“The job description said to me that the theater was one avenue for connecting to the D.C. public,” Daniels said over a recent lunch on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It wasn’t all about raising our national and international profile. It had to do with how do we become relevant.”
Leadership at a number of the nation’s performing arts institutions is undergoing change as an older generation of arts administrators departs. Daniels succeeds Janet Griffin, who produced drama in the Folger’s 265-seat theater for 30 years. Increasingly, the turnover is a response to a belief — occasioned in part by the Black Lives Matter movement — that new thinking is urgently needed to expand and diversify audiences.
Daniels will be one of only a few people of color at the helm of a theater in the Washington area and, by virtue of the size and influence of the Folger, the most prominent. Raymond O. Caldwell is artistic director of Theater Alliance in Anacostia, and Hugo Medrano heads GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights.
Holding a job with two titles, Daniels will preside over $4 million of Folger Shakespeare Library programs, which include a theater that produces three or four shows a season, the majority of them Shakespeare but also some by contemporary dramatists. She will also have authority over the library’s poetry recitals, screenings, public talks and concerts, including the highly regarded Folger Consort, an early-music ensemble.
“It’s an institution that is sitting in the intersection of so many things: library, museum, performance — we’re not just one model,” Daniels said. “That’s my thing.”
Michael Witmore, director of the library and to whom Daniels will report, said Daniels stood out during a nationwide search for her understanding of outreach and exuberant grasp of narrative art.
“If I know one thing about Karen Ann Daniels, it’s that she knows how to take things on the road and take artist programming that starts with communities,” Witmore said.
Of this critical moment in mission-building for the performing arts, he added: “We need a person who can help us tell the stories, some of which Shakespeare wrote, about how we become full human beings living in society together.”
Daniels is in the midst of the annual tour of the five New York City boroughs with the Public’s Mobile Unit, a program of free performance that mixes spoken word, hip-hop and Shakespeare. On Saturday, a staff of about 25 set up the company’s truck — outfitted with yellow letters spelling out “Shakespeare” on top — in a plaza at 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in a diverse Manhattan neighborhood. An audience White, Black and Brown filled the salmon-colored folding chairs for a late afternoon of motivational reading by the Harlem-based National Black Theatre; a spoken-word recital, “Verses@Work,” by actor Malik Work; and an interactive piece, “Shakespeare Call & Response,” conceived and directed by Patricia McGregor.
“We believe a theater is most powerful when it is in conversation with the community it was created for,” Daniels said in introductory remarks to the crowd.
Daniels was an art history major at UCLA and sang in the choir at Chula Vista (Calif.) High School. She has explored a number of pathways, including acting and playwriting, on the West Coast, and joined the Old Globe in 2013, where she worked in arts engagement. There she helped devise community programs, including one that brought Shakespeare to California prisons. She created a similar initiative, the Mobile Unit in Corrections, for the Public.
Mobility is a watchword at the Folger these days, as the library is undergoing a $72 million renovation that won’t be finished until the end of next year, with plans to resume operations in the space in the spring of 2023, according to Witmore. In the interim, Daniels says, she’ll be guided by her experience in the art of arts delivery.
“The priority is to be out in the community while we’re closed,” she said. “We’re going to go to you and introduce ourselves. That’s how you go forward: Someone takes you.”