Sean Fenton brings an actor’s sensitivity to his new role as head of the Theater Bay Area

Sean Fenton is the new CEO of Theater Bay Area. He is a Stanford graduate and a union actor. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Sean Fenton, Theater Bay Area’s new executive director, knows what it was like to be an actor on a show that was abruptly canceled in March 2020.

Hes felt the fear and uncertainty of performing during the Omicron rise as COVID cases led to more cancellations among casts and crews. He understands how hard it is to make it work as a theater artist in the Bay Area, even as an established union actor — so much so that before accepting the TBA job, he weighed enrolling in a doctoral program clinical nutrition on the east coast.

“It’s a bit of a journey from community college student to executive,” he joked, referring to the organic chemistry and other prerequisites he just completed for that program. “Ita completely different wardrobe.”

Sean Fenton as Orsino and Sophia Introna as Viola in San Francisco Playhouse’s Twelfth Night. Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

All of this experience will serve him well in his new role at the 46-year-old non-profit organization that advocates for and provides services to local theater artists and companies. As Brad Ericksons successor, Fenton — who also has administrative experience at arts research firm WolfBrown and the Kaiser Permanente Educational Theater — helps set the theater agenda for the area, identifies industry challenges and opportunities, and encourages the Bay Area’s sprawling theater community to share ideas to win goals.

In an interview with The Chronicle on his first day at the new job, Fenton — a California native from the Inland Empire who lives in Oakland — said that both Bay Area and Theater Bay Area theaters are at tipping points.

“WeWe are all reflecting on how we want our sector to look in the future, both because of the pandemic and a renewed commitment to addressing issues related to inclusion, diversity, equity and access,” he said.

The challenges are manifold. “WeWe still don’t see the houses as full and from a public health perspective theres reasons for that,” he said. “But in terms of earned income, of courseis difficult for theater.”

Charlie (Hansel Tan, left), Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol) and Fred (Sean Fenton) are stopped at TheaterWorks by an immigration officer (Kerry Keiko Carnahan). “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical-Manga.” Photo: Kevin Bern / TheaterWorks 2017

Theater professionals leave the art or the region entirely. And in terms of racial inclusion, many types of Bay Area audiences and artists still don’t feel welcome in predominantly white spaces.

There are now only half a dozen employees in the Theater Bay Area, many part-time. (The workforce nearly doubled when I worked there eight years ago.) It gave up its office space with the pandemic, and that was long after its magazine stopped printing.

“We’re working with other resources,” Fenton said.

All of the staff has been on the job for less than a year, but Fenton sees fresh eyes as an advantage.

“We have the opportunity to design TBA the way we want it to be,” he said. “We’re getting dressedI don’t have to go back in time.”

He plans to spend his early days figuring out what stakeholders — his staff, theater staff, audiences — want from TBA and how it can work with policymakers and other influential figures, which could result in some programs being dismantled and others are created. Many new leaders use similar words about listening tours, but speaking to The Chronicle, Fenton demonstrated a professional actor’s special gift for listening. He does itt steamroller ahead; he seeks and finds silent clues in his interlocutors behavior and reacts accordingly.

Sean Fenton, Theater Bay Area’s new CEO, in ACTs Beach Theater. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Alameda playwright, composer and lyricist Min Kahng, on whose shows Fenton has appeared frequently, said FentonHis appointment “has made him happy for the Bay Area theater community. We’re going to meet someone who’s really passionate, who really knows how to listen, and who really cares about marginalized voices.”

Kahng recalled when the two were working on Kahngs The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga at TheatreWorks, Fenton pointed out a lyric that some might find offensive. “He took this step to talk about it,” Kahng recalled. It wasn’t just Fenton’s integrity that stood out; it was the grace with which he spoke. “I just remember being grateful for a little pushback. It was in no way accusatory or an attack.”

fentonTBA’s plans for TBA are tentative, but it hopes to increase its giving back to artists and theaters by drawing on the popularity of the Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund, administered by Dancers Group and InterMusicSF, which distributed more than $600,000 to artists in need during the pandemic. Already the nonprofitThe long-standing CA$H program, which provides project-specific support to small businesses and artists, expands to offer general operating dollars in October.

He also hopes to take a more active and less reactive role in disputes about equity, diversity and inclusion, or EDI, whether it’s staffing and program selection or workplace policy.

“We have a responsibility to lead, both by setting an example of how we operate internally and by providing resources and tools for our member firms and individual members to draw on,” said Fenton.

Sean Fenton is the new CEO of Theater Bay Area. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

“I also want to offer grace to our entire community in this area because were all learning,” he added. “No one in our community is free from prejudice.”

He envisions TBA both disseminating best practices and acting as a facilitator when needed.

“I want to remind all of us that we have so much in common.” It’s not good intentionsNot enough, he said, “but we canDon’t ignore good intentions either. ItThat’s a good starting point, isn’t it?”

Then theres shared love of an art form.

“The ability of theater to connect us to other cultures and validate our human experiences,” he said, “I think sois kind of unprecedented.”

  • Lili Janiak
    Lily Janiak is a theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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