I Wish I Knew: Interview with Artistic Director Sam White

Welcome to the third installment of I Wish I Knew, a monthly blog dedicated to sharing wisdom from artists around the country to up and coming theater makers, film makers, producers, directors, actors…you name it! This month I had the honor of interviewing my friend and colleague, Sam White (she/her/hers), the founding artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit and a freelance director. She is one of those amazing humans who either has a clone, a time-turner (shout out to Harry Potter fans) or just an extraordinary ability to do a lot of things a lot of the time.

Samantha White

I met Sam at the Oregon Shakespeare festival when she was the Paul Nicholson Arts Management Fellow at OSF. We were co-curators on the Juneteenth Celebration in the summer of 2017 (if you don’t know what Juneteenth is, look it up).

Co-Curators of OSF’s 2017 Juneteenth Celebration L-R: Sam White, Jameeka Holloway-Burrell, Nemuna Ceesay and Roberta Inscho-Cox.

I was insanely impressed by Sam’s ability to multitask, see the big picture, put community first and be a kind, good listener all at the same time. I found out she was the artistic director of a Shakespeare theater in Detroit and I knew that she must be really great at her job.

This season Sam produced a bilingual Much Ado About Nothing called Much Ado Para Nada, and Twelfth Night set in 1920s Harlem. Shakespeare in Detroit is a Site Specific Theater meaning that they perform every show around Detroit in places where people live, work and play and in 2020 they will also have their own space on Detroit’s riverfront.

Sam has worked as a freelance director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Stratford Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival and is about to be a part of the inaugural class of Classical Directing Fellows at the Old Globe. Sam is an artistic director, executive director, director, producer, freelancer and curator. If you want to know how to do it all and keep your cool read Sam’s awesome interview below:

Q: When did you first know you wanted to become a producer/director?

My entire life has been spent curating, directing and producing work. When I was 8 years old, I used to produce my sleepovers and pool parties. They were so well-planned and intricately executed that my 8-year-old friends would leave before the night ended. They didn’t appreciate me calling “places” for swimming, the dance party and pizza time. I look back at it now and realize I was born to be a theatre practitioner.

Q: What do you love most about being a director/producer?

I love curating seasons that I can produce at Shakespeare in Detroit and finding the right shows for me to direct and for others to direct to deliver stories of humanity to the community where I was born and raised.

Q: What is your biggest challenge associated with being a producer?

It’s not easy producing Shakespeare in the Rust Belt. Some may disagree with me, but Detroit is a unique town that has had some interesting challenges and there are a lot of social, political and financial barriers that come my way each and every season. The good news is that I am learning a lot.

Q: What are 10 things you wish you knew before you became a Founder (the term “Founder” summarizes the curating, directing and producing at SiD)?

  • I wish I knew how much you really have to give up to start a business of any kind. I have sacrificed everything from my lovely apartment to a nice corporate salaried job for this work. It’s been worth it but I wish I knew — a little heads-up ain’t never hurt nobody.

  • I wish I had been mentored before I started SiD. I have a dozen mentors now, that I have accumulated over time, but some mentoring before the journey began would have done me well.

  • I wish I knew that there are a lot of people outside the scope of where I live that have and are willing to support the work. I didn’t realize that in the beginning.

  • I wish I knew the importance of self-care before I began this journey. I have had to overcome some serious anxiety issues and stress that has impacted my mental and physical health. I ignored these things and have paid dearly for that. Going to the gym and eating well are essential for any artist/entrepreneur.

  • I wish I knew how awesome my family is — I didn’t realize until I started Shakespeare in Detroit how brilliant my mother is and how awesome my father is. My father worked in the auto industry to support us and my mom stayed home with us as kids. She was the best homemaker of all time ensuring that I was exposed to things like Shakespeare and theatre and books of all kinds and people from different places outside the confines of my Seven Mile neighborhood in Detroit. Their sacrifices and commitment to their kids is completely responsible for any success I have had or ever may have.

  • I wish I knew more about architecture and real estate. If you are going to build or create a theatre you need to know about facilities — plumbing, the furnace, parking, governmental compliance, etc.

  • I wish I knew how to write a grant, a pitch deck, the difference between marketing and development a sponsorship and a donation.

  • I wish I knew how important it was to pay attention in math class. Beginning a theatre is cool but keeping the doors open is a totally different theatre animal and you have to know how to balance a budget.

  • I wish I knew how capable I am. Six years ago when I started Shakespeare Against Cancer (our work with children’s hospitals that eventually turned into full, onstage productions ℅ Shakespeare in Detroit) I would constantly doubt myself as a director and a producer, and I realize now that was wasted time. God has given me so many gifts and I’m doing just fine.

  • I wish I knew how many awesome people I would meet along the way who have believed in me, believed in this work and believed in Detroit — a city that is the impetus of the American story — work hard, care for your family provide for them while creating a pathway for the next generation.

Q: What is a one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?

“You can’t live a brave life without disappointing some people” is my favorite Oprah quote. She didn’t give that quote to me personally, but it resonates with me. I have to accept, on a daily basis, that I can’t make everyone happy and be okay with that. But the moments I am able to bring joy to some people or one person, I am motivated by that.

Q: Where can people find out more about you?

People can learn more about Shakespeare in Detroit by visiting shakespeareindetroit.com

Twitter: @shakesinthed

Facebook: @shakespeareindetroit

Instagram: @shakespeareindetroit

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Nemuna (she/her/hers) is an actor working in New York. She has an M.F.A. in Acting for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and is originally from Sacramento, California. She has worked at regional theaters all over the country including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, PlayMakers Rep and Barrington Stage Company. She also teaches and is currently serving as a professor of acting at Hunter College in New York City. Check out her website: www.nemunarceesay.com


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