The iconic Ensemble Theatre has a new managing director, Sharon Samuel. Recognizing that she is taking the baton of leadership from a Houston legend, Janette Cosley, Samuel is more than ready to build her own legacy of Ensemble leadership.
The Defender recently spoke with Houston native Samuel about who she is and her vision for the Ensemble moving forward.
DEFENDER: Ms. Samuel, if you wouldn’t mind, can you introduce yourself to the Defender family?
SHARON SAMUEL: I’m Sharon Samuel. I am the managing director of the Ensemble Theatre, and I am thrilled to be sitting in this seat, not only talking to you, but just say to everyone, to our community at large, how excited I am to be able to shepherd this organization along with our board of directors and our artistic director, Eileen Morris, into another 45 years. We are really looking forward to putting on live performances once again.
DEFENDER: What excites you most about the role that you’re stepping into?
SAMUEL: Oh, honestly, it’s a role that allows me to have new challenges. The arts in this capacity is new. I am familiar with operations, with finances. Those are my strong suits. So, learning more about the arts and the capacity that I have not been exposed to it before excites me. But what really gets me going is the community partnerships, the community at large and the impact that the arts have on people’s lives.
DEFENDER: Does that mean you are Houston born and raised?
SAMUEL: Oh, yes. I was born and raised right here in the great state of Texas, right here in the great city of Houston. It is a place that is near and dear to my heart. I have loved this city for quite some time. It’s not the only city I’ve known, but it is the best city.
DEFENDER: What high school did you go to?
SAMUEL: It’s funny that you would ask, because I always say the same thing. I went to Spring Woods High School. It is not in Spring. It is actually in Spring Branch ISD. And people say, “Well, where is that?” And I say, “Oh, it’s close to Memorial City Mall.”
DEFENDER: Do you look at your role as filling the shoes of a Houston legend (Janette Cosley)?
SAMUEL: I would definitely say that I have some rather large shoes to feel. My predecessor, Ms. Janette Cosley, did a wonderful job of being a great steward of this organization. One thing that I’ve grown up doing, however, is not really measuring myself against other people, but measuring myself against myself. I think that as we continue to evolve as people, we know what our strengths are, but we also know what our weaknesses are, and sometimes we can be our own worst critics. So, I try not to align myself with other people, but with my own strengths and recognizing the skillsets that I bring. And I know that we’ve got a lot of work to do, especially coming out of a pandemic. And I say coming out because we’re still in it. But I’ve got a lot of aspirations for myself as I continue to help this organization preserve African-American artistic expression and bring it to the masses.
DEFENDER: I read that you had a relationship with the Ensemble before being named the managing director.
SAMUEL: I did. You can almost say that I’m homegrown in this role. I have had an affiliation with the Ensemble Theatre for a number of years prior. I am a Season Subscriber. I am a volunteer. I moved on to other roles within the organization through board leadership. And so, I have assisted on their annual golf tournament which supports the Young Performance Program. I also filled roles as the assistant treasurer, treasurer and have helped the organization in a number of capacities prior to now.
DEFENDER: What are the things that a managing director does?
SAMUEL: So if you can think about compartmentalizing, the arts, the managing director is responsible for the administrative and operations of the theater and our artistic director is responsible for the production of the arts and the creative journey, right? And so those things really are closely in lined and that in order to be able to be a successful organization, you have to have a strong operations and administrative team that supports the art that’s happening. So what I’m responsible for our staff compliance to policies and procedures, our finances and marketing. So those types of things, and one of the things that I’m really looking forward to in this role, and we were already really started, um, you know, is really focusing on our people, their professional development and growth, um, our marketing aspect, and ensuring that people know that we’re still here and that we’re going strong. And for our newcomers, because the city of Houston has welcomed quite a few new people through the last year and a half to 18 months, letting them know that we’re here and that we have great art to provide that has a rich history of not only the ensemble theater, but of stories waiting to be told.
DEFENDER: What are some of your goals, either personal or corporate, for this upcoming year or upcoming years?
SAMUEL: Top of mind is shepherding the organization onto a national stage with the assistance of our board of directors and Eileen Morris, our artistic director. And protecting and preserving the culture heritage of this great institution. Because we are a treasure and we should be known and recognize that’s that treasure nationally. Also, I would say the second thing would be connecting with our audiences and our community and ensuring that they have an enhanced customer experience. And that can be shown in a multitude of ways. It can be shown in our offerings. It could be shown in how we present ourselves to them. And I think one of the key things that we’ll be looking at this year, and I’m very excited to be leading the charge in this, is in the creation of a mobile application. Finding people and being with people where they are and whenever they want to be connected with us. And I think lastly, one of the other goals that I have is we recognize as a nation that nonprofit organizations receive a ton of money from a philanthropic standpoint. However, arts organizations receive less than 10% of that. But then when you compound being a cultural arts organization, a Black organization, the percentage of funding that comes our way is even smaller than that. So, being able to share our story globally, to create additional partnerships that will help us continue to preserve African-American artistic expression, is very important, because we are uniquely situated to be able to not only share our stories from a creative journey standpoint, but to bring people along with us. And that means serving our community through STEAM programming, partnering with schools, partnering with organizations. And I think from a STEAM perspective when, we’re talking about our youth and when we’re talking about Black learners, being able to provide them with a technical skillset that not only provides them with confidence, but resiliency, because they’re going to be faced with so much, and you can do that with the arts. Not just being on stage, but backstage as well. And we are uniquely situated to be able to meet the needs of our community to do just that.
DEFENDER: Can you say something about this particular season and do you have any favorite upcoming productions?
SAMUEL: Oh man. I think what’s most important to recognize is that this is our 45th anniversary season and we are titling it, theming it, “The Ensemble Theatre: Indomitable Spirit, Together, Empowered and Tenacious” because those are all of the things wrapped up into who are as a culture, as a theater, from the way we started to where we are today. Being able to provide Black and Brown people the opportunities to tell stories that are their own, in their own words, that other people can understand and really grow through. Our stories are woven in the fabric of our lives. And so I cannot say any one production that I’m excited about because I’m excited about them all. I will say that each different production that we have this season touches on a piece of my life whether past, present or future. And I’m looking forward to them all being told in some way and being able to connect with them. But I will say right that as equally as excited as I am about them all, we do have a world premiere for our Black History production called “The Lawsons.” And what is exciting about that is that it is the love letter of Reverend Bill and Mrs. Audrey Lawson and they’re coming together. But what they did as activists right here in Houston, that impacted us as a nation, that played a part in the larger fight for social justice. And it’s crazy that we say this because we’re still in that fight. We’re still in that journey. And I think that we will be for quite some time. And I think that each generation ebbs and takes some measure of step until we can get equality. So, I think that story should be told on a national level. We are so excited about that world premiere and we are so excited, not only about us being a Houston treasure, but being able to showcase the stories of our own citizens who are also treasures.
DEFENDER: How can the community help you in your efforts?
SAMUEL: For quite some time, we’ve always had this slogan that says “The Ensemble Theatre, the E stands for everyone.” And we ask that everyone tells someone else about the treasure that we are. Word of mouth plays such a huge role in people coming to see us and coming to know us outside of traditional means of getting in front of audiences. But I think that that is the most realistic and also the truest way to show someone that you value an experience, is by you telling your own story about that experience. And then someone jumping on the bandwagon and saying, I want that experience too.