On May 16, 1940, Seattle's new Penthouse Theatre, the first “theater in the round” built in the United States, opens with a production of Spring Dance, a comedy by Philip Barry. Based on concepts developed by Glenn Hughes (1894-1964), head of the University of Washington’s School of Drama, the theater’s innovative design attracts international acclaim.
The Penthouse Players
The Penthouse Theatre grew out of Hughes’s search for a small, intimate space for student performances. When Hughes first arrived at the university, in 1919, the drama department’s only theater was a large auditorium, seating 2,200. He wanted a smaller venue, so that the actors would be close enough to the audiences to provide some of the drama and immediacy of cinema. “Modern audiences have become conditioned to the movies, and now, when they attend a legitimate performance they find the actor weak and ineffectual,“ he wrote (Hughes, 8).
His solution was to encircle the stage with rows of seats, similar to the seating in a circus or boxing arena. Directors in both Europe and the United States had toyed with the idea of arena seating in theaters but apparently none had actually employed it. Hughes began experimenting with the model in 1932, when a friend -- Thomas F. Murphy -- offered him the use of an unfurnished drawing room in a penthouse on top of the new Edmond Meany Hotel. Hughes set up a makeshift stage in the drawing room, surrounded it on three sides with seats for 60 people, and offered a program of one-act comedies, opening on November 4, 1932.
The First Penthouse Theatre
After a season in the penthouse, the troupe moved into larger quarters in the ballroom of the Meany Hotel. Encouraged by the audience response, Hughes began looking for a more permanent home for what had become known as the Penthouse Players. In 1935, the drama department leased a building on 42nd Street near University Way, two blocks from campus, and converted it into a 140-seat arena theater. This was the original Penthouse Theatre. Described by the University of Washington Daily as “the only ‘stageless’ theatre in the world,” it opened on April 18, 1935, with a production of A. A. Milne’s comedy, The Dover Road.
Both the Penthouse and the adjacent Studio Theatre (also operated by the drama department) were immediately popular with the public. However, in April 1938, the theaters were picketed twice, first by union activists protesting their use of non-union student labor; and then by students protesting the termination of Florence James’s contract as a part-time instructor in the drama department. With construction already underway on one on-campus theater (the Showboat) and plans being made for a second (a new Penthouse), the university closed both off-campus theaters. The “unpleasantness” of the student strike, Hughes wrote, “brought the administrative officers of the University strongly to our support and increased public sympathy for our activities” (Hughes, 21-22).
Construction of the new Penthouse began in September 1939, funded in part with a labor grant from the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The School of Drama paid for the materials and equipment. The 172-seat theater, designed by Hughes in partnership with John Conway, chief designer for the drama department, featured an elliptical, dome-roofed central unit flanked by rectangular wings. The domed ceiling was supported by eight laminated, wooden arches, crafted by WPA workmen.
A Gala Affair
Opening night on May 16, 1940, was a gala affair for the cream of Seattle society. Seattle Daily Times columnist Virginia Boren provided a breathless account of “Cameras clicking; Klieg lights burning … celebrities broadcasting; baskets, boxes and seemingly carloads of flowers arriving …beautifully gowned women gliding into the foyer … Hollywood glamour! ...a blue and white Penthouse Theatre, a proud beauty of the show world…Salute to glory!" (Seattle Daily Times, 1940). After the show, Thomas F. Murphy and his wife hosted a supper in the same penthouse apartment where, eight years earlier, the first Penthouse productions were held.
From the elliptical stage (more interesting than a perfect circle) to the clean, airy décor to the complimentary coffee and candies at intermission, the Penthouse Theatre bore the imprint of Glenn Hughes. Opening nights were black tie affairs, by invitation only, for university officials and civic and business leaders. Productions ran six nights a week for six weeks, then were immediately replaced by another, leaving the theater with few dark nights.
Hughes, head of the drama department from 1930 until 1961, also selected every playbill, and with few exceptions, what he selected was contemporary comedy. Hughes believed serious drama was inappropriate in the arena setting. Classics he also considered risky. “Artistically there is no reason why we should not present drawing-room tragedy as well as comedy,” he wrote. “The actual reason why we do not present tragedy is that our audiences wouldn’t like it as well. The Penthouse Theatre is bright and gay and sociable. We like it that way, and so does the public” (Hughes, 47).
Accolades and Acclaim
After the theater opened, Hughes was inundated with congratulations, inquiries, and requests for help. Letters came from universities, colleges, high schools, community theatres, USO Clubs, and drama teachers across the country and around the world. In response, he wrote several pamphlets and then a book, sharing his formula for “theater in the round.”
Today, more than 80 years after it was built, the Penthouse remains in use by the School of Drama, although in a new location and with a broader focus. In 1991, it was moved from one corner of the campus to another, to make way for the construction of a new physics building. Two sections of the original building were moved; a third -- the west wing -- was rebuilt. When the theater reopened, it was rededicated, in honor of its founder, as the Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre.