Picture by Stevie's Photography

Q & A with Adena Varner, The Rep’s New Director of Learning and Community Engagement

Tuesday | Sep. 22, 2020

How long have you and your family been in St. Louis, and how are you finding your way in a new place during a pandemic?

We’re doing well! Getting settled, getting adjusted, since moving here August 1. 
It is so challenging getting to know a new city when everything’s closed. I’ve got all these incredible recommendations to try new things and go to new places, but you just can’t. We don’t know how long it takes to get anywhere. We just get up and put on clothes and that’s it. [laughs]

Tell us about your family.

My sons are eight and nine and my daughter, my oldest, is 12. 
And my husband is a sports performance coach. He is incredibly passionate about sharing sports as a tool for developing what he calls “the team mentality” in young people. 
My daughter is a dancer and basketball player. I call her “mini me.” My oldest son is a complete genius and has no idea what to do with himself. [laughs] He is a ball of energy!
My youngest son, he’s the artist. He’s becoming a really interesting storyteller. His room has all these pieces of paper tacked on the wall, and it’s this story of this superhero he has imagined. He’s really understanding the power of creative development and is learning new ways to share his voice. 

Adena Varner Family
Photo by Stevie's Photography

How was it for your daughter to move at age 12?

I had to make a lot of promises [laughs]. She’s been great, though. She’s amazing. One of the benefits is that she was able to get into Grand Center Performing Arts. She loves dance, she’s been dancing her whole life, so when I told her there was an opportunity to go to a performing arts middle school, she just lit up. 
But, honestly, the pandemic kind of helped with the transition because they haven’t seen their friends since late March, so it actually lessened the blow, I think. They certainly cried when I first told them the move was definite. But they said, “It’s an adventure. And we need an adventure right now!”

In a nutshell, what is your job description here at The Rep?

I think it’s still evolving. 
I’ll start with community engagement. Bringing the two departments of education and community engagement together under one umbrella is really interesting, so that we can be more intentional about how we learn, not just in formal institutions of learning, but how we learn as a community. Last year Hana [The Rep’s Augustin Family Artistic Director Hana Sharif] began planning a listening tour, curated to learn what the community needs and how The Rep can be a better resource. Part of my role is to reimagine a version of that listening tour for this moment, a moment in which we all need each other more than ever. But we also need to prioritize health and safety.
My role is to help us think innovatively and creatively about how we reach our children, how we reach our families, how art and life intersect and what role we play in making sure we really do the job of serving our community in thoughtful ways.

How do you define theatre education? How is it changing?

I think different people have different definitions. 
Some think of it as arts integration, where theatre is used as a teaching tool, which I love, and which I hope to foster. Using theatre as a resource, so the skills we’re able to unlock through theatre training can be used in content areas like reading, math and science.
Then there’s artist training. That is more of an opportunity to foster learning about the theatre – careers in the theatre, professional development. That’s important, but, to me, that isn’t theatre education.
I lean more toward using theatre as a tool for social and emotional growth, for enrichment in literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving.

What are your goals/vision in your new position at The Rep?

Oooo! I’m still crafting them. I am coming in at an interesting time where we’re figuring out how to complete a cycle - these huge shoes that I have to fill - and celebrating and honoring Marsha Coplon [The Rep’s previous Director of Education] and doing the great work that she left for me to do.
But there’s some reimagining. That’s a word I’ve been playing with a lot. And we have an unusual opportunity now to do that. 
For instance, WiseWrite [The Rep’s young playwrights program]. I think that writing is incredibly important, especially for young people, to be able to find their voices and access creativity in a completely different way. So that will stay, but I think that the structure, the shape of WiseWrite may look different moving forward. 
And as a mom, right now I’m getting the inside scoop on what teachers really need, and I think we have to be nimble enough to look at our programs and see, year to year, if we need to adapt and adjust, based on the needs of our educators and our families. 
Teachers are really looking for resource material right now, and they’re scouring the internet for videos of something to do – for P.T. and art and computer science – and I think that’s something we can supplement. I mean, teachers are doing most of the hard work on their own; they aren’t looking for much, they’re just looking for a way to keep their children engaged. 
Arts integration is key, for me, in keeping young people engaged. I went to an arts integration high school, and it helps you to frame learning differently. Since the tools that you’re accessing allow students to think deeper and draw their own conclusions, they’re able to remember things more, and they have a greater sense of appreciation for what they’re learning. 
I would love to have some type of after-school program. It can be a drama club, it can be pre-professional actor or designer or technician training, but, as a theatre, I think people look to us to help rear the next generation of artists, to train students who historically have not had access and opportunities. I want The Rep to provide that resource. 
One of my other dreams is some level of camps. Now, camp is… Camp is exhausting. [laughs] But it meets a major community need. Parents always need childcare in the summer, in a space that’s safe, where they’re children are going to learn and grow. Camp is a huge opportunity to instill arts appreciation, to pass on what we love. And, developmentally, children love to be seen. They need that affirmation. It’s critical to who they are and how they develop and how they see themselves. They need to hear, “You’re amazing! Your idea was great!”  
I’m most excited about ITC [The Imaginary Theatre Company, The Rep’s touring company for young audiences], because I haven’t had the opportunity to coordinate a touring company. I would love for it to be more than the performance but to have some curricular activities to support it, and to help audiences really  think about themes in the show, get students on their feet, make the work feel more relevant to their world. I also think ITC can be a vehicle to bridge divides, whether it’s economic, whether it’s exposure to arts, whether it’s racial, whatever the divide is, ITC can be used to bring folks together. 

It sounds like you’re placing a lot of energy in our youth audiences.

Definitely. They can not only enjoy seeing theatre, they’re creators, too. I’m biased, I know, but young people are so smart! I really want to help harness their creativity by letting them drive the content, not just showing them content. I am interested in giving them the platform to amplify their own voices. They don’t get the stage often, so when they have it, let them say what they need to say. 

Could you share some of your favorite plays?

West Side Story! That was the first play I was ever in, in middle school – I was Maria. I love that play; I could watch it all day long. And it’s amazing to me that its themes are still relevant today.
I also love The Crucible. I love Arthur Miller! Abigail is a bucket list role for me. [laughs] That was the first regional theatre production I ever saw, at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. And some of my high school teachers were in it. It was so profound for me to see people I knew, loved and had such an appreciation for, on stage. 
I was able to see The Phantom of the Opera with my grandmother. That was one of the first musicals that I saw on Broadway. I’ll never forget the chandelier falling!
And, today, as theatre is evolving, I’m really interested in newer works that may not have the same scale and have a very different voice, but feel more like me. Spectacle is what drew me to theatre, but what’s sustaining for me now is the tone, voice and agency that artists have today. 
One of my favorite plays at this moment is Hamilton. I love that it sounds nothing like what we’re historically used to hearing in an American musical.I love the work of Dominique Morisseau – she’s one of my favorite writers. Her amazing Skeleton Crew was a play I worked on in Baltimore. And What to Send Up When it Goes Down by Aleshea Harris – it feels very much like a return to ancient storytelling, to share history and culture and remind people where they come from. It’s a really interesting pivot. 
Ghost by Jason Reynolds is one of my favorite family plays right now. I actually went to school with Jason. It feels very true to my life. I’m not an athlete, but the storyline of Ghost – how you try to grow as a person, but trauma still plays over and over in your mind as you try to overcome it, but having an adult there, a mentor, a coach to love you and guide you along,helps you see your potential. It’s a really powerful piece.

What was it about this particular job opportunity and about The Rep that made you willing to relocate your family and come here?

It really was the people. Meeting the staff and hearing the heart for change and hope, and also seeing this deep commitment to the work made the decision easy. Coming from the East coast, there’s so much turnaround in our industry, it’s almost like every two or three years there’s a brand new staff. But at The Rep, that’s not the case. To me, that speaks to commitment and dedication. There’s something here that feels like family, and it feels like the city is primed for the kind of work that I’m personally growing into. Spiritually, I feel at home, I definitely miss Baltimore steamed crabs – you can’t do better than that! – but I’ve never felt so at home.


Picture by Stevie's Photography