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ACT: A Contemporary Theatre (Seattle)

HistoryLink.org Essay 10064 : Printer-Friendly Format

ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) opened in the summer of 1965 in a former community hall at the base of Queen Anne Hill and has since become one of Seattle's most popular and artistically adventurous theaters. It was the brainchild of Gregory A. Falls (1922-1997), head of the University of Washington's theater department. Falls believed Seattle needed an alternative to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which emphasized the classics. The opening 1965 season included provocative works by Arthur Kopit and Tennessee Williams and drew loyal audiences. The theater continued to thrive with plays that addressed racial, political, and cultural themes while also staging mainstream shows such as The Fantasticks. In 1976, the theater inaugurated an annual Seattle holiday tradition with Falls's own adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which has continued every holiday season since. Over the decades, ACT outgrew its Queen Anne space and in 1996 moved to a new $30 million, multi-venue space in downtown Seattle in the former Eagles Auditorium. ACT has survived several financial crises and remains one of Seattle's key cultural institutions.

The Plays of Our Times

Gregory Falls arrived in Seattle in 1961 to become the director of the University of Washington's School of Drama. He had done previous stints at Ohio's Mad Anthony Players, the University of Vermont's drama program, and the Champlain Shakespeare Festival. In 1965, he looked around Seattle's professional theater scene and saw that the Seattle Repertory Theatre's emphasis was on the classics. He became convinced that Seattle needed a theater that reflected the artistic and theatrical ferment of the 1960s. It was the era of provocative playwrights such as Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter.

"Our theater concerns itself with the plays of our times," Falls said in an early interview. "We believe that the Puget Sound area should have the opportunity to see the plays which are being seen and discussed now in other metropolitan centers around the world. Our play selection is not concerned with whether a play will become great literature, or even whether we like it personally. If theater reflects the many ideas and attitudes of its time, then it serves an important and dynamic cultural function. This, we believe is the reason for A Contemporary Theatre" (McCloy).

The idea was to create theater that, as one early actor put it, "walks right up and demands (your) attention" (McCloy). Falls also had one other motive. He wanted to provide a way for graduates of his University of Washington drama program to stay in Seattle, pursue their art, and make a living.

After Falls dreamed up the concept, he and the other ACT pioneers -- including his wife, actor Jean Burch Falls -- began searching for a building. They found it in an unused space called Queen Anne Hall, at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, at 1st Avenue and Roy Street (709 W 1st, in the numbering parlance of the day). They turned it into a thrust-stage configuration, which meant it had seating on three sides. At 420 seats, it was an intimate space in which the actors and audience were never far apart. The Seattle Times, in its first review, called it "a little gem in design" (Baker). Falls also introduced some '60s informality into the theater-going experience. There was no dress code. Patrons could wear jeans if they wanted. Falls wanted to get away from the established notion that theater had to be a dress-up occasion.

Oh, Dad, Poor Dad ...

The new theater was also intended to fill another niche: summer theater. Seattle had little in the way of live theater in what was traditionally considered the theatrical off-season, so Falls decided to mount a five-play summer-stock season in 1965. For the first play, Falls chose a show that epitomized the ACT's direction: Arthur Kopit's comedy, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. It was an absurdist comedy that also satirized other absurdist comedies. Kopit himself subtitled it "a pseudoclassical tragifarce in a bastard French tradition." It was only three years old, it was irreverent, it was a bit avant-garde, and it was far from the typical Seattle theatrical fare. And on opening night, June 29, 1965, it also turned out to be a critical and popular hit.

"A capacity audience showed its appreciation of professionalism by calling the actors out for half a dozen curtain calls," wrote Seattle Times critic Ed Baker. "Unseen, but sharing the applause, were Falls and his technical crew, who mounted some delicious staging effects" (Baker).

The First Season

This was followed by Tennessee William's searing drama Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, which Seattle Times theater critic Wayne Johnson called a "solid and spirited production." Next up was Who'll Save the Plowboy? by Frank Gilroy, which Johnson called unrelievedly "grim." This was followed by Dark of the Moon, by Howard Richardson and William Berney and The Private Ear/The Public Eye, by Peter Shaffer.  Johnson opined that the ACT had hit its stride with these last two productions. Falls directed all but the last play and Jean Burch Falls (credited as Jean Burch) was in the cast for three productions in that opening season. Each of the five plays ran for two weeks; the entire season was over by Labor Day.

There were some rough patches. The weather was hot and so was the temperature inside the poorly ventilated theater. The plays were demanding and the "theater came close to foundering several times" (McCloy). "But the audiences who attended supplied a tenacious kind of devotion, admitting often that even when they didn’t like the plays, they found them engrossing and worth grappling with," said the Seattle Times (McCloy).

Organizing the Future

But were audiences devoted enough to support a second season? That winter, Falls concluded that the ACT experiment was worth continuing. So in January 1966, he took the next logical step, incorporating the theater as a non-profit organization with a board of directors. ACT embarked on a fundraising campaign, which garnered one improvement that came as a relief to actors and audience alike: a cooling and ventilating system. The board also decided on an expanded second season with seven shows running from June 21 to September 24. The season included The Collection/The Room, by Pinter and Tiny Alice by Edward Albee. Yet it also included a crowd-pleaser, Arsenic and Old Lace, by Joseph Kesselring.

Crucially, it included a play that garnered ACT plenty of attention: In White America, a play by Martin B. Duberman about the black experience in the United States. The Seattle Times said that with this play, "ACT is making good on its pledge to bring to Seattle vital theater which concerns itself with the significant ideas, attitudes and problems of our times" (Johnson, "Timely"). An actor in the play said, "You must make your statement, your commitment, and make it loud and clear" (McCloy).

The 1967 season began with two shows that drew strong crowds, Luv, a comedy by Murray Schisgal and The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth, about the Vatican's failure to take action on the Holocaust. Pinter and Arthur Miller were also represented. For the first time, ACT staged a musical, The Fantasticks, the gentle musical fable by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. It was the best-attended show in ACT's brief history, playing to a 92 percent capacity, and it anchored the theater's most popular season to date.

Developing,  Expanding, Learning the Ropes

Encouraged by such strong support, ACT embarked on an expanded season in 1968. Each of the seven shows ran three weeks instead of two, resulting in a 21-week season from May through September. By this time, the theater had "developed the features of an on-going stable theater operation: a board of trustees; an administrative staff; a reputation among actors as a good place to work; a reputation among theater-goers as a good place to see good theater" (Johnson, "Manager"). The theater also hired an administrative director, Robert E. Gustavson, to put the theater on a sound administrative and financial basis.

Yet ACT had overreached. The first two plays in its 1968 season, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground and Eh? -- both characterized by critics  as "grim" -- were lukewarmly received and sparsely attended. Attendance picked up slightly for the rest of the season. Yet despite expanding to 21 weeks, attendance was about 24,000, lower than the 25,640 total in 1967. In essence, said Falls, "we spread a 14-week audience over 21 weeks" (Johnson, "Longer Season").

The theater lost a lot of money, which Falls attributed partly to play selection. However, he saw positive omens amidst the red ink. The best-attended show of the season was also the most intellectually demanding, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. For Falls, it was an indication that there is an audience for "the really substantial plays of our times" (Johnson, "Longer Season"). Falls warned, however, that for the upcoming 1969 season "we can't afford to do something economically foolish which would jeopardize the future -- the existence -- of the theater" (Johnson, "Longer Season").

A Hit Season

The board cut back the 1969 season to 14 weeks and the lineup included a new musical, Celebration, by the writing team behind The Fantasticks. It also included Pinter's The Homecoming and the provocative Marat/Sade, by Peter Weiss. The result was a hit season, just when ACT needed it most. Marat/Sade, with its themes of revolution, class struggle, and violence, surpassed The Fantasticks as ACT's best-attended show ever. The 1969 season also featured a world premiere play, Crabdance, by Beverly Simons, partly financed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Audiences didn't necessarily like Crabdance, but they loved the "lively, chewy discussions" it provoked (Johnson, "Success"). The season attendance hit 27,319, the best ever. Falls was described as "smiling a lot these days" (Johnson, "Going Great").

ACT, even with its anti-establishment bent, had become an established Seattle institution. "More and more people speak of ACT as our city's principal antidote for 'cultural boredom,'" wrote critic Johnson (Johnson, "Success").

A Theater for the Young, the Hip, the Curious

Through the 1970s, ACT cemented its position as the place for young, hip, intellectually curious audiences. In 1971, it presented one of the first plays dealing with overtly gay themes, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band; in 1972, it staged a controversial drama about anti-Vietnam War activists, Father Daniel Berrigan's The Trial of the Catonsville Nine; and in 1976, it presented a searing play about apartheid, Athol Fugard's Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Yet through the 1970s, ACT also branched out into Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and Eugene O'Neill. ACT was still the home for Pinter, Bertolt Brecht, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, and David Mamet. Yet it was also not above doing shows with mainstream appeal, such as Plaza Suite, by Neil Simon.

Meanwhile, ACT had branched out in other directions. Its own Young ACT Company had staged children's theater since 1968, and by the 1970s it was touring shows around the state. It had an especially big hit in 1972 with An Absurd Musical Revue for Children. In 1980, the Young ACT Company won the American Theater Association's Jennie Heiden Award for excellence in professional children's theater. It was also an exceptional training ground for young actors, including Patrick Duffy, who would later become a star on TV's Dallas, John Aylward, who went on to appear in E.R., The West Wing and Mad Men, and Marc Singer, who starred in a PBS version of The Taming of the Shrew and Roots: The Next Generation.

A Christmas Carol to Remember

In 1976, ACT launched what would become its most popular and enduring show: A Christmas Carol, with a new adaptation by Falls. Theater companies had long ago discovered that this Dickens classic was a lucrative holiday cash cow. Falls and ACT breathed new life into it, thanks in part, to a riveting performance by John Gilbert as Scrooge. It was an immediate smash and was revived in 1977. By 1978, it had become an annual Seattle holiday institution.

"It has such heft and resonance that the show seems as if it has been an integral part of Seattle's holiday season for a long time," wrote critic Johnson in 1978. "The show is, in fact, a bright ornament in our community life and -- in our hurry-up times -- a kind of instant tradition" (Johnson, "Christmas Carol").

Johnson called Falls's adaptation full of "warmth, clarity and integrity -- without any phony theatricalism." During Gilbert's solo curtain call, "a number of small children were jumping with glee and cheering" (Johnson, "Christmas Carol"). The show has been on the ACT calendar every year since.

The growing theater was still in its original Queen Anne location, and the strain was beginning to show. One harbinger came in a newspaper interview with departing set designer S. Todd Muffatti in which he listed the challenges of ACT's stage: "no fly (fly-loft) from which to decently hang anything, no storage space, no place backstage to put sets when they're not onstage" (Voorhees). Muffatti said he would probably never "work with a stage that has fewer advantages" (Voorhees). In 1976, the theater embarked on a multi-year project to bring the space up to date. The remodel had to be done in increments, because, in the words of columnist John Hinterberger, "the theater is so busy it's tough to find a stretch when you can drop a wrench and not maim an actor" (Hinterberger).

Becoming One of the Majors

By 1976, ACT had expanded its season to more than five months. It was doing six plays, each play running 24 performances. The former "summer stock" theater's season now stretched from June until Thanksgiving. In 1978, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer declared the opening day of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I to be ACT Theater Day in Seattle. By 1982, ACT was considered one of the six "majors" in Seattle's cultural world, along with the Seattle Symphony, the Seattle Opera, the Seattle Rep, the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Art Museum (Bargreen). In 1978, ACT attracted 81,965 audience members -- about 10 times the number it had attracted during its first season. The total budget was now $895,087.

Falls was also known for encouraging a spirit of cooperation with the Seattle Rep and the theaters that had sprouted up in ACT's wake, including the Intiman Theatre, the Bathhouse Theatre, and the Empty Space Theatre. One of Falls' favorite sayings was that "theaters, like grapes, grow best in bunches" (Bargreen, I-Chin Tu).

Changing Times

Meanwhile, leadership changes were in store. In 1988, Falls retired because of early signs of Alzheimer's disease. He had led the theater for 23 years. Jeff Steitzer, who had been resident director at ACT since 1985, replaced him. Steitzer emphasized new plays by English and American authors, something that had long been part of ACT's mission. By 1992, ACT had produced 19 West Coast premieres and 14 world premieres. The theater had developed a particularly notable relationship with Seattle playwright Steven Dietz. ACT eventually produced 10 of Dietz's plays, many as world premieres.

Meanwhile, the issue of the old Queen Anne space continued to loom. As early as 1985, it was clear that ACT either had to launch a thorough renovation of the theater or start looking for a new space. The roof leaked, the seating was cramped, the lobby was crowded, parking was almost impossible and there weren't enough restrooms. In the early 1990s, the board learned that the City of Seattle had taken over the old Eagles Auditorium at the northeast corner of the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle -- home of many memorable rock concerts in the 1960s featuring among others Cream, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. Constructed in 1924 and 1925, and actively used by the Fraternal Order of Eagles until 1981, the building had been designed to accommodate a large ballroom/auditorium, a gymnasium, a bowling alley, a billiards parlor, apartments, a night club, and ceremonial halls. It had seen better days and would require a massive amount of renovation to turn it into a theater space. The board decided to forge ahead and buy the building.

Moving On and Moving Out

A capital fundraising campaign proved to be remarkably successful, with major grants from The Boeing Co., The Allen Foundation, Microsoft Corporation, and many others. The theater raised $30.4 million -- enough to buy the old building and turn it into not one but three separate performing spaces. However, not everyone was enamored of the idea of moving. Many theater patrons and actors "didn't want ACT to trade its unpretentious 'mom and pop' theater for a glitzier downtown show palace" (Berson, "Drama"). Others were concerned that the cost of maintaining such a large space would be too high. Steitzer turned in his resignation in 1994 and was replaced by Peggy Shannon in 1995.

So there was a bittersweet feeling on August 11, 1996, when ACT staged its final show (Laughter on the 23rd Floor) at the old theater in Queen Anne. The evening included toasts to the ailing Falls and reminiscences about a stage that had provided so many memories for actors and audience alike. Yet there was also tremendous excitement about the new theater, which included a 409-seat thrust-stage theater named the Falls Theatre; a 434-seat in-the-round space called the Allen Theatre; and a 150-seat cabaret theater called the Bullitt Cabaret.

Growing Pains

ACT's new venue, called Kreielsheimer Place after a major donor, was launched mid-season with a comedy titled Cheap on September 6, 1996. From a strictly logistical standpoint, the new space was vastly superior. Two auditoriums allowed one play to rehearse while another was still running. For the first time, designers had overhead space, storage space and large scene and costume shops. Parking was available at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, connected to the theater via tunnel. And finally, playgoers had sufficient bathrooms.

ACT had entered a new phase -- yet it proved to be a dangerous one. The first plays at the new theater were disappointments. Subscriptions for the 1997 season dropped from about 11,400 to 9,000. Shannon resigned as artistic director in January 1997 amid artistic and financial turbulence. Another blow came on April 3, 1997, when Gregory Falls died at age 75 of pneumonia.

Gordon Edelstein, a well-connected New York director, replaced Shannon in 1997 as artistic director. Edelstein inaugurated a new era of high visibility for ACT, as he brought in name actors such as Julie Harris and Jane Alexander. In 2000, he produced the world premiere of a "chamber opera" by Philip Glass titled In the Penal Colony, and in 2002 a new musical by pop composer Randy Newman titled, The Education of Randy Newman. Subscriptions and attendance began to go back up. Kurt Beattie, then the associate artistic director, said in a 2003 interview that "the place was almost moribund when he (Edelstein) arrived, and he filled it with life and theater" (Berson, "Drama").

Yet these productions were expensive. Also, arts organizations everywhere began to struggle in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Edelstein departed in 2002 to eventually become the artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut Meanwhile, a financial crisis was slowly building at ACT. The gap between revenue and expenses was growing every year. It came to a head in early 2003 when the ACT made a shocking announcement: It was laying off most of its staff and posting a $1.7 million debt. The 2003 season was in jeopardy. ACT had only $3,000 left in its checking account and it needed to raise $1.5 million to survive. Former ACT managing director Susan Trapnell told The Seattle Times that "for 33 of its 38 years, ACT was known for its financial caution ... . We lost that discipline" (Berson, "Drama").

Seattle's Theater of The Moment, This Moment

The theater survived the crisis through an outpouring of community support, including a $500,000 donation from Phil Condit, chairman of both ACT's board and The Boeing Co. The theater also committed itself to a leaner operation -- a five-play season for both 2003 and 2004 -- and Beattie was appointed artistic director in April 2003 and mounted a successful and popular season.

ACT has since gained a firmer financial footing. It has also cemented its original mission as Seattle's outlet for works by provocative contemporary playwrights, which now includes newer names such as Martin McDonagh and Sarah Ruhl. It continues to produce works by many of the key playwrights from ACT's early years, including Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn. The current "ACT Manifesto," written by Beattie, begins, "We believe in the theatre of the moment, this moment, the present, contemporary struggles, issues, ideas, being" (ACT website).

Meanwhile ACT continues to champion new plays through its New Works for the American Stage program. Becky's New Car, by longtime ACT collaborator Steven Dietz, was one of the theater's smash successes in 2008. The theater has also entered into a partnership with the nearby 5th Avenue Theatre to co-produce musicals, including the 2011 world premiere of Vanities: A New Musical, by David Kirshenbaum and Jack Heifner.

One tradition has continued every year without fail since 1976: ACT's A Christmas Carol, with Falls's original adaptation. The show still draws big and happy crowds every holiday season. ACT guards this script closely; it has never licensed this adaptation to any other theater.

A Prime Force in Theater

ACT's influence on the Seattle theater scene has been profound. Falls and ACT have been credited with being a prime force in making Seattle "one of the country's vital and most flourishing" theater communities (Berson, "Falls' Genial"). The Seattle Times, in a 1995 homage to Falls, said, "Had ACT failed, Seattle may have become dominated by a single theater" (Matassa). As of 2012, ACT is generally considered one of Seattle's big three theaters, along with the Seattle Rep and Intiman Theatre.

Falls' name lives on in more than just the name of ACT's thrust-stage theater. Broadway has the Tony Awards, but the Theatre Puget Sound organization has the annual Gregory Awards, named in Falls's honor. Fittingly, ACT has won numerous Gregory Awards, including Theatre of the Year in both 2010 and 2011.

Sources:
Ruth McCloy, "Double Thrust Theater," The Seattle Times, July 31, 1966, p. 126; Ed Baker, "Falls and Friends Can Take a Bow," Ibid., June 30, 1965, p. 34; Jim Kershner telephone interview with Nicole Boyer Cochran, ACT artistic manager, February 29, 2012; Wayne Johnson, "ACT brings 'Cat' to Vital Life," The Seattle Times, July 14, 1965, p. 16; Wayne Johnson, "Plowboy Digs a Grim Furrow," Ibid., July 28, 1965, p. 42; Wayne Johnson, "ACT Play is Timely and Telling," Ibid., June 22. 1966, p. 55; Wayne Johnson "New Manager Signed by ACT," Ibid., April 10, 1968, p. 61; Wayne Johnson, "Longer Season Lost Money," Ibid., November 3, 1968, p. G-11; Wayne Johnson, "ACT Season Going Great," Ibid., August 25, 1969, p. 13; Wayne Johnson, "ACT Season a Success," Ibid., October 12, 1969, p. 10-D; Wayne Johnson, "Christmas Carol Back at ACT," Ibid., December 8, 1978, p. 3 Tempo; John Voorhees, "Designer to Leave ACT," Ibid., August 30, 1970, p. C2; John Hinterberger, "ACT's Latest Production Stars a Hammer and a Saw," Ibid., March 3, 1976, p. E-11; Melinda Bargreen, "Nurturing the Arts Is a Glamourless Job," Ibid.,  February 14, 1982, p. H-1; Melinda Bargreen and Janet I-Chin Tu, "The Decade That Launched Seattle Arts," Ibid., November 9, 1997 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com), March 6, 2012; Mark Matassa, "People of Influence," Ibid., July 9, 1995, Pacific Magazine (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Misha Berson, "The Drama Behind the Scenes at ACT," Ibid., March 11, 2003 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Misha Berson, "Falls' Genial Nurturing Gave Birth to Flourishing Theater Scene Here," Ibid., April 5, 1997 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); ACT website accessed March 7, 2012 (www.acttheatre.org); City of Seattle Landmark Nomination Form for Eagles Temple Building, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Historic Preservation Office, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was slightly expanded on July 15, 2012.


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Gregory A. Falls (1922-1997)
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