Artists Rep has announced Zi Alikhan as the inaugural artistic directing fellow, a new position that will include directing the company’s new DNA: Oxygen initiative. Alikhan, a 33-year-old director currently based in New York, took the new post this week—a two-year fellowship (with an optional third year) intended to prepare recipients to lead arts organizations.
“It's not lost on me how completely singular this opportunity is and how much it speaks to the ethos of Artists Rep,” says Alikhan, speaking on the phone from New York. “Many theater companies in our country right now are talking about big systemic change and breaking down structures of oppression within their organizations, and every single day that I'm in a meeting at Artists Rep—and just by virtue of this program alone, and just by virtue of my hiring alone—I see them actively taking steps towards dismantling systems and structures that don't work in the American theater, and systems and structures that are made to keep people out.”
In his new role, Alikhan will collaborate with artistic director, Dámaso Rodríguez, and direct mainstage productions with the company. He’ll also serve as the director of the DNA: Oxygen program, a new Artists Rep initiative centered on the production and development of new work by and featuring BIPOC artists.
“We're in the process of really figuring out what [DNA: Oxygen] is,” says Alikhan. “Part of it is to serve as an affinity space for underserved communities of color, both in the Portland community at large, but also in the Portland theatrical community. And a lot of the big work that we're planning on doing is to figure out how we can disrupt pipeline to production that really has kept a lot of artists of color, away from leadership and away from being centered in the stories.”
Alikhan, who was one of more than 150 applicants for the fellowship, last came to Portland as the resident director on the national tour of Hamilton in 2018. He has been involved in directing and development at Ars Nova, The Playwrights Realm, Playmakers Rep, and Lincoln Center.
First order of business? “My big initiative, up top, is to get to know not only Portland as a community but specifically the communities within Portland that are underserved by our arts organizations, and that are underserved by the theater,” he says. Inspired by the work of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, he says he is eager to ask underserved communities what they need from theater. “What might happen if we make the effort to meet communities where they are and understand where they are emotionally, physically, access wise, and then start to make work from there?”
“In our search for the inaugural artistic directing fellowship recipient, we were seeking a visionary artist and arts administrator poised to lead an organization in the years ahead who could use this experience as a laboratory for their professional development. We were also looking for someone who could contribute immediately to ART's present and future,” Rodríguez said in a press release about the new appointment. “I can't wait to collaborate with Zi as part of our artistic team and to support his vision for building ART's DNA: Oxygen Program. I'm also humbled to play my part as mentor and in doing so hope to honor those who supported me along my own professional journey."
For his part, Alikhan, who began work in the new role last week, says he's ready to make room for artists of color to experiment and "fail forward."
“My goal,” says Alikhan, “is to tangibly carve out space in what has historically been a predominantly white institution for groups to feel like they can unapologetically come into that space and make, and not feel any kind of self consciousness about that.”