Seattle Repertory Theatre

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/14/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9225
Since its earliest decades, Seattle has been staging theatrical plays and other musical and dramatic entertainments. Plenty of theaters and their associated troupes have come and gone, but only one -- the nearly five-decade-old Seattle Repertory Theatre  company -- can fairly lay claim to being what The New York Times has crowned it: "This city’s flagship theatre.” The Rep (as it is commonly called) has also been described, by local arts patron (and one-time Seattle Repertory Theatre board-member) Hans Lehmann, as "this city's first important legitimate theater" and even "a national treasure" that earned its esteemed reputation as one of America's largest and most renowned regional theaters by producing and presenting a lively mix of classics and edgy new works since its founding in 1963. Millions of audience members have attended more than 300 different plays (including the debut of almost 100 brand-new pieces) and enjoyed watching the premier of plays by such outstanding playwrights as Neil Simon and August Wilson. Based, since 1983, at the Bagley Wright Theatre building (155 Mercer Street), the Rep -- which presents shows and other events in both the 842-seat Bagley Wright Theatre hall and (since 1996) the adjacent 282-seat Leo Kreielsheimer (the “Leo K”) Theatre hall -- was honored with a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 1990. In 1992 Lehmann also wrote that the "advent and success of the Rep spawned a whole array of other Seattle theatrical enterprises" including ACT and Intiman. Indeed "it can be claimed with some accuracy that outside of New York, Seattle can boast of a greater variety of theater activities than any city in the U.S.A."  

The Hamlet of Seattle  

For some time after the new inhabitants of the tiny village of Seattle first arrived in the autumn of 1851 -- the Denny, Low, Terry, Bell, and Boren families -- they necessarily relied on themselves for companionship and entertainment. Soon additional new settlers arrived and for the subsequent decade and a half the log cookhouse associated with Henry L. Yesler's (1810-1892) sawmill -- on the waterfront at the foot of Mill Street (today’s Yesler Way) -- provided the fledgling community a public gathering space. Yesler’s Cookhouse, which was located about two lots south of the SW corner of Commercial Street (today's 1st Avenue S) and Mill Street, would be the site of  "all social gatherings and entertainments of the day" (Grant).

Such events in the isolated timber town included the evenings that two of the Bell sisters -- Olive (b. 1846) and Virginia (1847-1931), for whom the Belltown neighborhood streets were named -- performed for their neighbors. In 1859 retailer  Charles Plummer (?-1866) built a second meeting space, the Snoqualmie Hall (SE corner of Main and Commercial streets), and in 1861 Yesler built his own hall, but it took him seven more years to add a stage. Meanwhile young Seattle began to enjoy the occasional visit by wandering talents who would offer dramatic presentations -- events that surely brought a sense of refined culture to the soggy frontier outpost. Among the earliest such shows saw a Miss Edith Mitchell presenting "Readings and Personations of characters from Shakespeare and other great poets" on April 23, 1864 (The Washington Gazette via Elliott).   

In 1865 Yesler upped the ante by building his Pavilion on the SE corner of Front Street (today's 1st Avenue) and Cherry Street. And although his and Plummer's venues were cherished, they were far from the deluxe theaters that Seattle would later boast: "Such bare board halls, without curtain or scenery, lighted by candles and fish-oil lamps behind upright tin reflectors, served as theaters long after professional performers began to penetrate the region" (Elliott). In the meantime, locals made do: In 1868, the Seattle Amateurs gave their debut performance at the Pavilion. The Washington Gazette reported that: “The amateur performance ... drew forth a large audience. It began with a four-scene farce called Suicide" along with the Ghost Scene from William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Grant).  Late in the following decade the town's first professional troupe, the John Jack Theatrical Company, formed, but shaky performances and less-than-positive reviews led to its demise.

Grand Ol' Opera  

In December, 1876, authentic opera debuted here when the English Operatic Troupe -- all five of them -- presented three entire shows at the Pavilion: The Bohemian Girl, Maritana, and The Grand Duchess. Three years later saw the rise of "the first building to be built in Seattle for use exclusively as a theater": Squire’s Opera House – on the eastern side of Commercial Street (today's 1st Avenue S), between Washington and Main streets -- and one of the hall's first shows featured selections from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Elliott).   

Seattle’s new Arion Singing Club mounted a version of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance at Yesler’s in 1884, and six years later the town's first homegrown stock company was formed by Cordray's Theatre on Madison Street. Over the following decades many others followed, including those founded at the Seattle Theatre (1902), the Coliseum Theatre (1912), the Metropolitan Theatre (1914), the Orpheum Theatre (1916), and the Moore Theatre (1927), and in 1930, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse (NE 41st Street and University Way NE) -- taken over by the University of Washington in 1950 and which exists today as the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse.

Seattle Repertory Theatre

Meanwhile, planning was underway for Seattle's upcoming Century 21 Exposition -- a world's fair timed to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the town in 1852. The resultant 1962 fair provided the town with a huge publicity and economic boost -- and a good number of new civic facilities that would outlast the six-months-long exposition. Among those edifices was the 800-seat performance space known as the Playhouse designed by architect, Paul Kirk (1914-1995) and located on the fair's Seattle Center campus at 201 Mercer Street. Legend holds that actor "Hal Holbrook (b. 1925), one of many performers to appear at the Playhouse during the world's fair, is said to have suggested that the Playhouse would make an excellent home for a repertory theater company" (Becker).

In the wake of the fair's run in October 1962, Seattle businessman and arts patron Bagley Wright (1924-2011) led the efforts of an influential group of theater aficionados to establish Seattle's first serious theatrical organization -- the Seattle Repertory Theatre (no relation to the earlier Seattle Repertory Playhouse) -- which would be based in the Playhouse. The Rep's founding artistic director, Stuart Vaughan, brought together an acting company that included locals Marjorie Nelson (1923-2010) and John Gilbert who would each go on to long careers on the stage. The Rep's opening night (November 13, 1963) featured Vernon Weddle in Shakespeare's King Lear. Critics raved and, as Hans Lehmann recalled, the show "thrilled a full house as a harbinger of great theater for years to come."

In 1964 the Rep hired an executive director, Donald Foster, produced a summer season “Theatre-in-the-Park” show of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, kicked off region-wide tours (Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), and brought aboard a management intern, Peter Donnelly, who would assist the Rep greatly over the years. In 1966 Vaughan exited, Allen Fletcher replaced him, and the following year the group launched their contemporary works series, "Off-Center," in various halls around town. Then in 1970, Donnelly moved up from his general manager position to the Rep's producing director and W. Duncan Ross took  on the artistic director slot. As with most arts institutions, the Rep would face economic challenges over the years -- a few local headlines offer a sense of the situation: "Big deficit perils Rep" (1967), "The Seattle Repertory Theatre in trouble" (1969), "Rep in limbo, faces change" (1970), "Perils at the Rep" (1973), "Rep will grow through error..." (1979), "The Rep on the ropes" (1980), and "Sluggish funds jeopardize Rep theater" (1980).

The Rep's Reputation Grows

The decade of the 1970s brought both upheaval and some stabilization to the Rep. In 1971 the group received a most welcome monetary grant from the Ford Foundation, and critical kudos for performances of Shakespeare's Richard II, featuring noted Hollywood actor Richard Chamberlain. Then in 1972 the Washington State Governor’s Arts Award went to the Rep in honor of its positive role in local culture. By 1974 the Rep's leadership felt there was enough demand for good theater that they announced the opening of another associated hall downtown -- the Second Stage theater, which was built in the former Town and Country Club (8th Avenue and Pike Street, on the site of today's Washington State Convention Center). That same year a minor controversy broke out regarding some nudity in the play Ophelia, but as with most similar censorious tempests, it proved to merely attract bigger audiences. The following year the Rep hit the road, on a tour of the Western states.

By mid-decade many locals had reached the conclusion that the Rep had earned a modern and dedicated theater building, and in 1977 voters approved the Seattle Center Bond Issue, which ultimately provided the initial $4.8 million to get that project started. A capital campaign drive -- chaired by Dorothy L. Simpson -- got underway in 1978, and was boosted by a $1 million naming gift from Bagley Wright and a consortium of supporters. In 1979 the Rep's education programs began with mobile productions touring schools in Washington and Idaho. That same year Sullivan took on the role as resident director and John Hirsch joined on as consulting artistic director -- but the decade ended with a December announcement that the Second Stage was up for sale.   

Tony Award and Tony New Theaters

The new decade began well with the receipt of a major grant from the Mobil Oil Foundation in 1980, and the appointing of Sullivan as artistic director in 1981. Then, finally, on December 29, a groundbreaking ceremony was held next door to the Playhouse (on the site of the World's Fair's Foreign Commerce and Industry Center) and the future location of the Rep's beautiful new Bagley Wright Theatre. Two years later, in October 1983, the theater opened with the triumphant world premiere of Michael Weller's The Ballad of Soapy Smith.

The following year saw Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport -- a show that moved up to acclaim on Broadway and helped establish the Rep as an incubator for promising new works. In 1985 Benjamin Moore was named managing director. In 1988 the Rep premiered Bill Irwin’s Largely/New York and Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles in 1989.   

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) moved to town in 1990 and the Rep benefited from their subsequent association, which saw the organization staging several of his Seattle-penned works. The year 1990 also brought the Rep a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. In 1991 Sullivan and the Rep's original play, Inspecting Carol, made its debut and the following year they took it out on a national tour. Additional premieres included 1994's The Sisters Rosensweig by Wasserstein, Neil Simon's London Suite, and 1995's The Cider House Rules by Tom Hulce and Jane Jones (as adapted by Peter Parnell from John Irving’s novel).

In December 1996 the Rep's new Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre (the “Leo K”) opened just adjacent to the Bagley Wright Theatre and was dubbed in honor of the $2 million naming gift received from The Kreielsheimer Foundation. The following year saw Sharon Ott being appointed the Rep's new artistic director and the staging of Mary Zimmerman's The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which coincided with the popular Leonardo Lives exhibit then showing at the Seattle Art Museum (1300 1st Avenue).   

The Rep in Century 21

The new millennia brought The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe -- Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show by Jane Wagner -- to the Rep before it went to Broadway. Then, after being away since 1997, Daniel Sullivan returned to the Rep in 2001 and directed Proof (which won him a Tony Award while on Broadway), and a national tour began. That same year a $15 million Endowment Campaign was launched and the Rep celebrated its 40th Anniversary season in 2003. Two years later David Esbjornson was hired as the Rep's new artistic director. The theater continued debuting significant new works.   

In 2009 supporters of the Rep raised $1 million in new or increased gifts, thus successfully securing the Seattle Repertory Theatre Foundation's pledged matching loan and balancing the fiscal budget during challenging economic times. The important role the Rep plays in the Northwest's cultural realm is also evident in its annual 300 performances, 9,500 faithful subscribers, and the estimated $12 million direct impact the organization makes on the region's economy. But even beyond all that, the Rep itself understands why it is beloved by local theater lovers:

"When we plan our seasons, we think big. ... Through the voices of a diverse range of playwrights, we take Seattle audiences on globe-spanning journeys, while speaking to the issues that resonate with their lives here in the Northwest. Whether dreaming up a new work or re-imagining a classic, Seattle Rep is the place where anything can happen. ... a place for unlimited imagination" (Seattlerep.org). 


Sources: Sidney Warren, Farthest Frontier: The Pacific Northwest (New York: Macmillan Company 1949), 315; Howard F. Grant, The Story of Seattle’s Early Theatres (Seattle: University Book Store 1934), 10, 16; Eugene Clinton Elliott, A History of Variety-Vaudeville In Seattle: From the Beginning to 1914 (Seattle: University of Washington Press 1944), 2; Mary Katherine Rohrer, The History of Seattle Stock Companies From Their Beginnings to 1934 (Seattle: University of Washington Press 1945); Hans & Thelma Lehmann, Out Of The Cultural Dustbin: Sentimental Musings on the Arts & Music in Seattle from 1936 to 1992 (Seattle: Crowley Associates Inc., 1992), 97-98;"Repertory Theater In Debut Tonight," The Seattle Times, November 13, 1963, p. 24; John Voorhees, "First Nighters See Repertory's 'King Lear,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 14, 1963, p. 3; Lou Guzzo, "Vaughan's 'Lear' Is Deep-Probing, Measured Drama," The Seattle Times, November 14, 1963, p. 45; Raymond L. Andrews, "Repertory Theater Adds Culture to City," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 23, 1964, p. 5;"Repertory Company Awarded $21,000 Rockefeller Grant," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 18, 1964 p. 27; "Theatre: the Rep's Second Season: Local Home Comes of Age," Seattle Magazine, December, 1964, p. 54; Wayne Johnson, "Rep Drops Vaughan as Artistic Director," The Seattle Times, December 8, 1965, p. 1; Rolf Stromberg, "Industry Fails to Help the Arts," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 25, 1967, p.6; Rolf Stromberg, "Big Deficit Perils Rep," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 25, 1967, pp. 1,4; Jonathan Farwell, "The Seattle Repertory Theatre in Trouble," Puget Soundings, October, 1969, pp. 10-11, 21; Rolf Stromberg, "Rep in Limbo, Faces Change," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 26, 1970, p. 1; Duncan W. Ross, "The Rep Changes Course," Puget Soundings, May, 1970, pp. 6-7; Duncan W. Ross, "Seattle Repertory Is Remaking Itself," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 27, 1970, p.19; "Perils at the Rep," The Seattle Times Pictorial Magazine, September 16, 1973, p. 32-35;"Nude Ophelia Quite Justified, Says Director," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 18, 1974, p. A-3; "For 'New Plays, New Ways,': Rep to Open 2nd Theater Downtown," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 27, 1974, p. 1; "Can the Seattle Repertory Afford its New Ambitions?," Argus, November 7, 1975, p. 9; "Today's Seattle Theater Owes a Lot to the 'Old Rep,'" The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, January 30, 1977, pp. 8-12; "Do-or-die Season at 2nd Stage," The Seattle Times, January 30, 1977, D-1; "Center Unveils Plans for Resident Theater," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1978, p. A-6;"Rep Will Grow through Error -- New Director," Journal American, July 12, 1979, p. A-9; "The Rep on the Ropes," The Weekly, April 9-15, 1980, p. 13-14; "Sluggish Funds Jeopardize Rep Theater," The Seattle Times, June 26, 1980, p. 1;"Seattle Rep Building Drive Fails," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 15, 1980, p. A-11; Morgan, Murray, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (New York: Viking Press, 1952) 120; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Intiman Theatre inaugurates its new home, the Playhouse Theatre, at the Seattle Center, on June 10, 1987" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 16, 2009); Seattlerep.org website accessed on November 4, 2009 (http://www.seattlerep.org/About/Press/SRTPressPacket/Introduction.pdf).

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