Joanie Schultz, new AD at WTT. Photo by Joe Mazza

As Joanie Schultz was driving through the snowy streets of Chicago in mid-December, she realized that this could well be her last time for a while to brave the bracing cold of a Midwestern winter. Instead, she would have to contend with a different extreme: Texas summer heat.

“It’ll be different… It’ll be good, though,” she says optimistically.

Schultz is making the move from the bustle of the City of Big Shoulders to the environs of Big D; this morning, she was named the new artistic director of Addison’s WaterTower Theatre. The appointment was announced by board president Paul Shultz. “Joanie is a phenomenal choice to lead WaterTower Theatre’s artistic vision in a new era,” he says.

It’s a huge leap of faith for her… but also for WaterTower, which was ably led for 17 of its 20 years by Terry Martin, until he resigned last spring. Schultz is moving to an area where she has few ties; WTT is giving Schultz her first slot as an artistic director leading a theater company. And both couldn’t be more excited at discovering each other.

“She’s never been an artistic director before per se, but she was one [of the candidates] who had done copious amounts of research on WaterTower,” according to Stan Graner, an actor and WTT board member who also served on the search committee. “She had a clear vision for what she wants to accomplish, but what kept catching my eye was how collaborative she was — remarkably intelligent without ego, someone trying to be intuitive and true and as an artist. That really spoke to me.”

Schultz did a lot of research, she says, because before learning of the opening, she was completely unfamiliar with WTT.

“The theater really surprised me when I looked into it, because I’d never heard of it before. I found that sort of shocking [once I learned] what WaterTower could do [with its facilities] and had been doing — the play choices, the diversity, the language talking about ‘the magic in the theater.’ There was a lot of possibility and alignments with what I already [am doing].”

She comes from a background rooted in the arts. Currently the associate artistic producer of Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, she has an extensive career as a freelance director of stage and opera, directing at such theaters as The Goodman and Steppenwolf. For much of her 20-year career, she has focused on world premieres, developing works with playwrights.

joanie-schultz-photo-by-joe-mazza-2“I work on a lot of new plays and work with a lot of playwrights and I know a lot of directors,” she says. “I’m very connected to the national conversation in the theater.”

Her husband is an music conductor; this fall, he was assistant-conducting Moby-Dick for the Dallas Opera; while visiting him here, Schultz was able to meet WTT’s search committee and instantly felt a connection.

“I’ve meet a lot of [theater] boards of directors who seemed depleted, but these guys where just so gung ho,” she says. “I just go so excited about them. Sometimes you just know something in your gut. Plus [WTT managing director] Greg Patterson and I really clicked, and I think it was important that [the managing director and artistic director] get along. We have the same goals in mind for the theater. I’m very excited to work with him.”

For Patterson, the respect was mutual.

“Joanie is one of the most gifted young directors working in our business today, and I very much look forward to partnering with her,” he says. “She will bring a daring new perspective to the work we produce.”

“Ever since Terry put me on the board, I felt I was there as someone who was also an artist or an actor — I have to represent my fellow actors,” he says. “While everyone else is checking out [a candidate] from a perspective of management, fundraising etc., I wanted to find someone [with a handle on the creative process]. Joanie’s interests seem to be working together and putting up the best possible productions.”

And that means exploring the very nature of the goals of theater.

“[I come] from a community that is deeply supportive and interested in doing the best for all of theater in Chicago. I’ve spent the last couple of years at a company trying to diversify its audience. It’s a challenge — how to integrate and tell more stories, to keep and grow an audience. And everyone I’ve talked to about the DFW theater community [says] it is really exciting — there’s so much going on,” Schultz says.

The Cleveland Play House Sex with Strangers Photo by Roger Mastroianni

‘Sex with Strangers,’ one of the new plays Schultz directed at the Cleveland Play House in 2016.

“We’re always trying to figure out how to stay relevant. A lot is just convincing people to show up — getting the word out that hanging out with 200 people with your cell phone turned off for two hours is going to be great,” she says. “We are also in an increasingly diverse world. We do have to be careful about reaching out to have people come to the theater to have discussions. We need to foster dialogue and empathy — asking questions, not telling people to think.”

Nevertheless, as a confessed liberal, Schultz is committed to showing many different aspects of American life.

“What really draws me to a play is what I’m calling What Is Forgotten: Outcasts, things we take for granted, people that don’t fit in, that we don’t know about. I want to remind [audiences] of those who are on the outskirts, to empathize with people of different race and gender and sexuality. There was a period of time when I got asked a lot if I was straight or gay, because I lived with a lesbian who is a playwright. I’d say, I’m not gay, but [as with many in the LGBT community] I have felt like an outsider for most of my life. There’s still a huge battle for gay rights — and keeping them, now that we’ve gotten more of them. I’m really interested in the transgender/gender-fluid issue, as I have a lot of friends who are on the spectrum of sexuality.”

Schultz’s contract — which officially goes into effect on Jan. 1, although prior directing commitments will delay her on-site arrival until early February — includes personally directing at least two shows a year.

“I’ve been doing a wide variety of plays, but more new plays as of late than classics. I would love to do some classics,” she says.

For Graner at least, he’s excited about what she brings to the table.

“Joanie needs to put her personal stamp on things, of course, but if she can continue to be the collaborative force as a director, she’s already [being true to our mission],” he says. “It’s time to reinvent ourselves a little bit. I don’t know where WaterTower is going, but I’m gonna enjoy the journey with her.”