LOWELL -- Sean Daniels knew he belonged at Merrimack Repertory Theatre last fall when he overheard audience members chatting in the lobby during intermission.
"One guy told another 'I didn't think I'd like it, but I came and I do like it.' I realized then that MRT's audiences are game for new work," said Daniels, MRT's new artistic director.
That appealed to Daniels, who was hired in December and assumed the job on July 1.
"Few theaters do new work all year long -- and some just sneak it in. It's a challenge getting audiences to be adventurous, but that was already happening at MRT," he said.
He plans to keep it adventurous now that he's at the helm and proves that in his inaugural season with plays and new programs.
The season features the launch of a national tour, plus world premieres and shows slated to transfer to New York. (See sidebar).
Daniels' ingenious Cohort and Patriots programs will engage audience members and bring noteworthy theater professionals here.
The Cohort Program enlists 20-30 local people, called "cohorts," of various ages, races and backgrounds. They'll have access to theater making at MRT, from rehearsals to talking with theater artists.
In return, cohorts will share their experiences with friends through social media, blogs and discussion.
"It will create a fluency about theater among them, and they will own the process and share it with others," he said.
The Patriots Program gives 60 theater artists a home at MRT.
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"I've have known or worked with these playwrights, actors, directors and designers. And we have nine artists' apartments that are often empty. Now, they can come, work and stay here and interact with other artists," said Daniels.
A plus to the Patriots Program is that it "will give MRT a crack at new work developed here."
Daniels has also joined the Lowell Cultural Council and is a new blogger at The Sun, offering insider backstage information on his Backstage Blotter site.
He's eager to "put MRT and Lowell on the national radar."
"We have big, exciting programs; the staff is game for change and I love that the community supports artists," said Daniels.
It's MRT and Lowell's time to make an impact on the national theater scene.
"The city and MRT are poised for growth -- and I plan to take it to the next level as the place to launch new work in American theater," Daniels said.
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Daniels details the season
"My first season reflects the type of work I will do at MRT -- uplifting, redemptive, theatrical," said Sean Daniels.
Here's what's in store for MRT audiences:
- The Lion, written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer; Daniels directs. Aug. 26-Sept. 20. (See sidebar)
- I And You, by Lauren Gunderson; Daniels directs. Oct. 7-Nov. 1.
A play about two teens who bond while working on a school project about poet Walt Whitman. It won the 2014 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for Best Play produced outside of New York and moves off-Broadway to 59E59 Theatre in January.
- It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry; Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs. Nov. 25-Dec. 20.
Doing a family-friendly holiday show here for the first time in years was important to Daniels, as MRT becomes "a community center for greater Lowell. George Bailey's story of renewal will ring true to many," he said. The cast will include Merrimack Valley and Boston artists.
- The White Chip, by Sean Daniels; Sheryl Kaller directs. Jan. 6-31.
The world premiere of Daniels' autobiographical play about growing up Mormon, drinking and being on the brink of losing everything. "It's a dark comedy about the science of addiction. The time for the conversation is now. Though I want to make it a funny conversation, so we keep listening," he said.
- Tinker to Evers to Chance, by Mat Smart; Daniels directs. Feb. 10-March 6.
A mother-daughter play about baseball, it's "the greatest baseball play I know. Mat Smart has gotten the sports metaphor right -- to be a sports fan you have to be the world's greatest romantic, since every year you think 'this could be our year,' " said Daniels.
- The Realness: A Break Beat Play, by Idris Goodwin; Wendy Goldberg directs. March 16-April 10.
A world premiere, set in 1996 when the hip-hop scene was roaring, it's about T.O. who falls for Prima, an MC who entrances him with her music and authenticity.
- Home of the Brave, by Lila Rose Kaplan; Daniels directs. April 20-May 15.
A world premiere, featuring Karen MacDonald, an MRT Patriot and favorite Boston actress, the "raucous, big-hearted comedy" by Boston playwright Kaplan deals with Senator Bernadette Spence, who decides to run for President, but has to get her family on board.
'The Lion' roars
Sean Daniels always knew he'd open his inaugural MRT season with The Lion, the acclaimed solo show, written and performed by his friend Benjamin Scheuer and directed by Daniels.
It launches its national tour here Aug. 26-Sept. 20.
The Lion, is Scheuer's autobiographical, musical story of losing his father and later fighting and winning his battle with stage IV Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
When the two first met in 2013 at Goodspeed Musicals winter writers' retreat in Connecticut, they bonded over the loss of their fathers.
"He was pitching his show, then called The Bridge, to directors, but I told him he didn't have a piece," said Daniels. "We started over from the ground up."
"Sean and I became pals, went to Weston Playhouse in Vermont a few months later and outlined the show," said Scheuer. "Under Sean's guidance, I cut two songs, wrote 16 new ones and learned that telling the truth is the most interesting thing anyone can do. And we changed the title to The Lion."
The show earned numerous awards, including the Drama Desk for Scheuer for Outstanding Solo Performance. Stephen Sondheim is a theater luminary who saw the show.
"I got a lovely letter from him, telling me he enjoyed it. I'm going to frame it," said Scheuer.
Bringing it to Lowell is a natural, said Daniels.
"By launching the national tour here, I hope to show local audiences the type of work we'll make here and give them a taste of what the future holds," he said.
Scheuer is excited, too.
"Merrimack Rep is a sexy theatre -- it's got a good vibe. And Sean, its artistic director, is also director of The Lion. We're going to start off the season with a roar."
Tickets range from $23-$60 and are available at www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678.