Theatre Philadelphia appoints first openly queer Black person as executive director

Headshot of Sabriaya Shipley smiling. Behind the photo is a transparent rainbow background.
Theatre Philadelphia’s new executive director, Sabriaya Shipley. (Photo: Maurice J Photography/Background Rainbow Photo: Adobe Stock)

Theatre Philadelphia recently appointed Sabriaya Shipley, a Philadelphia-based playwright, poet, educator and ethnographer, as executive director. Shipley is a bisexual nonbinary woman and the first openly queer Black person in the role.

“Because of the intersections of oppression and cultural ancestry, I identify with being called specifically into Black womanhood then also into being nonbinary — to expansiveness and living on the spectrum of masculinity and femininity,” Shipley said. 

While attending Temple University, where they earned a bachelor of arts in theatre, Shipley advocated for more exposure to Black, queer artists and studying their work helped them to better explore and understand their own queer identity. 

Through this process of seeking and discovering stories that reflected their own historical and cultural narratives, Shipley learned to be persistent in their vision for programming that honors intersectionality. This persistence is a characteristic that grounded them in their work as an educator with Black Girls Book Club through Tree House Books, as the co-founder of Griot Girls — a youth writing collective, and now in their planning for the future of Theatre Philadelphia.

“In theater, we do a lot of work where we think we are representing all these different intersections, but we really aren’t,” Shipley said, alluding to monolithic depictions of Blackness, queerness and other experiences in art.

As a leader, Shipley looks to people whose identities and encounters with the world differ from their own, aiming to learn from their stories and to promote more expansive representations of humanity and culture.

Acknowledging this diversity is crucial to Shipley’s approach in cultivating spaces that bring people together. They explain that Black writers, performers and artists have been creating and sharing their work “for eons” but don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Shipley wants to support creators by addressing needs for funding, advertisements, recording, photography and other resources Theatre Philadelphia could help artists pursue.

“It’s not just me that comes into it,” they said about stepping into this new position. “I come with community. I’m bringing the community with me.”

The organization, which is responsible for the prestigious Barrymore Awards and for organizing Philly Theatre Week, leads efforts to expand audiences and engage public participation in theater while nurturing local artists. Shipley envisions more interactive events that provide opportunities for performers and artists to connect more directly with theater enthusiasts — such as talk-backs and discussions.

To Shipley, that feeling of connection through storytelling is what theater is about. 

“It’s why we snap. It’s why we clap. It’s why we say, ‘Yes!’ and ‘Do it!’ and make comments,” they said of Black audiences, underlining that physical and verbal responses to performances are a way to communicate to artists and makers that they are seen, heard and understood.

Theatre Philadelphia’s previous executive director is LaNeshe Miller-White, co-founder of Theatre in the X which brings performances straight to the community by holding events in Malcolm X Memorial Park at no cost. Shipley says this example of accessibility inspires their ideas for Theatre Philadelphia’s future contributions.

Shipley describes the atmosphere of those performances as relaxed, with babies toddling around and elders watching from their porches nearby. They hope to dispel the connotation that this kind of show might be less professional. Instead, they say, “It feels communal,” adding that theater experiences are elevated when producers are mindful of what audience members need to enjoy the show.

Shipley holds a master of arts in social justice and community organizing from Prescott College. They use some of their skills to back efforts to decolonize theater by supporting productions that allow artists and patrons to be more authentic in their participation in the experience. 

“Audiences don’t always feel welcomed into spaces where theater is happening,” they add, explaining that sometimes the cost of tickets is a barrier — but also that language fluency, disability, childcare and other considerations are ignored. Shipley wants Theatre Philadelphia to be part of reshaping how theater companies and spaces connect with the communities they serve.

As an ethnographer, Shipley is especially interested in documenting the stories and contributions of local leaders as well as emerging youth creators. 

“There’s a lot of ethnography done on a certain population’s lens — but that can’t be all that exists in the time capsule,” they said. 

“They’re worried about the erasure of significant cultural events and experiences due when they aren’t intentionally preserved. They’re interested in developing podcasts and other possibilities for both recording and sharing the stories of the city’s artists and creators as well as opportunities to amplify the voices of administrators, stage managers, and other professionals or volunteers who they believe are the “backbone to theater.”

Shipley’s passion for youth reminds them to be more imaginative when considering possibilities for this new role, cultivating spaces both for today and for future generations. 

“They will inhabit a world that I won’t ever touch,” they said, noting the importance of helping young people access stories and projects of the past in order to learn from and build upon those experiences.