Sam White

Founder and Artistic Director of Shakespeare in Detroit
Sam White head shot
Courtesy of Sam White
Sam White Transcript Music Credits: Excerpts from “The Didda Fly and Dodger” from the album Lost in the Loop, performed by Liz Carroll used courtesy of Compass Records Group Sam White:  We need opportunities to be able to sit together and experience something together despite race, despite age, despite economic status. And I think theatre is the perfect opportunity for that, for you to come together, in an audience, and to have this common experience. Jo Reed:  That is Sam White, she's the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Sam White was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and she believes that if any city can relate to the work of William Shakespeare, it's Detroit.  In fact, that belief has become the bedrock of her life. The 33 year old put her money where her mouth is and started Shakespeare in Detroit, a professional Shakespeare company that performs in venues throughout the city--from the park to the recycling center--wherever Sam thinks she can introduce new audiences to Shakespeare.  That was 18 months ago. That was 18 months ago.  Since then, Sam White's company has been recognized in various magazines and TV features, she's given a TED X talk, and Crain's named Sam one of Detroit's 40 under 40, but Sam White also works multiple jobs, she’s drained her bank account, and given up her apartment to save on rent.  She pumps everything she has into the company and she brings a joyful passion to her determination to turn the spotlight on Shakespeare and on Detroit.  Sam White describes Shakespeare in Detroit as a site-specific theatre company--which means what exactly? Sam White:  That means we perform in the places where people live where they work and then also where they play. Depending on what type of show we’re doing and the concept for the show and the vision for the show that kind of dictates where we do it. So right now we’re doing King Lear at a college here in Detroit, Marygrove College and I’m very excited about that. Jo Reed:  First, why Shakespeare and why site specific? Sam White:  Well, personally I love Shakespeare. I have for a very long time and it makes sense to me to do Shakespeare in Detroit because Shakespeare has centuries of proven consumer engagement and I thought when I started the theatre company that it would be great to have one in this city because tourism is a key factor to having a healthy thriving city and people all over the globe go or travel to different Shakespeare festivals and Shakespeare companies to see the Bard’s work and so I think in order for us to kind of entice people who maybe have never been to the city before it makes sense to have a Shakespeare company, so that once people get here to see our plays they can also support other businesses like restaurants and shopping facilities. So, it not only makes creative sense, it makes business sense as well. Jo Reed:  How did you come up with the idea? Sam White:  Well, I was on a bus trip to the Utah Shakespeare Festival and on my visit there I saw about three plays, I think, three or four plays and when I was on my way back, I was living in Vegas at the time, I thought to myself well if they can do this in the middle of the desert, then we can surely do something like this back at home in Detroit where we have historical sites and venues that would be perfect for Shakespeare’s work and so when I returned to Detroit that’s when I started kind of building the idea because at the time that’s all it was and four or five years later we have an actual theatre company so it’s very exciting and, again, it just makes perfect sense for me, I think, to have the opportunity to do something like this because I think there is a hunger for Shakespeare in the city. Jo Reed:  I mean, did you take to Shakespeare the first time you read it? Was it love at first sight? Sam White:  No, I didn’t like it when I was first exposed to it. My mother gave me the complete works of Shakespeare and I hated it because I didn’t understand it at first. It took a few years for me to really be able to wrap my head around it and that was because when I was a kid she gave me the complete works when I was eight. I really hadn’t lived so I didn’t have a lot of experience to relate to the characters and also the language for me was pretty intimidating, but after spending some time with the text I got it. It opened up for me and I started to love it-- I was probably a teenager, about sixteen or seventeen years old and now I love it, but no, initially, it was punishment because I would try to listen to rap music and my mom wasn’t a fan. She still isn’t and so she told me if I liked lyrics so much I would have to read Shakespeare and she gave me that book and that hate eventually turned into love for his plays. Jo Reed:  Well, here’s my question:  When you disliked it so much what made you keep on going or keep returning to it? Sam White:  We’ve always been, my family, really big readers. So if my mom was reading we were reading too. So I kind of just developed the routine of constantly reading his works by constantly reading with her. So she would be on one end of a couch or sofa I would be on the other end reading whatever she was reading. And so it wasn’t really a choice in the beginning. It was something that was required at our household when I was younger and because I read it so much it grew on me and now it’s a love and it’s a passion and a theatre company. Jo Reed:  And you grew up in Detroit. I mean you’re not coming from somewhere else to come and save the city. Sam White:  No. No. I came from Seven Mile and Greenfield that’s where I was born and raised. I’m a Detroiter through and through. I went to Wayne State University. I lived here most of my life except one year when I moved to Vegas because I thought I was going to be the next Rodney Dangerfield. Other than that I’ve been home the entire time. So yeah, I’m a Detroiter and as they say use what you’ve got. So I love Shakespeare and so I thought if I was going to give back to my city in any way I was going to do that by using something that I love to help the community that raised me. Jo Reed:  You mentioned standup comedy, what else?  Tell me about your background. Sam White:  I’ve been acting and dancing and singing my entire life. I no longer do that because I just don’t have the time because I’m producing Shakespeare. So I’ve been entertaining in some sort of facet since I was about three. So that spans a couple of decades or so. It’s been a long artistic journey for me but I finally found my home as a producer. I actually enjoy it more than acting to tell you the truth. Jo Reed:  Tell me why. Sam White:  I find it satisfying to be able to give my friends and my acting colleagues the opportunity to work and especially to do work in the fine arts. It’s always wonderful to me when I can have a play that’s going to be attended by 800 people at New Center Park, for example, and be able to hire 11 of my artist friends or actor friends to be a part of that experience or my costume designer friends or my scenic designer friends. For me, I get more satisfaction from the ability to put other people to work as opposed to me just finding work for myself. Instead of it being a dream that’s kind of just built on the ego of being an actor, it’s a dream that’s built on spirit and the idea of helping others to be a part of this journey with Shakespeare in Detroit. We have our actors and our wonderful talent here and I think people don’t often think of Detroit as the home of actors or artists who do wonderful things on stage and so we’re able to showcase our talent and I love being kind of the facilitator for that. Jo Reed:  You know, I have to say, until I was researching for this interview, I had no idea the extent of theatre in Detroit. Sam White:  Yeah. We’re one of the top five theatre communities in the country. I just, I think it’s often overlooked because people just don’t think of this town this way. It’s most often thought of as being a blue collar town and it is for sure, but we have a really robust artist community and creative community and there’s a ton of actors in this town. Jo Reed:  Now, let’s get to some practical matters here. You had this wonderful idea, then what did you do? How did you begin? Sam White:  Well, I actually prepared by going to an incubator actually in midtown, it’s called Tech Town and I think I was the only creative entrepreneur there but I kind of wanted to come in and learn as much as I could so that I could leave with some of the same sensibilities as someone who would run any other startup whether it was a tech or food or some sort of financial startup. I wanted to come in with that same sensibility because although theatre is a creative thing it’s also a business and so I wanted to be able to run it so that we could be sustainable and we weren’t just doing something that was fun but so that we could last as long as an institution that I look up to or admire Michigan Opera Theater. We want to be here for a while. So I did that. I prepared. It took about a year for us to finally get our first show up on its feet and that was Othello. It took that long because I had to do some convincing. People tend to have better things to worry about than starting a Shakespeare company in the city and so after doing some pitching I was finally able to find the support to do a show at Grand Circus Park which is right outside Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. We did Othello. I thought-- I knew for sure my mom would come but that’s the only person I knew would attend for sure but we had about 500 people show up for that performance which was inspiring for me and I figured, okay, well, let’s try and do this again. So we did our second show Antony and Cleopatra at a recycling center called Recycle Here in New Center with all recycled or repurposed materials for costumes and set pieces. We had about almost 800 people show up for that show. So that inspired another show. We’ve pretty much been taking it on a play by play basis and now we’re on our sixth production. As long as people keep supporting, we’ll keep doing shows because it’s all about audience support and community. We need them to survive. And so, so far they’ve supported and we’ve been able to continue and now we’re going to celebrate two years of Shakespeare. Jo Reed:  What about the initial money? Where were you able to get that? Sam White:  Fortunately, for our first show it was fully sponsored. So we had the support of Quicken Loans for our first show which was wonderful. It was a one night only production which was fine because it was a great way to get our feet wet and then for the second show Detroit Soup which is an organization that’s pretty much I guess you would call it “angel funding” where the community donates for a particular entrepreneur to be able to do a certain project or thing and that funded Antony and Cleopatra and then our other shows were also sponsored fully by the parks that we preformed them in. With this show King Lear, King Lear is fully sponsored by me. So this show is we don’t have a corporate sponsor. I’m the sponsor. I’m producing this show solely. I have to tell you the truth, though, we were hoping to do Macbeth this summer and I’m not sure that that one is going to happen because again we take it show by show and depending on how much support we get that dictates whether we can do a show or not and at this time we don’t necessarily have the support to do Macbeth. So we’ll do King Lear for sure next month and Macbeth is tentative. Jo Reed:  Did you try Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing? Sam White:  We did for sure. We’re actually doing an Indiegogo campaign right now for our summer performances in an effort for us to continue our 2015 season. We have about 21 percent of our goal with less than 2 weeks to reach the actual goal. The goal was 15,000. So that’s why I mentioned Macbeth being tentative. That show was planned to be our free show because we always try to do one free show a year because that is part of our mission to have accessible theatre so that people who don’t necessarily have the ability to buy a theatre ticket can at least see one of our shows a season. Unfortunately, again, if we don’t get the support to do it though we won’t be able to do a free show this year, but hopefully we can come back next year if it doesn’t happen this summer. Jo Reed:  But you still have two weeks. Sam White:  Less than. Less than two weeks and you never know what can happen in that timeframe. So yeah we definitely could make it happen if we get the support to do so and we’re excited to perform it if the opportunity affords itself. . Jo Reed:  How do you support yourself? Sam White:  I work. At this time I have four jobs. I don’t have five anymore. It was five and now I have four. So I have four and typically all of it except what absolutely can’t goes towards the theatre company because even if we have sponsorships they don’t necessarily cover all of our expenses. Theatre is very expensive. I think that’s kind of something that people don’t know either because if you’re not in theatre you don’t realize just how expensive it can be. For it to be a really awesome production you have to spend some funds or else it turns into a community theatre project and we’re a professional theatre company which means we have to perform at professional standards and so yeah that requires me to work a lot to make sure that these plays turn out the way that I envision them in my head. Jo Reed:  Are you a not for profit or a for profit? Sam White:  Yeah, we’re in the process. When I started out at Tech Town which was my incubator I wanted to go there because three of the smaller theatres here in Southeast Michigan had closed their doors permanently. So the template that they were working with wasn’t working so at the time I thought perhaps we could come up with something different and be a hybrid. We found it necessary to change our entity to a nonprofit and so that’s what we’re doing. Again, it still comes back to the community supporting us, showing up for our shows, and also when we’re in the process of fundraising helping out with that as well. Jo Reed:  Now, connecting with audiences clearly that’s one of your missions with Shakespeare in Detroit. Talk about some of the ways that you go about doing that. Sam White:  Well, that could be anything whether it’s me literally go door to door which was something I did last summer and introducing myself to people and into small businesses and letting them know about Shakespeare in Detroit. I did that around the neighborhood that’s surrounding the old high school that I went to and speaking of the old high school that I went they had a brand new state of the art theatre and they had never performed theatre in that theatre. They had the building that I attended when I was in high school at Mumford High School in Detroit is gone now and they have a really new beautiful fancy building and so I wanted to go back to my alma mater and perform and especially after I heard that they hadn’t done any theatre in their beautiful theatre. So we went and we did Romeo and Juliet there and we were able to connect with about 24 students at my old school who had never even see a theatre production, let alone Shakespeare. So that was pretty wonderful and also, again, it comes back to those free shows being able to give people the opportunity to come see theatre who may not otherwise have that chance and because we usually perform in parks the parks are located near bus stops and they’re very accessible even if you ride a bike or you have to walk to our performances you can get there because they’re usually centrally located in a park that anyone can get to and they get to see the shows for free. So and that’s how we’ve been able to, I think, create the impact that we’ve created because we don’t celebrate our second anniversary until August so it’s been 18 months and we’ve engaged with 3,000 people so far and I consider that a success and it’s because we’ve opened doors for people who maybe didn’t get a chance to see a show before. Jo Reed:  Do you remember the first time you saw Shakespeare performed? Do you remember where that was or what the circumstances were? Sam White I saw Shakespeare actually performed for the first time when I was 14 but that was in a movie. That was Othello with Laurence Fishburne. Other than that I had been reading Shakespeare mostly. Jo Reed:  So you were able to just so visualize it as you read it. Sam White:  Yeah, and even to this day I’m a page to stage type of art person. We’re performing King Lear, we’re actually in rehearsals now. I’ve read the play in the last six months ten times because I have to get the visual in my head and then it makes sense to me on stage. I can’t see something on stage and then go back and read it. So yeah by the time I was seventeen I had probably read the complete works I don't know twenty times so the visual kind of lived in my head. But that’s nothing for my mom, you should see how much she reads. Jo Reed:  Was there arts ed. at Mumford High School when you were a student there? Sam White:  No. No. I would have to say all of my arts education in Detroit public schools came from my mother and that’s not to say that all schools in the Detroit public school system are like that because I only attended one high school so I can’t speak for them all. But no, my experience at Mumford there wasn’t a theatre program at all. So it was really very sweet for me to be able to go back and do Shakespeare there. Jo Reed:  Let me ask you this, you did Antony and Cleopatra at Recycle Here. I cannot help but be curious about that conversation when you came knocking on the door of the recycling center and asking if you can do a play there. Sam White:  Yeah. Well, the cool thing is Matt Naimi who runs that recycling center is the coolest person in the world. And he is a huge arts advocate and an artist himself. And so typically artists of all kinds ask him to use that space and he usually says yes so he said yes to us too. I saw him at TEDx Detroit and I approached him and asked him if he minded if we kind of filled his space with Shakespeare for a couple of weekends and he said absolutely. Now, us pulling it off was probably one of the hardest things I ever did in my entire life because it was actually this time last year because we opened on March 15 and it was very cold outside. It was snowing. The inside of the recycling center was wet but people still showed up. Every single night we were pretty much sold out.  All of our shows except for the matinee people came. They were wrapped in blankets. They had on their boots, their gloves, their hats and they sat there for almost three hours to watch Antony and Cleopatra. Jo Reed:  That’s extraordinary. Sam White:  It was fun. I told the audience hey we’re going to give you something you won’t ever forget and hopefully you leave with all of your toes because it’s very cold in here. But they all left with their toes and they all left, I think, pretty inspired too because I think if we can pull something off like that then that kind of, I think, makes people think okay. If you can do Antony and Cleopatra and recreate Rome and Egypt in the middle of a recycling center than anything is possible. Jo Reed:  Well, you’re also determined in the way that you stage these plays to really make explicit their relevancy to not just people in the twenty-first century but to Detroit. Sam White:  Yeah, and that’s why often times when I’m choosing the plays I try to make them practical and I try to make them have some sort of tie to the city. And if there’s not a tie to the city something that’s really personal. So we chose Othello, or  I chose Othello as the first show not only because I liked it but because at the time we were having a mayoral election and one of the candidates was experiencing a lot of controversy because he didn’t look like the population of Detroit. So people were questioning his legitimacy and his résumé and his qualifications and I felt like he could relate to Othello who was this-- they called him the valiant Moor but despite his qualification and his résumé and all that he had to bring to Venice and to make it better people were still questioning who he was because he didn’t look like everybody else in Venice. And so we did that play for that reason. And then with Antony and Cleopatra we chose that to represent kind of old and new Detroit. You have the Romans who were kind of holding on to the past and they wanted the Egyptians to appreciate history and all that they had been through. And then you had the Egyptians who represented new Detroit and they loved innovation and they didn’t really care so much about the past and kind of just wanted to look forward and those things kind of pulling at each other and that tension paralleled Detroit in a really beautiful way. So I hope people picked up on that when they came and saw Antony and Cleopatra. Jo Reed:  And you’re also very committed to diversity both on the stage and in the audience. Sam White:  Yes, very much so. We have a really large theatre community in Detroit. I often times go to a lot of theatre. I’m a patron in addition to having my own theatre company. And when I go I don’t see a lot of diversity represented on stage to be frank, to be truthful and I definitely don’t see a lot of diversity in the audience. So, I haven’t figured out exactly what the cure for that is but I’m working diligently to fix that because I think that art is supposed to be for everyone. It’s supposed to be inclusive. And on stage, especially with Shakespeare you have the opportunity for colorblind casting. There’s no reason to, I think, not have it with Shakespeare. For example, even with King Lear one of his daughters is black, one of them is white. It doesn’t matter. It just really doesn’t matter. So for my casting I’m more concerned with can you act the piece than what you look like. And then for our audiences, I think, in Detroit especially with all of the changes that are happening in the city we need opportunities to be able to sit together and experience something together despite race, despite age, despite economic status. And I think theatre is the perfect opportunity for that, for you to come together, in an audience, and to have this common experience is necessary. It’s not an “or”, it’s an “and”. And I think often times the arts are often overlooked when people talk about the rejuvenation of the city. They often mention tech or food or these other industries and no one considers the arts. And the fact of the matter is people may come here for a job but if you want to keep them, you have to give them experiences. And ninety percent of those experience comes from art. Jo Reed:  Yes. The NEA applauds that statement. Sam White:  Yeah, it’s always fascinating to me when I go and I watch panels and people talk about, and you can’t see me Jo but I’m using quotation marks, the rejuvenation of Detroit and I don’t hear the arts mentioned. I’m baffled because people don’t go to New York City because Wall Street is cool. They go because they want to experience the arts. They’re going to Broadway. They’re going to that cool museum. They’re going to that awesome outdoor performance. They’re not going because they want to check out the financial district. And I think that it’s if we want to have a healthy thriving city the arts needs to be at the top of the list. Jo Reed:  You know and I think it’s all too often overlooked that artists themselves are hardworking professionals. Sam White:  Exactly. That’s the truth. And artists obviously I’m one myself but artists some of the hardest working people. And it’s a skilled trade just like any other skilled trade. These people go to school for what they do. And they train very hard. Before people even see us on stage, we’ve already rehearsed for six to eight weeks. We’ve already had costume fittings. We’ve had to conceptualize a set in what makes sense for the space that we’re performing it in. We had to come up with the dollars to do it. We had to figure out how many servants were needed in this scene, how many attendants were ended in this scene, how many stage props we need for that scene. There really is mechanics to producing these shows. It’s more than just pretend. This is real life what’s happening. The pretend happens on stage but the real life happens behind the scenes and we’re as relevant an industry as any industry that’s out there, period. Jo Reed:  And typically, it’s populated by people like yourself who’s willing to put everything on the line in order to do it. Sam White:  Yeah, and that’s the truth and I’m not in any sort of way trying to martyr myself because it just is what it is. Whenever you’re starting something especially because this city is very unique, Jo. It’s a melting pot but it’s not. We have a really wonderful eclectic mix of artists here in the city and being an artist I’m kind of in the mix of that anyway. But the demographic is still very interesting because you still have a state that’s very segregated. The population in Detroit is still pretty much 80 percent black. And then most kind of the rest of the population of Michigan is kind of scattered here, scattered there, scattered here, scattered there. So I’m always and other theatre artistic directors or executive directors are trying to figure out a way how do we get the people who live here and the people who don’t live in this city to all come together to see this play because often times and I’ve met people who live in Michigan but have never been into the city before. So how do we get all of these people with all of these different experiences to come together? And how do we let them know that despite all of the differences that you think are there which are just illusions, but how do we get all of these different people with all of these different ideas about what Detroit is to come to Detroit an experience Shakespeare?  I’m considering myself now an anthropologist because I have a lot of digging to do to figure out exactly how do we keep going and growing? The demographic is changing, how do we change with it but what is it now?  There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle, Jo. There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle. Jo Reed:  It must be gratifying in some way for you to be able to do this in your hometown. Sam White:  It is. It’s really cool. I’m always excited. And any time-- I love it too when people ask me where I’m from and I get to tell them Seven Mile because I think Eminem has made Eight Mile really popular but Seven Mile is cool too. And yeah it’s gratifying. I think people sometimes leave home and they do great things elsewhere. But I’ve always been the type of person who thought you have to take care of home first. And so it’s thrilling that I get to take something that I thought was torture at first, Shakespeare, and something that I love now and do it at home. And then for people to show up it’s just a treat. And it’s also a challenge for me because now I have-- I’m accountable. I have to continue to create these awesome shows and continue to make them accessible to people who are from Seven Mile like me and people who are from places far, far away. It’s really beautiful. And for me even though I’m not the person on stage anymore performing it’s the art of creating something that never existed before and I’m just-- I’m in complete gratitude. It’s really awesome. Jo Reed:  Crain’s Magazine named you one of Detroit’s 40 under 40 last year. So congratulations on that. Sam White:  Thank you. Jo Reed:  But at the same time and I really don’t mean to get personal but you had to give up your apartment and you drained your savings account. Sam White:  I did. Exactly. And even though I’m still young let me tell you I do like to be comfortable. I like having my own bed. And I like having my own apartment. So I’ve given up a lot for this theatre company but I have-- especially because I’ve seen the quality of work that we’ve produced and the audiences have come out for us. It’s all been worth it. It’s all been worth it. And for Crain’s to have me be on the list for the 40 under 40 was really cool because I was the only-- maybe they consider themselves artists, so I don’t want to say that but to be someone who is kind of blatantly doing something artistic it’s just wonderful. There were folks from the medical field and from the technological fields and then there was me with the Shakespeare company. I just thought that was pretty wonderful and radical for an artist to be on the list and especially doing something like Shakespeare. Very cool. Jo Reed:  And you also gave a TEDx Talk. Sam White:  I did. Now, that was a dream come true because I love TEDx and I love TED Talks. I did the talk. I did it with my King Lear, Peter Knox. And I was able to use one of my favorite quotes from King Lear, “An admirable evasion of whoremaster man to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star.” And I got to talk about destiny and creating your own life. Being an artist and kind of painting all of the scenes of your own life and talking to people about how powerful we all are because I’m living my dream. The dream hasn’t come to full fruition but it’s happening and that’s cool and that’s awesome and I hope that other people see me because there’s really nothing extraordinary about me except the fact that I just don’t give up. And so if I can do it then they can too. That was a pleasure and an honor. I was happy to be there. Jo Reed:  That’s lovely, Sam, thank you. Sam White:  Thank you. Jo Reed:  And I am just-- I love what you’re doing. Sam White:  Thank you. Jo Reed:  That was Sam White. She's the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit.  You can find out more about the company at You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. Transcript will be available shortly.

Sam White loves Shakespeare and loves her hometown Detroit. So she emptied her bank account and started a site-specific professional theater company, Shakespeare in Detroit. It’s amazing.