If you are enjoying a meal being served by a waiter in New York City chances are that’s not your server’s only job. A lot of them really aren’t waiters but they are artists, musicians, models and actors. All of them on the verge of being discovered, all of them waiting for the breakthrough at the next audition or casting or just hoping to finally be able to live off what they love doing most. It is a competitive environment and Art & Entertainment remains the ever struggeling Grande Dame of quintessential New York industries. Nobody knows this better than Shanta.
When I first met her last year in July we were surrounded by Lost Children with ash smears on their faces, pirates in Long Johns, Wendys in nightgowns and both barefoot with feathers in our hair. It was a Peter Pan theme party on the beautiful North shore of Lake George in Upstate New York. Shanta was just taking her annual summer breather away from work and the city and I was only there for a short weekend. I fell in love with the place and developed a girl crush on this radiantly positive, cordially outgoing and naturally beautiful woman.
She invited me to the rehearsal of The Middle Church Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir where she sings every Thursday. I’m admittedly a little bit self-conscious when it comes to singing for my god given sound instrument seems a little underdeveloped, so I never made it. Fortunately, I was still able to enjoy this amazing choir in April at a dazzlingly unconventional and exuberantly entertaining extravaganza that was her wedding. It was nothing short of what you’d expect from the theater director of Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater.
Now for a city where everybody wants to be on stage rather than backstage that is an interesting career choice to make, but maybe it wasn’t so much a choice than it was serendipity that helped Shanta find her calling and a job that seems to just be made for her. What excites her most about what she does is seeing her performer friends grow and excel on stage. She loves to be able to witness and help them in their artistic development process of refining their stage persona and signature style. “I love watching people do what they are born to do as performers. It’s such a pleasure to watch artists take over a space and make it their own on a nightly basis. Joe’s is somewhat unique in how intimate the space is, so you really feel like you are complicit in what’s happening on stage at all times. There is a safety and comfort that I see artists experience on our stage that allows them to grow and challenge the audience and still feel supported. That type of freedom allows for some incredibly transformative moments.”
Very early on everything pointed into the direction of a career in the performing arts for Shanta. She was born in Wisconsin to a German/American dad and a Indian mum. Her dad met her mum when he was in the Peace Corps in Malaysia and she moved back with him to the States after that. Growing up in a family, for which music was an essential part of their life, she was always performing one way or the other - at home, with the church choir or in community theater performances.
When her aunt moved to New York to work at Alvin Ailey, she was in elementary school. “We would often come to visit her and see incredible shows that were truly transformative for me.” Mesmerized by the creative energy of the city, fascinated by the beautiful modes of human expression and intrigued by the powerful presence of the artists on stage, she went to Indiana University to become an actress. When she returned to New York she adopted her middle name Shanta as calling name to go with her new found artist identity, but It didn't take long for her to understand that being an actress wasn't quite as glamourous as she'd previously envisioned. "Really the lifestyle was so hard – the complete lack of stability. I realized that if I was going to be an actress, I had to prioritize it above everything else in my life, and I wasn’t willing to do that." She still stayed within the realm of the performing arts and just 10 days after she arrived in the city she landed an internship at the Public Theater. She fell in love with being in the office and realized how creative that side of things can be. When she wasn’t doing administrative work for the theatre, she helped out at Joe’s Pub, the Public’s cabaret space, which with it’s intimate space and cosy ambience immediately made her feel at home. Soon after she started her internship, Joe’s Pub had an actual opening and Shanta applied and got the job. As programming coordinator she worked very closely with programming director Bill Bragin and when he left - 5 years after - she took over completely. At the tender age of 27, she was responsible for programming 700-800 shows per year and became a co-director of globalFest, a festival and year round service organization focused on building the audience and touring support structure for world music in North America.
Today Shanta and her team, which she says is a constant source of joy and inspiration, work hard to rethink and reinvent Joe's Pub beyond the notion of a pure venue space towards a creative incubator, advocate and partner for the artists who perform there. This manifests itself in artist commissions, where she works with musicians to create longer form narratives and pair them with theater artists to help them learn a new form. She also plans to offer an official artist-in-residence program at Joe’s Pub, where she'll actively work with 5-6 artists a year to support them as they take the next step in their artistic lives.
Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director once said about Shanta: “It’s her taste that dictates what ends up at Joe’s Pub, and that taste is eclectic, sophisticated, populist and very much in tune with the values here. It’s about diversity, both aesthetic and sociological.” She is an instance in New York City's downtown entertainment, one whose deepest pleasure it is to make others shine on and off stage and maybe the only one that - according to her mum - at one point really wanted to be a waitress.
What would you say were the biggest obstacles and challenges you had or have to overcome on your way?
I would say that the obstacles I have had in life are really directly related to self-confidence. I have often been surprised by people’s willingness to trust in my ability to succeed and to take on the positions I have been offered.
What helped/helps you overcome them?
I remember Penny Arcade, a downtown performance icon, telling me that women always have a hard time trusting their own taste. She said something along the lines of 'Why the hell can’t it be your voice that people are paying attention to?'. I think about that often and being proud of the work I’ve done and the artists I’ve championed is just something I have to remind myself to do.
Is there anything you would say, you had to learn the hard way?
I would say that I never realized how much time, ratio wise would be spent working. I realized that work absolutely has to be fun not just in the grand scheme of things but in an everyday sense. You should be around people that make you happy and also spend a good bit of your time trying to make sure that they are happy.