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David Dower of ArtsEmerson on diversity in theater, fresh mango salsa, and making himself vulnerable everywhere he goes

David Dower in Santa Cruz en route to the California Sierras.

As artistic director of ArtsEmerson, David Dower sees the current moment as a time for reevaluation in the theater community. While the organization, which presents and produces works out of the Office of the Arts at Emerson College, has cultivated diversity through its many productions at various Boston venues, he knows that more needs to be done. " When I arrived here in 2012 . . . we reorganized the institution as a civic asset focused on transformation in the city of Boston centered around race, equity, and social justice,” said Dower, 61, who lives in Dorchester with his wife, Denice Stephenson, an archivist. The couple has a son, daughter-in-law, and a 5-year-old granddaughter. “In 2017 we created something called the Gaining Ground Fund to support artists who are working on stories of the African diaspora. We’ve already presented 11 projects [through the fund] and there are more on the way.” He said that while everyone at ArtsEmerson remains committed to “providing opportunities for connections” online ( during the pandemic, they are “looking forward to seeing everybody in person when we can open the live theaters.” In the meantime, Dower is quarantining in Santa Cruz, Calif., before heading to the California Sierras, his favorite vacation destination. We caught up with the Weekapaug, R.I., native to talk about all things travel.

Favorite vacation destination?


The California Sierras, specifically Ebbett’s Pass in Alpine County. The hiking is dramatic, the air is crystal clear, and the vistas are forever. It’s still largely undiscovered and undeveloped, so it’s also low-key. You can get far away from everything and everyone pretty quickly.

Favorite food or drink while vacationing?

Everything tastes better at 8,000 feet, but nothing tastes like vacation to me more than a fresh chopped mango salsa – with jalapeno, red onion, cilantro, and lime – at that altitude. Served with corn chips and a fresh lime margarita as the sun drops behind the ridge and you are out of cell range? That’s vacation.


Where would you like to travel to but haven’t?

Alaska. It seems like it would have many of the same qualities as my Sierra spot, though on an even more dramatic scale.

One item you can’t leave home without when traveling?

If it’s vacation, I’m traveling with a French press coffee pot and my own bag of freshly ground coffee. We make it cold-pressed style and either pour it over ice or heat it over a camp stove, depending on the temperature when we stumble out of the tent. If it’s business travel, my universal adaptor. I spend a lot of time with my face in my phone on those trips.

Aisle or window?

Exit row, window. That way I can lean on the cabin wall to sleep. If I can’t get the exit row, then an aisle. Why? I’m 6 feet 4 inches tall and the planes are made to torture me.

Favorite childhood travel memory?

Summers as a kid we’d backpack in the White Mountains, sleeping in the AMC [Appalachian Mountain Club] shelters. I dreamt of being a hut boy for the AMC. Despite the addiction I now have to the Sierras, the White Mountains are in my DNA and I want some of my ashes scattered in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I even liked the drives up there from Rhode Island, with an eight-track tape of Elton John’s “Greatest Hits” or Carole King’s “Tapestry” playing as loudly as the parents would allow. We alternated with my dad’s Doc Severinsen and Henry Mancini eight-tracks . . .


Guilty pleasure when traveling?

I have two. Ice cream, for one. I make a study of the best ice cream and gelato in every place I go. And I’ve been [to many] places in this job, since ArtsEmerson is an international presenter and I have to scout all over the world. My second is a haircut and a shave. I make a point of finding a barber in every city I visit. I like to climb into the chair of a professional barber, lay my head back, and get a good shave. It affirms, for me, the essential benevolence of the world. Every place I go, I make myself vulnerable, trust the hands of a stranger holding the razor to my neck, and come away with the exhilarating feeling that good people are everywhere.

Best travel tip?

Walk everywhere, if you are able. You will know your surroundings so much better than if you zoom by in taxis, tour buses, or subways. If you can, make very few plans and follow your nose. You can always look at someone’s pictures of the touristy high points you skipped later. But who else was going to find that perfect tamale vendor on the corner with the long line of locals waiting for theirs. Stay in that line. There’s magic at the front of it. And make sure you get to Buenos Aires at some point.