The Seattle Repertory Theatre Affair by Douglas Q. Barnett

  • By Douglas Q. Barnett
  • Posted 6/25/2009
  • Essay 9058
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This recollection of the history of the Seattle Repertory Theatre was written by Douglas Q. Barnett (1931-2019), a theater person who witnessed first hand the trials and tribulations of The Rep in its early days and who later played a key role in integrating the theater. Barnett, the founder in 1969 of Black Arts/West and its director until 1973, was instrumental in the development of theater in Seattle's African American community during the 1960s. Barnett is co-author with Anthony D. Hill of the Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008).

The Seattle Repertory Theatre Affair

The year was 1965. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th president of the United States. Five thousand U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam to extinguish what was called a "brush war," and Malcolm X was murdered at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. Here in Washington, “Golden Boy,” Dan Evans, was in the second year of what would be a 12-year odyssey as governor of the state of Washington. And in drizzly Seattle, folks were in a tizzy over a proposal that the Pike Place Market be razed and replaced with a parking garage, offices, and something called “condominiums.”

The Seattle Repertory Theatre, heralded as the second coming in 1963, had stumbled badly in its first two years. The opening productions of Max Frisch’s The Firebugs and Shakespeare’s King Lear were flawed. An actor’s rebellion against the direction of Firebugs Assistant Director Andre Gregory led to Gregory’s dismissal. Artistic Director Stuart Vaughan took over, but the production never took hold. The co-opening production, Shakespeare’s King Lear, featured the talented Vernon Weddle. But it too had problems because the lighting board continually broke down oft-times leaving the actors -- and the audience -- in the dark!  On the business side, the goal of 25,000 subscriptions for the opening season fell short when only 9,000 tepid souls subscribed. And sadly, Helen Vaughan, wife of Artistic Director Stuart Vaughan, was tragically killed in an automobile accident on Christmas day, 1963.

The 1964/65 season went better with a profound production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with a transcendent performance of Willy Loman by Thomas Hill. Eugene O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness also sparkled with an ensemble cast that was now blending into a cohesive whole. But Hamlet came up short when actor Stephen Joyce’s back went out mid-performance, and the understudy, John Gilbert, didn’t know his lines! This triggered other cast changes, and the production was never fully realized. Gilbert would later redeem himself, and ended up being one of the finest actors the Northwest has ever produced.

The Rep added to its woes that second season with a statewide tour of Ah! Wilderness and Twelfth Night to Spokane; Yakima; Portland, Oregon; and Victoria B.C. Although it played well in some cities, overall it lost money, and the theater's deficit ballooned to more than $40,000. The theater was now limping into its third season, beset with continuing financial problems, and a growing chasm between Stuart Vaughn, and Board Chairman Bagley Wright (1924-2011). The bloom had come off the rose, so to speak.

The theater was wallowing in debt brought on by adherence to an outmoded European practice of presenting plays in a rotating repertory system. A true rotating repertory system involves presenting a different play each night. The Rep was offering a variation of that. They would rehearse the first two plays concurrently, and open them back to back. They would then rehearse two more plays. 60 percent  of rehearsal time to one, 40 percent to the other. Three weeks after the first two plays premiered, the third play would join the repertory, followed by the fourth. The system would then repeat itself until all the plays were in the fold. I remember that the advertising stated that out-of-town theatergoers could wait until all the plays had premiered, then come to Seattle and see a different play each night of the week! 

The big disadvantage of that system is that the set must be struck after every performance, and the set for the next show must go up. Ideally the set is then stored onsite for the next performance. But the Playhouse had no storage space, so the set was shipped offsite. Sets also had to be built offsite, and costumes had to be made offsite. The stagehands were making out like fat rats making overtime almost every day! That system was impractical in twentieth-century America, particularly at The Rep. The lighting board was fine for a one-set show with basic lighting. But it could not handle multi-lighting cues for multiple shows. It finally blew up, and The Rep had to bring in a new one. The retention of this labor intensive and very expensive system was a source of growing conflict.

Despite some fine actors like Pauline Flanagan, Thomas Hill, Stephen Joyce, Archie Smith, and Anne Gerety, and an ever-increasing audience, costs continued to escalate. “The Rep” -- as it became fashionable to say --  simply could not overcome the overwhelming costs attendant to a repertory system. It was fine in Europe, where theater is traditionally subsidized by the state. But in twentieth-century America, where money is primarily from the private sector, it is a death wish.

New Yorker Bagley Wright, a Princeton grad, former reporter, editor, and aspiring novelist was the catalyst in establishing the Seattle Repertory Theatre. He had married  well -- Virginia Bloedel, heiress to the Prentice Bloedel timber fortune, and was making his move. The Wrights had moved to Seattle in 1955, and he became a real-estate developer. The Logan Building was his first big success. But his next project solidified his name as one of Seattle’s power brokers. He helped develop and finance the 605-foot-high Space Needle that towered over the Seattle Center and Seattle itself “like a colossus.” The locals and the world stood up and noticed.

During the 1962 World’s Fair, Bagley Wright was so inspired by an Actor’s Workshop production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot at the playhouse, he determined that the time was right for professional theater in Seattle! He and his minions had weaned the Playhouse away from the city (originally targeted for community use), and created a theater named the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The plan was for The Rep to be an integral part of the new paradigm: the decentralization of theater in America. It would take its place in the vanguard of new regional theaters across the country. Margo Jones had drawn the road map with Theatre 47 in Dallas, emphasizing broad community support featuring a nonprofit structure. Now there were theaters in Houston, Washington D.C., Hartford, and Minneapolis/St, Paul! New York City was no longer the theater capital of the nation!

I had a front row seat to much of this because, as a mail carrier, my mail route was directly north of the new Seattle Center. I had worked as an actor at Gene Keene’s Cirque Theatre, and was very excited at the prospect of a new professional theater in Seattle. I became acquainted with many of The Rep actors including John Gilbert, whom I already knew. I met many of them at their favorite watering hole -- the Mecca Café on Queen Anne Avenue.

I also knew my way in and around every building in the Seattle Center. I’d finish my route early, then sneak in and watch rehearsals. I had started doing this during the World’s Fair in 1962, where I also worked part time at the Food Circus to augment my income. After the fair, I continued to work at the Seattle Center as an attendant for the Sky Ride; a 100-foot overhead tram that transported people across the Center grounds. I knew the Seattle Center like the back of my hand. During the years I witnessed rehearsals of the symphony, the opera, and The Rep, in addition to many national acts including the Royal Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, and The Actors Workshop.

Naively I had assumed that the Seattle Rep would be hiring a minority actor or two. This did not happen, and there was talk in the black community of what could be done. I decided that I would seek an audience with Stuart Vaughan. Vaughan was a veteran New York actor/director who owed his job to actor Hal Holbrook, who had performed at the Worlds Fair in 1962. Holbrook had overheard the talk of using the Playhouse for a new professional theater, and on returning to New York informed his friend, Vaughan of the possibility. Holbrook then contacted Ewen Dingwall, the director of Seattle Center, and recommended Vaughan highly. Dingwall had flown Vaughan out for a look-see, and during his two days in Seattle, Vaughan had dazzled Bagley Wright with talk of his work with George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, Joe Papp, the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the Phoenix Theatre. He had been to Europe, and was a devotee of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. He would utilize his past experience coupled with techniques and philosophies absorbed over the years. The Seattle Rep would soon be the envy of the theatrical world! Stuart Vaughan was signed to a three-year artistic-director contract by Century 21 at $15,000 per year, because the Seattle Repertory Theatre Board was still a work in progress.

But scarcely two years in, the theater was in trouble. The actors had told me that Wright and Vaughan rarely spoke, and local theater critic Wayne Johnson had written a series of articles detailing the financial woes of The Rep, much to the chagrin of Bagley Wright.

After a month of denials, Stuart Vaughan finally relented and agreed to meet with me at the theater. He would squeeze me in after the matinee performance, and before the evening show. He had just performed in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and was still in his doublet and breeches. I was standing outside of his dressing room. He suddenly appeared, sweating profusely, and offered a limp handshake. He said “I hope you will indulge me while I get out of this makeup and costume. If you don’t mind I’ll change behind this screen, and we can talk as I proceed.”

Vaughan was a man of rugged good looks and one of the most eruditely arrogant men I’d ever met. He exuded an air of superiority, and every word he uttered was in a sense of finality. After we exchanged pleasantries, I proceeded to tell Mr. Vaughan how disappointed I was that no African American or minorities had graced The Rep stage. This was the third year now. There had been turnovers in the original company. Vernon Weddle, Ruth Sobotka, and Conrad Bain had all left, and been replaced by others. It was still an all-white company. Would there be change in the future? His answer stunned me, which I will now paraphrase.

“Well, of course we are dealing with a classical repertory encompassing some of the great civilizations to ever grace the earth. And for the most part, most, if not all of the players involved are of Caucasian extraction. Playwrights are writing of the universal experiences of their own people. To put a Negro on stage in a part obviously written for a Caucasian, strains the imagination, if not the credulity of the audience watching the play. It simply does not wash! Furthermore, in all my years in the theater, I can think of only one Negro actor with the ability to compete at this level, and that man is Roscoe Lee Brown.”

Then, in an aside that cut even deeper, he said, “And of course, then, he, Roscoe, would have to play the part in white face. You see, I’m not quite in tune with the Joseph Papp’s of the world, even though I worked with Joe many times.”

By this time, the screen had been removed. Vaughan was leaning against the dressing room mirror, a slight, sardonic smile fleeting across his face.

 I was taken aback. I had expected Vaughan to say it was just one of those things. He hadn’t found the right actor. Or, he had found somebody, but their schedules conflicted. Anything except what he had just uttered.

I blurted out, “Are you aware of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Mr. Vaughan?” Vaughan said he had heard of it, but didn’t think it had application to anything pertaining to The Rep. We stared each other down for a moment. It was obvious as to the stalemate. Then, in a dismissive tone Vaughan said, ”Are we through here?” “Quite” I said, and headed for the door. 

In time I told Keve Bray, an acting friend of mine about my meeting with Vaughan. We both thought that the 1964 Civil Rights Act might be the answer. We obtained a copy and Title VI reads as follows:

“This title declares it to be the policy of the United States that discrimination on the ground of race, color, or national origin shall not occur in connection with programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance and authorizes and directs the appropriate Federal departments and agencies to take action to carry out this policy.”

According to my conversation with Stuart Vaughan, there was no doubt in my mind that he was openly discriminating against minority performers. I then called Wayne Johnson, drama critic for The Seattle Times. I told him of my conversation with Vaughan, and that I would be filing suit against The Rep. Johnson in turn wrote a brief article detailing the facts.

In the meantime, the dominoes were already starting to fall. Ewen Dingwall, the man who had hired Vaughan, had been ousted in a bloodless coup after he went on vacation. It had been papered over with an announcement that Dingwall had left for a higher paying job in San Antonio, Texas, but the reality was it was a job he had already rejected. Then in 1964, Century 21 Center, Inc, which held the contracts of both Vaughan and General Manager William Taylor, decided to merge with Greater Seattle, Inc. Contract responsibility for the two men was transferred to the Seattle Rep. It was posed as a "housekeeping matter," that made sense because both Vaughan and Taylor were employees of The Rep. The two men need not worry. It was just a matter of "tidying things up a bit." Seattle Repertory Theatre Board Chairman Bagley Wright was now in the catbird’s seat!

His first move came with stunning precision. He fired General Manager Bill Taylor, whom Vaughan had hired. Taylor was replaced by Donald Foster, a local businessman who would later found the Foster/White Gallery. Then, in January 1965, Bagley Wright modified Vaughan’s original three-year contract. He bumped his salary to $16,000 per, and then inserted a "joint termination" clause wherein either party could give notice during a one-week period, the second week of December 1965.

If Vaughan gave notice, he would receive nothing. If the theater gave notice, and Vaughn agreed to work another 30 days during the transition, he would receive six month's pay. The handwriting was on the wall. Stuart Vaughan was in No Man's Land. According to published sources, The Rep was now some $200,000 in debt. The axe fell on December 8, 1965, when Vaughan was terminated for just cause, and essentially told to get out of Dodge! But Vaughan, ever the gentleman, dutifully worked another month to fulfill the terms of the contract. Shocked and embittered, he left town in January 1966, six months pay in hand, after salvaging a job at Reed College in Oregon as an "Artist in Residence."

The nexus between Stuart Vaughan and Bagley Wright was an ill-fated one, doomed to failure from the start. Vaughan was all about art, no matter the cost, whereas  Wright was a pragmatic businessman whose concern was the bottom line -- money!

About three months later, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Bagley Wright! He wanted to talk. This time I brought my acting friend, Keve Bray, with me. He was a fellow actor and director, who had his own acting company, The Contemporary Players. We met Mr. Wright at his downtown office located in the Logan Building. He was a small, well coiffed, nattily dressed, bland man who wore owl-like glasses. Wright was as serious as a heart attack and got right down to business. He had found a new artistic director for The Rep. His name was Allen Fletcher, and he would be taking over shortly. Most importantly, he had made a commitment to hire at least three minority actors for the upcoming 1966 season. Keve and I looked at each other. We were elated beyond words. Then Mr. Wright asked for a quid pro quo. Since The Rep would be complying with the law, would I drop the suit?

I assured him I would. Mr. Wright never smiled. Then the other shoe dropped when he asked both of us not to think of this as an opportunity to advance our own careers by applying for work at The Rep. I was shocked. Keve jumped up and got in Bagley Wright’s face. “What did you say?” he hollered. I grabbed Keve and tried to pull him away. Wright looked shaken. Keve finally sat down shaking with anger. I then told Bagley Wright in no uncertain terms that the suit was not filed for personal gain, that we resented his insinuation. Wright stood there, sheepishly studying the floor, as if it would supply an answer. He said something about misunderstanding us, and then mentioned again the commitment of Allen Fletcher. Wright also said that this was privileged information; that the press release announcing Fletchers appointment had yet to go out, and swore us to secrecy. We concurred, and after a brief, awkward silence, left his office.   

Shortly thereafter, Allen Fletcher was announced as the new artistic director. His first pronouncement was a discontinuance of the rotating repertory system! No longer would the stagehands be making more money than the actors! He also stated his intention to hire three minority actors for the upcoming season. A few months later, a list of returning and new actors was released. Juanita Bethea, Jason Bernard, and Lynn Hamilton were identified as minority actors. I was pleased. I wasn’t much for marches and demonstrations, but felt that I had made a contribution in the ongoing civil rights movement in my own field, the theater!

In the fall of 1966, I unexpectedly received a call from Jason Bernard, who asked if he could meet with me. Pleased as punch, I invited him to my house for dinner. I was married at the time, with five children. Jason was a big man, six foot two inches, over 200 lbs, with a deep, rich voice and impeccable diction. He was also gruff, and quite outspoken.

Jason had auditioned in Chicago at a consortium of regional theaters. The word was out. Someone had filed a suit alleging discrimination under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Theaters across the country felt threatened by this action, and were hastily acting to add minority actors to the mix. They were motivated by two factors: One was the possible denial of the limited federal monies available at that time. The other, more pressing reason, was the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. For the first time, federal monies would be flowing to arts institutions across the country on a regular basis. So now, in threat of running afoul of the new Civil Rights Act, they were acting jointly to ensure their fair share of the pie. Never mind whether it was right or wrong.

Jason told me he’d made friends with Floyd Hart, president of the local IATSE union  and head carpenter at The Rep, and he'd shown him the Wayne Johnson article. Jason stayed with The Rep for four years. He left in 1970 when Bagley Wright became  angered at his production of Jean Genet's The Blacks and terminated his contract. He turned out to be a lifelong friend and helped me develop Black Arts/West, Seattle’s first black theater.

Years later, I visited him in Los Angeles, where his career was flourishing as one of Tinsel Town’s great character actors. Eventually our conversation turned to the Seattle Rep and the suit. We both agreed that it was unfortunate that it took a law to level the playing field and rectify a cultural lacuna that had denied the minority actor for so long.

But Jason was shocked when I told him what is revealed here for the first time. I NEVER filed the suit in question. It was, as Makak said in Derek Walcott’s play Dream on Monkey Mountain, “a figment of the imagination, a banana of the mind.” It was simply too costly. There were attorney fees, filing fees, and possible costs beyond that. I had a low-paying job with a wife and five children to support. I also worked part-time jobs to make ends meet. I fully intended to file the suit, but did not have the resources to do so. So I told the world that I had. And it worked. Bagley Wright went for the ‘okee doke’ as we say in the hood.

It really didn’t matter. Other suits had been filed across the country under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Bagley Wright made the right decision. At that time, the general consensus was that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would serve as a tipping point for the minority actor. That at last he or she would have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with their white counterparts.  Forty-four years later however, it is difficult to see any measurable improvement in the American theater movement. It remains a dream: confusing, illusory, contradictory, and unrealized.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre recovered from those early, rocky years to become a staid pillar of the Seattle cultural community. In the process it finally built its own state-of-the-art theater in 1983, named after its founder, Bagley Wright. For the first time, all elements of the theater, administrative and staff offices, box office, scene shop, and costume shop, were all contained in the same building! It received national recognition in 1990 when it won a Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre.

But perhaps the most surprising achievement was its almost two-decade support in championing the work of African American playwright August Wilson! For almost 20 years, The Rep was part of a five-theater consortium that nurtured and produced Wilson’s plays from conception to finished product. And The Rep took things a step further after Wilson’s death in 2005. The theatrical world was startled into admiration when The Rep produced an all out tribute to Wilson on February 13, 2006. A who’s-who list of professional actors from all over the country, who had achieved prominence by appearing in Wilson’s plays, were brought in. Scenes from all 10 plays of the Wilson canon were presented. It attracted theater personalities and audience from all over the world, and was hailed as a smashing success! With the 2007 production of Gem of the Ocean, The Rep became the first theater in the nation to produce all 10 plays of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ written by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. In doing so, The Rep had finally proved itself to be one the most progressive theatres in the country, a far cry from its infamous beginning.  


Regina Hackett, "Virginia and Bagley Wright’s Passion for Art is a Priceless Gift for the Pacific Northwest," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 4, 1999; Robin Updyke, "A Gift That Keeps Giving," The Seattle Times, April 6, 1996; Stuart Vaughan, A Possible Theatre (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969); Gerald M. Berkowitz, New Broadways (New York: Applause Books, 1997);  Helen Epstein, Joe Papp: An American Life (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1994); Stuart W. Little, Enter Joseph Papp (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1974); Christine Wenc, "Vaudevillians & Communists," The Stranger, May 10-16, 2001; Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink Staff, Seattle and King County Timeline (Seattle: History Ink, 2001); "Stuart Vaughan biography (1925- ) (; Anthony D. Hill with Douglas Q. Barnett, Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre (Lanham, Maryland:  Scarecrow Press, 2008); Douglas Q. Barnett archives, Seattle, Washington. 

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