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NEWS: Shea’s hires DC’s Thembi Duncan

For newly created director of arts engagement and education

Thembi Duncan is looking forward to checking out the local performance art and poetry scenes, salsa dancing, and the Buffalo Bills.


After a lifetime in the Washington, DC, area, Thembi Duncan, playwright/director/arts administrator/teaching artist, decided it was time for a new adventure. She cast a wide net for something that would use her skills in education, arts engagement, and theater; around the same time, Shea’s decided to expand its education outreach and create a new position. Their searches collided, and Duncan relocated to Buffalo in late April to join the Shea’s team.


“I just applied for a whole bunch of positions, and initially was like, ‘Cool, Buffalo; OK, let’s see what this is about.’ I was open and decided to be a yes to whatever came my way,” Duncan says. “I didn’t know anything about Shea’s, and then the more I learned, the more excited I got.”


Duncan was intrigued by the history of Shea’s, which reminded her of Ford’s Theatre, where she’d previously worked. “It’s a historical space that had a strong standing in the community, and working for a place like that gives you the visibility and opportunity to impact broadly,” she says. “That excited me, [as did] overseeing three artistic spaces, expanding the roots of Shea’s into the community. The fact that it was a new position was appealing, because it’s an opportunity to build something from the ground up. That’s my nature: I build community, programs, opportunities. I just build.”


Duncan went through three rounds of interviews, (“they weren’t for the faint of heart!”), but after the first phone call with Shea’s president Michael Murphy, she knew she wanted the job—so much so that she created a fake business card, complete with a picture, that read: Thembi Duncan, Director of of Arts Engagement and Education, Shea’s. “I pinned it next to my door, so every time I’d walk through, I’d see it,” she laughs. “My picture, that title, that’s what I’m going for. I was looking at other jobs—I’m a pragmatist and a professional—but this was the one that I wanted to put my energies into getting. This one just felt perfect.”


Some of the good vibes came from Murphy himself, who Duncan felt shared her values when it came to arts education and engagement, restorative justice, and inclusion. And the Shea’s team was drawn to her experience, which seemed tailormade for the position: “I have a balanced combination of arts expertise, the practice, and the education, and that’s a unique skill set. My most recent position [as creative programs director at Young Playwrights’ Theater] fine-tuned that, and gave me an opportunity to see not only how to create great art, but also what it takes to pay for and market it, and what it takes to get buy-in from people.”


While Duncan will administer existing Shea’s educational initiatives—the Kenny Awards, Camp Broadway, Shea’s in Schools—the full-time hours allow for expansion. “There’s an understanding that even though Shea’s is doing a lot of great programs, not necessarily everyone knows about it. How do we consolidate, refine, and market, and what is the Shea’s educational brand?” she says. “Beyond that, a big interest of ours is to extend arts engagement to the entire community—not just students, but incarcerated people, the deaf community, mental health facilities, students with special needs, young people on the spectrum, adult learners, refugees, LGBT, seniors, just everybody. I’m excited to engage all the communities, share tools of self-expression and artistry, and create bridges from our content at Shea’s to our various communities.


“It’s going to be dependent on the needs of the population; I’m not a person who’s going to go in and say, ‘You need this because I decided you need this,’” Duncan continues. “I have a large toolbox. I engage and I listen, and then I look in my toolbox, and say, ‘This tool might be of some use to you to build what it is you are trying to build.’ If another is required, that’s good as well. Communities shift in what they need. What they needed last year isn’t what they need next year, and I’m responsive to that.”


Duncan is also excited to get to know Buffalo, as her only previous experience in Western New York was at the airport. “I didn’t come with any expectations, and [the first time I came], the thing that impressed me most was the potential,” she says. “The space is just open. I’m used to being in a space where there are so many people, everybody’s in a rush, everybody’s very stressed, everybody’s doing twelve things, and I thought, ‘Wow, this place seems like there’s more space—physical space and mental space—to think and breathe.’ During the interview, I was asked both formally and anecdotally how I felt about the change in pace and the change in number of people always around. Where I am in my life, that’s something I welcome. For the past twenty years, I’ve had so much on my plate and been involved in so many projects. I’ve done well by DC, and DC’s done well by me, and now I want to try my hand in a different community. This is the first time I’ve lived in another city, and I’m excited about Buffalo being a place that’s primed for some expansion of experience in the arts, whatever that means. I want to listen and respond. I want to get to know Buffalo.”


Read more on this month's theater scene here.


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