For Folger’s Karen Ann Daniels, the Bard’s big O stands for opportunity

In case you assumed that the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s works was in Jolly Old England, no, it’s at the Folger Shakespeare Library, right here on Capitol Hill. Folger holds the honors as the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his world.

Now undergoing a major building renovation, the Folger Shakespeare Library will reopen its doors in 2023 to new galleries and new public spaces.

The Folger is also breaking new ground to create a more inclusive space in its vision and strategy to connect more deeply with DC communities in the appointment of Karen Ann Daniels, new Director of Programming and Folger Theatre’s new Artistic Director.

After a nationwide search for an innovative community builder to expand its public offerings, the Folger selected Daniels, most recently the Director of The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit in New York City.

Karen Ann Daniels is an accomplished actor, director, playwright, vocalist, and musician and will oversee performances in Folger’s Elizabethan theater, concerts, poetry readings, talks, screenings and other humanities programs inspired by the Folger collection.

With educational creds in art history, musical theater, and the British American Drama Academy, her professional work includes directing programming at The Old Globe in San Diego, her hometown, and teaching artist at Studio East’s ArtsReach Program in Seattle. Daniels seems to be a perfect fit for leading the Folger in cultural programming across the institution.

We recently talked about her plans for moving the Folger forward and making its unique resources available to all of DC.

Karen Ann Daniels. Photo courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

Ramona Harper: Welcome to the DMV. I know you’ve had a big move and you’ve moved here in the best weather.

Karen Ann Daniels: I know. I do feel grateful for that.

I looked over your background and I’m impressed with how perfectly you seem suited for this position: art history, musical theater, the British American Drama Academy, New York Public Theater. They couldn’t have picked a more perfect person.

Thank you.

In your new position as Director of Programming and Folger Theatre’s Artistic Director, you will be wearing many hats: performance, music, museum, and library programs, and more. With so many different public offerings to present, what’s your core vision for the Folger?

My core vision in the immediate future—especially right now with the renovation and knowing that we’re going to be opening our doors again soon—is to take the opportunity to reintroduce the Folger into the community. And to really start being where people are, versus trying to just focus on work that brings people to us. That right now seems to be the biggest thing as well as planning for opening. And then how are we going to be welcoming people in? This is such a unique opportunity for all of us in programming to really think about what are some out-of-the-box things we may not have done before. I’m hoping we can kind of take advantage of that in this moment, in the next year or two, to really start building some muscle towards engaging in meaningful ways with community.

I’ve read that you were drawn to this position because of this opportunity for building community relationships. However, many underserved communities, as you know, still might see Shakespeare as theater for and about old white men. What are some of your ideas at this early stage in DC to address this perception—which I’m sure you had to deal with in New York City and other places?

Yeah, everywhere. What I have learned over the years is that most people, even if they have an idea that it’s for old white men, are still curious about it. Instead of an obstacle, I see there an opportunity: Well, come see for yourself; you can understand this; it takes like 10 minutes to click into the language. We go in, we introduce ourselves, we share it. We give people the opportunity to do Shakespeare. Something I have learned is that participation is a really key point of doing this work. You can’t just think about presenting to people anymore. It doesn’t work.

What are your thoughts about presenting the classics versus the need to present contemporary new works? Is there a dichotomy between the two?

There could be if we want it to be. Shakespeare’s dead; he doesn’t really care what we do with this stuff. We care what we do with his stuff. But one of the reasons that Shakespeare is produced often—in addition to being an amazing author—is because he’s free. The classics are inexpensive to produce. But to do new work you gotta pay people, you got to pay people what they’re worth, for their time, for their talents, for the investment and the skill that they have. And that takes longer. You have to find funding for those things. You really have to have a serious investment in wanting to create new work. I’m interested in the relationship between Shakespeare and us now, which means there is opportunity to do new work, to do contemporary things, and then have conversations about how those things are speaking to each other.

That’s a unique opportunity because what we study here really is Western civilization as far as literature is concerned. We forget that we are included in Western civilization. If you have been here for more than a generation, you are part of that cultural timeline. We tend to think old white men are the only bearers of that timeline, and that’s a lie. We have an opportunity to talk about the relationship with all Western writers in our history. And to start telling and sharing a much fuller narrative about who Western civilization actually encompasses.

Karen Ann Daniels. Photo courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

As an African American woman, what got you interested in Shakespeare?

I grew up in San Diego. When I was in eighth grade, we had the opportunity to do Julius Caesar with The Old Globe Theatre, which was running education programs back then that would come into your classrooms. I had this neat opportunity to get on my feet and do some drama and what it was was Shakespeare. Also, I was a kid in the late eighties, early nineties, when there were a lot of Shakespeare films out. I actually thought I was gonna go into film, not theater. I was a huge, huge film person. Kenneth Branagh was making all those films, trying to make Shakespeare accessible. The first Shakespeare that I saw besides that Julius Caesar was a Much Ado About Nothing with Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves—totally meant to hit me right where I was at. And then I saw Lawrence Fishburne doing Othello. That’s where it began.

The other thing is, Shakespeare’s been around so long, we’ve absorbed it into our popular culture. Some of the first lines of Shakespeare that I ever learned were from the cartoon DuckTales. There’s a whole episode that is just like a spoof on Shakespeare. There’s a Bugs Bunny episode too. Those were some of the places that it started to seep in before I knew what it was. Much Ado is like the original romcom. We put so much energy into keeping Shakespeare up on a pedestal when really he’s as common as we are. He’s super accessible because he’s everywhere.

You were introduced through an Old Globe program, and fast forward you wind up being associate director of arts engagement at the Old Globe Theatre.

That was a big piece of why I was able to do the work that I did there: I knew the Globe when, and I knew what it had meant to a lot of people. Now, as an adult looking back, I’m going: Wait a second, why is this place not as accessible as it was when I was in eighth grade? Those are the things that get me thinking and make the work important.

What will be your process for listening to the DC community to create relevant stories of interest to them?

The first thing is to get out, see what people already do, what they enjoy, what they love already. A lot of times, when institutions are going to reach out to the community, they come at it from a place of: we’re going to be bringing something to you. For me, it’s to go and get to know people and knock on doors and introduce myself. That’s right now my plan: What do people love and what’s already here and who are the artists that are already making amazing things? Where are the relationships that we already have that we can lean into, or who’ve been wanting to lean into us? At the Folger, they’ve already begun that process. I came here because I wasn’t going to be the person driving the hammer onto the nail. They were already figuring out for themselves we need to do this. And it’s exciting for me to come to a place that is already on the journey.

As director of the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit in New York: you brought theater to the people in public spaces. Can you foresee new community partnerships in DC with that same kind of mobility?

I hope so. That would be really exciting to me if that’s what people want. I mean, maybe they don’t. I have to be ready to hear that. I think we in institutions always have to be ready to be listening to what it is people want, what they’re interested in. Sometimes our ideas are not what’s going to be the most relevant to their lives. I’m not going to square-peg-round-hole it. We can try things and we can introduce ourselves with here’s something we do. And then there’s a conversation.

I saw that with the Public Mobile Unit. Right before I arrived, they launched a national version of the tour in the Midwest. They were writing up their reports when I got there. I was reading through the reports and I thought, You know what we need to do? Go back and say, How’d it go? How’d you enjoy it? So that’s what we did. I met with as many community partners as could meet with us. I went to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Wisconsin, just talked to folks and said, What was the experience of partnering with us? What would you like to see us do at the end? Or how would you like to engage with us? When I left New York, it was: Great, we can’t wait to see these tours. And when I left the Midwest, I was like: Y’all, we gotta reassess this. We have to improve our process. I learned some things. They’d love to see a show, but they also would love to know how they could learn the skills to create work themselves. That’s not what anybody thought we were going to hear. There’s always a chance in any institution that you come back with that information and the institution says, Oh, well, we don’t want to do that. So then what can we do, what do we want to do? Do their needs and ours meet? And do they make sense? And then there’s also, Well, maybe we’re not the people that do that, but hey, maybe we know the people who can do that and be that resource. That’s the thing that happens. It’s a relationship like any other.

You’re facing some challenges as you come in: an ongoing pandemic, your building is closed for renovation until spring of 2023. You’ve talked about getting out and meeting people. How are you going to make your presence known and felt?

Well, preexisting me, there was already a plan to start doing some partnerships with other institutions. We’ve got the Nathan the Wise project with Theater J. We have our project with the National Building Museum; we’re going to be doing Midsummer Night’s Dream in the atrium there, which is kind of cool, and we’ll be working with the museum to build engagement around the show. I know a little bit about the National Building Museum and their audiences and their reputation for doing these extraordinary things every summer. It’s a really neat opportunity for us to get out of our box and go into theirs and see what their world is like and meet the people who love to interact with them there. I also imagine that there’s an opportunity for us to do some community engagement programming that is related. Like, what if we went to libraries and we were doing projects that were related to the projects that were there, or we did projects with community members or after-school programs or senior centers or whatever, building something that the community then becomes part of whatever the engagement activity or presence is in that space. They get to come. They have a reason to come: Hey, I built that. Hey, I made that. Hey, this is about our community. Our community is here, we’re represented. That’s the participation opportunity. It’s also an opportunity to do something that is meaningful and introduces us to people maybe we wouldn’t have met, introduces the National Building Museum to people they maybe wouldn’t have met. If it goes great, awesome. If it doesn’t go great, we learn something, we build off that.

As a Black theater professional, what are the main changes you would like to see to address the BIPOC Demands of the We See You, White American Theater movement?

You know, the thing that has stood out to me, especially in these last few years, is it’s really about who’s in the room. It’s about being honest about some of the ways these organizations are run and work. Nobody wants to claim white supremacy, but it makes it easier when you admit it, when you admit who you are. Every organization has a mission, a vision, a set of values that it is supposedly running under. Use those things as tools to bring the equity into the room. What does it mean to have that 501(c)3 tax exemption designation? You’re getting a tax break—are you actually in service of your community? We could start addressing these things by just being more human. Admitting, you know, that we are oftentimes taking the large share of resources and not leaning into other arts organizations in the community—which is why I’m super happy to see the Folger has created partnerships with other theaters. We actually can help sustain ourselves as artists. I think we have to stop hiring people who have histories of bad behavior. When there are rumors, investigate; don’t let those things pass by. Look at your room, be honest. If you don’t know enough people of color, figure it out. It’s not rocket science to figure out that there are artists of color working all over this country. There are some very simple things that every theater could have done that didn’t require a We See You WAT, that would have changed the dialogue about how theater is entered into this decade. Because that’s what that launched for us: a deep self-examination. I also think we need to not rush to produce again, because capitalism is the machine and capitalism is steeped in white supremacy. I think we have to be honest, all of those demands make tons of sense; but we’ve lost the ability to be human and to think about everybody as humans and equally valuable and treat them as such. Like, what am I doing to support a freelance director with young children who wants to come and do a project? What’s in it for them if they can’t afford to bring their family with them? There’s the length of a workday. Can we adjust our schedule to have rehearsals five days a week? Of course, we can. What are our priorities, what are our real values? And then we have to start putting our money where our values are.

You were named a 2021 Atlantic fellow for racial equity—part of an international cohort of just 20 young change-makers. Congratulations on that.

Thank you.

Do you envision public offerings at Folger that will tackle some of those issues for making new contributions to racial equity that relate to your fellowship?

It’s a good question. I’m just beginning the fellowship, so I don’t have a firm answer in terms of what I might be doing here. I’m hoping that this fellowship will allow me to have conversations with other change-makers in other industries from other countries and that we can all see what our challenges are, figure out how we can coordinate and collaborate, and raise up each other’s projects. I’m always going to dig more into community-facing work. I’m really very much into co-creating with community as an artist. And that’s where you’re going to see me investigating and telling the stories that I want to tell as an artist. In the U.S. not just at the Folger, not just in the theater, we have to figure out how we raise up other stories. Can we elevate stories of other people with other kinds of challenges and joys and hopes and dreams? We have to start dismantling whatever the mainstream narrative has been. I hope that this is the work that can do that: raising up other kinds of voices, other kinds of stories, and creating a more equal place for them all. How I hope it shows up in my work at the Folger is that we’re going to see all sorts of people directing all sorts of stories. We’re going to still see some Shakespeare, but we’re going to have some fun with them. And sometimes we might do it straight. And that’s all right. There’s room for all of it, and somebody has to create space for it so that it can have the opportunity to become the norm.

How is theater transformational from your point of view, and how can Folger and other American theaters make a stronger transformational impact given our current global challenges?

One of the beautiful things about theater is it is such a forgiving tool in the sense that you can invite everybody into a room and everybody can play. We don’t get a chance to play as adults anymore. But being able to investigate and to play and to try out choices, decisions, ideas, to walk in somebody else’s shoes, that’s what theater does, that’s what we offer. The opportunity just to read even a couple of lines of Shakespeare does something intangible for you as a person. It could be also a couple of lines August Wilson, right? That is transformational. We would find more things in common when people have an opportunity to play. We would be able to create more empathy. And that’s where the transformation happens.

I saw that in corrections work when I was at the Globe. You would see some of these guys doing Romeo and Juliet, and they’d have these conversations about the characters and relate it to their own lives. You would see them suddenly understand like maybe the pain they’ve caused their family—or even just to be like, I totally get these people in this play; there are Capulets and Montagues in my neighborhood—and be able to articulate it. As an actor, all the motivation you ever need can come out of a conversation with somebody who’s like, I lived this, I’m from this. As they move through the story of the play it comes full circle and they’re able to identify, Oh man, if I had known or understood this decision point here in the story, if I understood that in my own life, I might’ve made a different decision, you know? That’s the place where Shakespeare becomes a tool for transformation, a very tangible expression of it. I’ve watched this happen. And they will tell you how these things affect them. They think about what they’ve read in a way that we never do when we go see a show. It lives with them.

There’s power in theater, for sure. And I feel your enthusiasm. Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you would like to add?

I’m honestly just excited to be here. I have always wanted to be in DC, and I’m excited to be part of this community and to be in an institution that has so much ability to be an amazing resource to DC. That’s why I’m here.

SEE ALSO: Folger names Karen Ann Daniels artistic director and director of programming

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