A dancer pivots to advocacy and social entrepreneurship.

Diana King
May 3, 2022

On the eve of the pandemic, Garen Scribner MC/MPA 2022 was homebound, foot aloft on his couch, recovering from surgery for an injury sustained during a rehearsal of La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. It was the last time he set foot on stage.

After a lifetime of dancing, performing, and producing, he suddenly found himself still, the whole world on pause. Over the next several months, while healing in isolation, Scribner grappled not only with reduced mobility, but with the near total loss of income and access to the vital community and ritual provided by dance.

“As performers, we put our bodies on the line,” Scribner told GBH last year. “We have no security. If our show closes, we don’t get paid that next week. And when people started getting sick, and theaters closed, it showed that vulnerability on a macro-level.” Scribner had to move out of his Brooklyn apartment and floated between 16 different places as he figured out next steps, including preparing his Harvard Kennedy School application.

Scribner’s resilience helped turn the year of “tragedy and reckoning” into a “gift of time and self-reflection.” He had to rethink what dance meant to him and what he was without it.

The youngest son of a physicist and a barber, Scribner grew up in Arlington, Virginia. He discovered dance at age 7, when he landed the lead role of Fritz in The Nutcracker with the Washington Ballet, a professional dance company and school. Chelsea Clinton was in the school at the time, performing as the Favorite Aunt in Act I’s party scene. Enthralled by the energy—“the secret service backstage, Bill and Hillary in the audience, the lights and the music, the costumes and the magic of the theater, the sophistication and worldliness of the professional dancers”—Scribner got hooked.

Garen Scribner headshot.

Ballet also provided a refuge, a place to be himself, encouraged and uplifted even as he wrestled with the difficulties of growing up in 1990s Virginia as a gay male ballet dancer. Upon graduating from the rigorous University of North Carolina School of the Arts high school, at 18, he became a professional dancer and eventually, a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet. While performing a full repertoire of classical ballet, Scribner also worked closely with contemporary choreographers such as Mark Morris and Christopher Wheeldon, which led to opportunities to dance with Nederlands Dans Theater, and then on Broadway, where he debuted as the lead in Wheeldon’s An American in Paris.

In between dance performances, Scribner completed a degree in liberal arts with honors at St. Mary’s College in San Francisco, launched an annual performance benefit called Dance for a Reason (DanceFAR), raising over $500,000 in five years for nonprofits in the Bay Area, and created, produced, and hosted Broadway Sandwich, an Emmy-nominated program for public television.

“Human beings have so much potential, but most of us only tap into tiny fragments of that potential,” he noted in Medium. “When we make music and when we dance, we transcend our limitations and connect with something beyond ourselves, something sublime.” Artists, at the height of their crafts, can tap into the sublime through the profound intensity of focus on their discipline. But for Scribner, transcending limits also means “connecting my passion for dance beyond performance into more accessible philanthropic, civic, and humanitarian spaces.”

Both DanceFAR and Broadway Sandwich were created out of a drive to have a greater impact, and to connect people who might not otherwise come together. Beyond the funds raised for institutions like the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and the International Rescue Committee, DanceFAR allowed Scribner to bring together regional dance companies that had never before performed together on stage. He found he loved the operational and management aspects of running an organization, of putting together all the moving pieces in service of a common cause.

“How do we advocate for more diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in all these spaces? In the performing arts world, that’s still a huge problem. It’s not just around representation, it’s around a sense of belonging.”

Garen Scribner

Broadway Sandwich—a show born out of a casual conversation with a high school friend in Judy Garland’s legendary dressing room at the Palace Theater—takes viewers into the ordinary lives of Broadway dancers between the matinee and evening performances. “For me, there’s always this chasm between the audience and what we do on stage. Our lives are enigmatic in so many ways, to dissolve the curtain, to tell our individual stories—and not just stars, but standbys, ensemble members, everybody—felt really right,” he said.

Scribner first honed this inclination to listen to and tell the stories of other performers as a union representative for the San Francisco Ballet. As one of two volunteer representatives, he helped negotiate equitable contracts and protections for his fellow dancers. His ability to balance both creative and administrative work attracted the friendship and mentorship of Damian Woetzel MC/MPA 2007, currently president of the Julliard School, who was then a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and enrolled in the mid-career MPA program. He was also encouraged to continue his studies by fellow UNCSA alum and former dancer John Michael Schert MC/MPA 2018.

By December of 2019, Scribner had wrapped up the second season of Broadway Sandwich, launched another show for public television ("And The Tony Nominees Are…"), performed in numerous Broadway shows, danced in a L’Oreal commercial with Jennifer Lopez, and was performing as The Matador in La Traviata.

Despite the prolific work, Scribner sensed a change in the air. He felt that he was in his twilight as a dancer and thought it might be a good time to revisit the prospect of graduate school, the seed of a dream planted so many years ago by Woetzel. He checked Harvard’s website. He had missed the deadline by one day. “Perfect!” he thought. “I will have a full year to prepare.”

And then the world stood still. At the other end of the tunnel, Scribner is grateful to be in “the best years of my life.” At Harvard, he has had the opportunity to take arts and cultural entrepreneurship classes taught by Business School faculty members Henry McGee and Rohit Deshpande in addition to his Kennedy School courses.

Among the courses that were most impactful, he cites a philosophy of technology class taught by Mathias Risse, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy, and a course on technology taught by Harvard Business School faculty member Shrikar Ghosh. Having always been interested in how technology both helps and hinders us, Scribner has started to ponder technology’s effects on a broader scale: “Where do the performing arts and humanities align with these technologies? Where are they going to be at odds with each other? How can I, or whoever appropriate, make a stake in the ground for the performing arts and humanities folks in these spaces?”

These questions add another dimension to issues of equity that have been on his mind since his union days and that were amplified by the pandemic. "How do we advocate for more diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in all these spaces? In the performing arts world, that’s still a huge problem. It’s not just around representation, it’s around a sense of belonging. Once you change the ratio of who has access to these spaces, well, what does it matter if the stories being told have nothing to do with you?”

In both the performing arts and at Harvard, Scribner has experienced firsthand the struggle to belong “as a queer person in an overwhelmingly heteronormative world.” As he continues to produce arts programming, including new seasons of Broadway Sandwich, and independent films and live productions with Danielle Rowe, a choreographer, friend, and frequent collaborator, he is thinking deeply about how to tell those stories, how to use the arts to connect and uplift people, and how technology can enrich human connections rather than erode them.

Portraits by Natalie Montaner