Spotlight: Sandy Boren-Barrett

Today is the beginning of the Spotlight series at Blog Harbor. In the coming months you’ll be reading interviews with an eclectic mix of professionals at the top of their game in the arts, media, sports, politics, child psychology, business and environmental issues.  You’ll even meet a group of 13 pretty amazing teens in middle school and high school.  And of course there may well be a few surprises along the way, too.

Sandy Boren-BarrettBut today, I’m thrlled to begin Spotlight with the highly regarded and supremely talented artistic director of Stages Theatre Company, Sandy Boren-Barrett.  When I began planning Spotlight four months ago, there was never a doubt who I wanted as the first guest.  She is someone I hold in the highest personal and professional regard.

Sandy assumed the role of Artistic Director for Stages Theatre Company in January of 2005. Prior to this she served as the company’s Program Director beginning in 1990.  This position allowed her to pursue her dual passion for arts education and theatre. Managing a team of artists and educators, Sandy directs artist residency programs, workshops for children and youth, curriculum development projects, workshops and presentations for artists and educators, and a myriad of other collaborative arts ventures with schools and teachers. She’s written several articles for publication on the topic of arts integration in the classroom, serves on the design team for the Minneapolis Public Schools initiative – Arts for Academic Achievement – and collaborated on the Stages Theatre Company’s standards-based theatre curriculum Make A Scene! a K-6 Theatre Curriculum, and St. Paul Middle School Curriculum, “In My Own Voice”, a curriculum guide for Secondary English and Language Arts Teachers.

With so much to discuss, Sandy’s interview will run in two parts.  Here is Part 1.

CG: Sandy thank you for taking time out of your insane schedule to talk for a bit.  Let’s begin with this: Did you always want to be involved with children’s theatre or was there something specific about it, or was there a particular children’s theatre, that drew you to it?

Sandy: To be honest, I was really sure of only one thing in college and that was that I wanted to perform.  That was it.  And no one was going to convince me of anything else.  I was a theatre major, music and dance minor, headed for an acting career.  But then, my senior year, the spring musical director cancelled last minute and they asked me and another senior music major if we would student direct.  We did, and then….I was absolutely, positively sure I wanted to direct… adults.  No one could convince me otherwise.  I still thought acting was OK but directing was so much fun.

Then, when I moved back to Milwaukee, my high school asked me to direct and, well, it was my high school – you just don’t say “no” to a bunch of nuns (it was an all girls catholic high school).  So, I directed Bye, Bye Birdie.  AND THEN…I knew what I was really supposed to do and that was work with young people.  NOW THAT, I was good at!  And that is the simple truth.  I finally realized what I thought I could and should do.  I then went back to school to learn all about directing, design, technical theatre and got certified to teach grades 7-12 theatre.

It was not so much something that I was drawn to but something that I stumbled upon, and it came to me.  When I went to high school, there were no “Stages Theatre Company’s” so the notion of theatre for young audiences was not even on my radar.  Now,  I am so incredibly passionate about theatre and education, and my role at Stages Theatre Company allows me to beautifully blend both of those passions.  I know how truly lucky I am that “IT,”  found me!

CG: That’s quite a journey.  Until just now, I never knew any of that.  I have to tell you Sandy, it’s been my experience a healthy majority of people don’t have a clear understanding of what children’s theatre is all about.  In other words, it’s not a bunch of five-year-olds running aimlessly around the stage.  Can you talk about the challenges in children’s theatre, from adapting books to casting to rehearsals, and so on…

Sandy: The only thing I know about children, particularly children as an audience , is that they are waiting – sometimes breathlessly waiting – to be entertained.  I believe it’s as simple as understanding that.  They want to love what they see!  I start every project knowing that, feeling that…not wanting to let them down.

I think one of the things that I truly believe is that some artists, or even those that are not artists – I’ll call them civilians – consider “children’s theatre” to be what artists do that can’t find work in adult theatre.  Well, I’ll tell you what – youth, kids, children can smell that a mile away and they don’t like it.  I am so often asked if I prefer to work with youth or adult actors and hands down…youth.  For no other reason but their willingness…they have so many less hang-ups.  They trust me, or if they don’t right away they seem to learn to because I treat them and the adults in our shows exactly the same way.  My expectations are the same, whether they are 10 or 60.  How they get there, or how I get them there varies.  But my expectation is that they will.

The challenges in children’s theatre are only in choices – from material, to relevance, to casting just the right combination, to pushing just enough of your writers, designers, directors, cast…  But just enough and not too much, to making sure you are authentic in all of the above.  As I said, they can smell a “fake” and they don’t like it.

I find some of the most amazingly gifted artists are drawn to this profession of theatre for young audiences.  The designers have such a whimsical, not cynical, look at their work, and how can they not when they’re doing a show about princesses and dragons?  Or Wizards, or Madeline’s or little rabbits who will do anything to avoid bedtime…  In children’s theatre it’s a world full of wonder that we’re creating and sharing, and I have the honor of doing it every single day.  There are limits to what we can do but really never, ever challenges.

CG: And that’s something that can never be overstated.  Now, is there a difference in how Stages Theatre Company approaches children’s theatre from the way others like Children’s Theatre Company or Seattle Children’s Theatre works?  Specifically, I guess what I’m asking is – what makes Stages different?

Sandy: I always say the differentiating factor in what we do is how we do it.  Our role in the field is unique and I have not found another company that is just like ours.  The closest would be the work I’ve seen and heard about at Dallas Children’s Theatre, who has just done (Jennifer) Kirkeby’s Madeline’s Christmas last year, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at the annual TCG conference.

It starts with the selection of material for our stage.  I look for existing scripts, or commission work of playwrights and composers that have significant and meaningful roles and relevant themes for young people.  In other words, I will not do a show that places an adult in the lead role.  Or I will not do a show that has more adults than kids.  For example, the average ratio for a show at Stages is 2-3 adults and 15-20 youth actors.

In play selection I look for shows that are based on children’s literature.  Some of it classic, some of it contemporary but hopefully all of it is based on a book that is either a family favorite or one they are reading at school.  If you start there, you can create a unique piece of work by making it a musical, or a dance-theatre piece, like The Mitten, or a pre-Beatles, Jazz/Motown show like one we’re working on for next season.

The other thing I know about Stages, and I suspect is unique to our theatre, is that we do not hire artists to work in productions that do not have a desire to work with young actors.  I’m telling you – I will not hire the most talented actor in town just because of their amazing talent.  They must want to share that talent as a mentor with the youth on stage.  I would say almost all of our adult professional artists are also amazing teaching artists who want to (share) and have a passion for sharing and creating with young artists.

CG: Sandy, let’s end the first part with this:  You’re a director and an artistic director.  The hats are different, yet there’s crossover.  How do you strike the balance between creative and administrative?

Sandy: Well, most of the skills I use as an artistic director come in handy as a director.  Budgets, selecting the most talented people or cast, managing time and spaces, being creative with and accepting others ideas…  I’ve often said to my staff and design teams that I am incredibly open to suggestions and ideas because – if they’re brilliant, I’ll get all the credit for them anyway! (this produces a hearty laugh from Sandy)

There are unique situations:  In my role as Artistic Director I am also CEO, so though I have an amazing Managing Director, John Montilino, and administrative staff, I am the only one that reports directly to the Board of Directors.  I am accountable for it all, but have given so much responsibility and accountability to the staff that I never truly feel like I am “paddling the canoe alone.”  I can honestly say I have not made one single decision at that organization without asking at least several other people what they think.  I value so much their perspective, even when it’s different from my own.  And I certainly do not have a staff of “yes” people.  Some days that might be nice. (she says this with a big smile and chuckle)

But honestly, back to your question – there is never a time when I can take off my Artistic Director hat.  It’s always there, even when I’m  directing.  I hold myself to the same standard as every other director.  That seems fair don’t you think?

CG: Absolutely.

Coming Wednesday, Part 2 with Sandy Boren-Barrett

Filed Under: FamilyLifeMinneapolistheatre


About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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  1. Paul Hassing says:

    This is Australia calling…

    Do yous read me?



  2. […] you haven’t already done so, make sure and read Part 1 of my interview with Sandy Boren-Barrett.  She’s got a lot to say and every word is well worth your […]

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