The Kindness of Strangers

Intiman grants fringe veteran Sheila Daniels her big Desire to direct.

By Steve Wiecking December 28, 2008 Published in the July 2008 issue of Seattle Met

"IF YOU PUT THINGS OUT INTO THE UNIVERSE,” director Sheila Daniels asserts, “often they will come.” She’s earned the optimism: Intiman Theatre named her its associate director last December and promptly assigned her the choice duty of helming this month’s production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Daniels studied theater at Oregon State University and in the early ’90s enjoyed an acting apprenticeship at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. There she performed for esteemed director Tina Landau, who recently staged The Cure at Troy for the Seattle Repertory Theatre and was the first of many mentors to prod Daniels’s developing aesthetic. “She doesn’t let you get off the hook about doing your best work—but she does it out of love and generosity and kindness,” praises Daniels. “She’s such a great communicator; she’s fearless with her actors and fearless with her vision.”
The cycle of generosity continued when Daniels settled permanently in Seattle in 1994, finding a home acting and directing at several fringe theaters. “It about killed me, but it was great,” Daniels says of more than a decade’s happy local labors, particularly a three-year turn as artistic director of Capitol Hill’s Theater Schmeater. “You are on call 24 hours a day. You run a fringe theater, you’re cleaning the toilets. If someone breaks into the theater, you’re taking the call. That’s great and exciting, but it becomes exhausting.”

The winds truly began to shift after Daniels staged a stirring production of the 1935 Clifford Odets play Waiting for Lefty at Capitol Hill Arts Center in 2005. She’d soaked up all the graciousness granted her over the years; every actor in the call-to-arms classic seemed unified by her abiding empathy for the underdog. By 2006 the woman from the fringe was taking a meeting with a man from the big leagues. “I was, of course, terrified,” Daniels says, recalling her first encounter with Intiman’s artistic director, Bartlett Sher. Plans for her to direct at Intiman initially fell through, so Daniels was even more flustered when, while entrenched in technical rehearsals for her Seattle Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, Sher contacted her again. “I was on an hour dinner break,” she laughs, “and the conversation started with, ‘I want you to tell me what your life is about.’”

Her life now is about directing one of the most revered plays in the American canon. She’s been looking at pictures of old New Orleans, studying dialects and, most importantly, focusing her considerable compassion on Blanche DuBois. “I think because of all the sexuality, there’s this assumption that she’s a vamp,” says Daniels. “But that’s not it. Blanche is a fighter. If you really pay attention to all the things she’s had to deal with, you see that. There’s something heartbreaking about a fighter that’s been broken. It’s a real loss of a human being.”

Blanche has been “broken by the brutality of society,” Williams once said. “Our society is not kind to fragile people,” Daniels agrees. “Our world is not a kind place for people who have to fight to be here. And we’re all culpable in their destruction.”

Daniels, meanwhile, continues to thrive—thanks in part to what she calls a special kind of luck. “The luck that happens in theater,” she says, “is that someone believes in you.”

Filed under