A Lifelong Exploration: Director Sasha Maya Ada navigates a new path for DFW theater

Listen to how she says “pecans,” and you’ll know immediately that Sasha Maya Ada is not a native Texan. But the Bronx-born and South Carolina-raised director, actor, educator, and SMU graduate is nonetheless deeply committed to making the Dallas-Fort Worth theater industry better than it was when she moved here in 2012.

“Just this year, I’ve seen nearly a thousand auditions and over 25 shows,” Ada says. “I truly believe DFW theater has something special to offer. But I want us to do better. I want to do better myself. I need us to do better, otherwise why do this at all?”

It feels like Ada has touched practically every professional production in North Texas these past few years, from forward-thinking plays to classic musicals to new works, spanning Stage West to Lyric Stage and Shakespeare Dallas to Dallas Theater Center. She recently parlayed an artist-in-residence position at Arts Mission Oak Cliff into founding a new theater movement called Altar’d Playhouse, which offers artists ways to stretch (master classes and audition prep) and audiences the chance to explore (its reimagining of Macbeth, called Something Wicked, premieres at AMOC this fall).

But Ada considers directing—and theater itself— a lifelong exploration. “For two years, the stories I’d facilitate dealt with weighty topics: racism, genocide, the adultification of Black girls, self-harm, familial abuse, the list goes on,” she says. “I’m sure being a Black, Afro-Latina, queer woman is what got me in the door as a director. Navigating conversations around race can be challenging and creating art while actively engaging in that dialogue is extremely delicate. I’m incredibly grateful to be trusted in helping to tell those stories, but also… sometimes you just need a laugh!”

The campy-fun Little Shop of Horrors at Lyric Stage gave that to her in October 2023, but she knew once the man-eating plant had been mulched it was time for a new challenge. “When reading a potential script, I only say yes once I’ve figured out what muscle I get to stretch next and an idea of how that story/process/production might help me learn more about the things I don’t know,” she explains. “Marjorie Prime at Stage West felt like a midterm exam, where everything was being put to the test.”

In early 2024, the not-so-futuristic play by Jordan Harrison that meshes AI with emotional, physical, and mental health was presented in the round, a notoriously difficult way to stage a show. “It’s kind of like if you were to combine geometry and portrait painting,” she says. “The geometry is the technical awareness: How are sight lines? Does it make logistic sense? The ‘portrait painting’ comes into play when you begin to marry the mechanics with the humanness of the story. The world still needs to be and feel truthful. Marjorie Prime is one of the hardest shows I’ve directed. It’s also the lesson I need to prepare for what’s in the works now.”

José Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics is coming in May for Teatro Dallas, and Ada calls Rivera’s work a staple in her early exposure to theater. “I adore his poetic language and use of magical realism,” she says. “Cloud Tectonics is tender and timeless.”

In the fall, she’s helming the world premiere of local playwright Erin Malone Turner’s The Secret Keepers at Echo Theatre, soon followed up with the regional premiere of hang by debbie tucker green at Second Thought Theatre. But Ada points out that this fall there are at least 25 professional productions opening in DFW. “That means if you don’t know where to go for your date night, or you’ve exhausted your streaming watchlist, or you need an excuse to stop doom-scrolling, or you just want to be a part of what Dallas has to offer, you’ve got somewhere to go every single week,” she says. “Every week, the lobby doors are open to an ephemeral experience. Every week there are artists dedicating themselves to digging deeper.”

Dallas-Fort Worth is no different than most big cities, where the artist retention rate is low and those who do stay must work several jobs just to spend a few hours of their evening creating. “We don’t do this because we want to add one more thing to our plates,” Ada says. “We balance the four jobs, school, family, and normal life things because if we weren’t doing this thing that we love so much, our spirits would crumble.”

It’s a tricky dance between producing artistically fulfilling projects and paying the bills, she admits, for those on all sides of the industry. But Ada insists that the arts and culture sector doesn’t transform in a vacuum. “We’ve got the resources for a theater scene that could step up to a Chicago, Atlanta, or D.C. market, and as a Dallas transplant I can confirm that things are in fact bigger in Texas,” she says. “So why does it stop at the arts? In a city of over one million, why is it so hard to fill 60-seat houses? This last year, I’ve found myself saying ‘there’s not another choice.’ I recognize that probably sounds limiting, but I actually find it liberating. Everything that telling a story requires—the collaboration, the permission to fail, the grace, the vulnerability—all of it has to happen. There’s not another choice. Because that’s what the work deserves. That’s what the artists deserve. That’s what DFW deserves.”