Tony Sias (M.F.A., Acting, ‘92) alumnus of the Theater Division, now C.E.O. of Karamu House in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Cederick Taylor.
Tony Sias (M.F.A. ‘92) developed his arts leadership chops over many years as the district wide Director of Arts for Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and the Art Director for the Cleveland School for the Arts, a joint college preparatory academic and pre-professional arts school within the district offering study in visual, performing and literary arts for grades 8–12.
Now this Theater Division alumnus has a new challenge: to serve as President and CEO of Karamu House, the oldest African American community theatre company in the nation.
Karamu House—the first theater in the U.S. to have an integrated cast on stage—began as a settlement house in 1915, designed as an early social service agency for immigrants who were resettling in the Cleveland area community called The Roaring Third, located at the corner of East 38th and Central Avenue.
“The couple who founded it decided to use the arts as a means of engagement, and as an agent for social change. The institution was known as the premier training ground for African American actors in the country by the 1960’s,” said Sias.
“One of my first tasks [with Karamu] was to complete the strategic planning—to set the stage for a holistic new vision at Karamu—aimed at producing the next 100 years.” Sias describes this new vision as “Karamu 2.0,” with a focus on engagement of millennial communities and continuing to open to more diversified audiences into the future.
Key to this redesign is the overhaul of Karamu’s main theater space, the 215-seat Jelliffe Theatre, planned to re-open for the 2017-18 season.
“We’re upgrading to a state of the art theater space—improving seating and upgrading the lighting, and adding new projection to open the space for multiple uses, to function as performing arts production and education spaces, as well as conference and meeting facilities.”
Obtaining his M.F.A. in acting in 1992 at Ohio University, Sias fondly remembers working closely with Kathleen Conlin, the head and director of the School of Theatre at the time. Soon after departing Ohio University, Sias acted in “Oak and Ivy,” the story of Ohio poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, with the Karamu House, thus beginning his long relationship with the historic theater company.
In his previous role, as the Director of Arts for Cleveland Metropolitan School District, he was responsible for all visual and performing arts development, professional development for teachers, overseeing after school programs for students and working with a host of community partners in providing additional arts education opportunities.
“One of [my] biggest successes was with All City Arts, an afterschool and weekend program in Cleveland. This was designed for the best students in the district as well as the novice. [It served as] one location for all students to produce work with other cultural partners.”
Students in the All City Arts program produce and work with the best local arts professionals, as well as nationally known visiting artists. Averaging 300 students each year from local metropolitan schools, the program celebrates a 90% rate for high school graduation.
These experiences have prepared Sias to confront and re-imagine the future of the arts in Cleveland. “The arts and the public education system are a point of entry for many community stakeholders, representing a very wide network of interested people I had to work with,” said Sias.
“Arts are a part of culture,” said Sias, who points to the need for access to culturally responsive perspectives in the community. “It helps people better understand the world they live in, to work together, to problem solve. It promotes a keen sense of self awareness, and allows you experience different perspectives. It's a vehicle for personal growth.”
Read more stories online: Winter 2017 Alumni Newsletter
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