrounds the Folger.

“I see a world of possibilities at the Folger,” said Daniels. “We’re going to build this together. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of passions, but I also have a lot of people who have them too. So that’s the piece that I’m, right now, really excited about, which is just really getting to know the people who are here and thinking about who else. What are our wants?”

Last week Daniels and I spoke more about Shakespeare’s place in theatre and the role the Bard’s work can play in communities.

JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: What are the benefits of running a theatre within this kind of larger institution?

KAREN ANN DANIELS: I think there’s a couple of things. One is being in dialogue with scholars, with people who are sort of minting the ideas and how we think about all our culture. They’re interpreting what has come before, but also what we’re doing now. So I think it’s really, really important to have a dialogue in those spaces. And those spaces are also, on a national scale, dealing with many of the things that the American theatre is dealing with. It’s an interesting time to be coming in and saying, “Now let’s bridge the gap between the artist and the scholar.”

I think the other aspect is, of course, being in D.C. I can’t let that go, coming out of last year, following the insurrection, and being in the place that really does sort of hold all of these ideas of our democracy. I really feel that theatre is a really interesting place to be in dialogue about, what does democracy mean? Are our ideologies still our ideologies? And how do we move forward? We’re in entering into a new decade. I think this new decade—we just have no idea. We had no idea the pandemic was coming. We had no idea that the pandemic would allow the snow globe to get shook. So let’s see where the snow lands.

How does Shakespeare’s work enter into that dialogue and the ability for us to have these conversations within theatre?

I see Shakespeare and capitalism as not inseparable. We adopted this guy. He’s not ours. He’s somebody else’s. As we do in America, we adopt everybody else’s things. We’ve layered him in to our ideas about freedom and democracy. And within the theatre industry itself, and in education, we’ve elevated him as sort of a pinnacle.

We have an opportunity to understand why and when we’ve done that—when we’ve done that well, when we’ve done that wrong or we’ve used it to hurt other people. There’s a lot of power in the word Shakespeare. I don’t always know if it’s deserved, but it’s there. So let’s work with it. Let’s work with it and kind of dismantle it, but for now, for us, for here, the present, and build up the kind of Shakespeare we want to reflect us now.

How do you see Shakespeare fitting into conversations happening in the field about what should or should not be part of “the canon,” or what should be left offstage to make room for new voices? Are there any misconceptions about continuing to highlight the work of Shakespeare?

I think we just have to be honest with ourselves, which is to say that we’ve used him in not great ways. We have a unique opportunity to make him whatever we want going forward. I feel like we could take the strengths of Shakespeare, but use them as a jumping-off point to really build our own bards, and to give him some company. He’s been lonely and cold up there for a while.

One of the things we can do is to continue to dismantle what he is and what he isn’t and who he is for and who he’s not for. What is “authentically” Shakespeare? Whatever he did when he was alive, right? Everything else has been interpretation since then. Like any other poetry or other writer, we project our own selves onto the work. So that’s actually where the power lies: that we can do whatever we want with him and he doesn’t have to be something held over us. He can actually be something that lives among us. I think it’s a shift.

The Mobile Unit’s 2019 production of “Measure for Measure.” (Photo by
Mobile Unit

Since you’ve spent time at both the Old Globe and at the Public, what skills or experience did you gain that you’re hoping to bring with you to this new position?

I had very different experiences at the Globe and at the Public. At the Globe, I learned how important institutions like that are to their community as an available resource, how important it is that we take the time to get to know our neighbors. That’s the work that I was able to do there, and it really shifted and changed why I do theatre in many ways, and why I like theatre. I like theatre because it gives us tools in life. It gives us, I always say, a bigger crayon box to color from. That’s what I learned there from working in community, with community, and how it impacts the institution itself. If you want to actually shift your institution, especially right now, when you’re thinking about ED&I and things like that, one of the best things you can do is be in relationship with your neighbors. It will help change you. It’ll help you be more accessible, just because you’re listening and you’re available.

Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to, in terms of working with community and with the Folger?

That’s one of the big pieces of why I wanted to be here. With the renovation that’s happening, the way I understand the goals for this institution is to become a resource for the people locally. I mean, this place is known nationally, it’s known internationally. I don’t know how many people in D.C. actually realize that this place is here and can be a resource. That’s not necessarily anybody’s fault, but we have this interesting place to kind of start with a clean slate and, after being closed for two years, to come out of the gate. Not with opening the doors and starting programming again the way we used to, but to actually say, “Well, what can we do for our community and in our community?” and actually make our work happen outside of our spaces and make relationships.

The whole exciting piece of this job is, what are the relationships that we’ve not leaned into? Who are the people we have never introduced ourselves to? How do we become part of the ebb and flow of life of an everyday person in D.C.? It’s a relatively small theatre we have here, so who have we yet to introduce ourselves to? That’s what I keep asking myself.

How do you start to make those connections to the everyday person in D.C.? Do you anticipate we’ll see new programming from the Folger?

Absolutely. There’s definitely going to be some new programming down the line. I think we’re going to see a lot more interaction between the programs within the Folger as well, in terms of the music and the poetry and the theatre. You’re going to see these things are working in tandem and becoming more and more complementary in terms of what we’re doing.

And I think we’re going to stop being limited by walls and figure out all the places that we can go to—that could be libraries, it could be community centers. We’re on the path to figuring that out, but I think all we need to do is find one thing to start. That usually opens up the doors to keep doing that kind of work. And once people get to know us a little bit, they’ll invite us back. And then we’ll invite them here. We’ll go to their house and then they’ll come to ours. That’s how we do it.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

A big piece of coming out of this pandemic is about how institutions are creating community with other arts institutions. Varying sizes, varying missions, but can we also be in relationship and in dialogue and amplify each other in new ways? That’s something I think about a lot with the economy of theatre over the last year. For those of us that are standing still, and we’re standing strong, how are we helping our brothers and sisters? That’s a really big piece of the work.

Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor of American Theatre[email protected]

Creative credit for production photo: Measure for Measure, directed by LA Williams, with scenic design by Yu-Hsuan Chen, costume design by Asa Benally, music by Jeffrey Miller, choreography by Mayte Natalio.

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