Seattle Rep unites new theater with ambition of the first order
There is a moment in ''The Ballad of Soapy Smith'' when the ambiguous culture hero of the title exclaims belligerently: ''All I ever wanted was everything. Is that too much to ask?''Skip to next paragraph
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A thoroughly American sentiment, and one entirely appropriate to the occasion on which the lines were first spoken. The opening night of the Seattle Repertory Theatre's new season was an event reflecting theatrical ambition of the first order.
When the curtain went up Oct. 26, a spanking new theater was inaugurated with the world premiere of a major work on the grand scale by a rising playwright. The play, developed from rough-draft form by the company, addresses a regional subject, and the production (running through Nov. 19) is almost entirely the work of regional actors.
So much tried, so much dared - and in large part, so much successfully accomplished. The opening of ''The Ballad of Soapy Smith'' may loom in memory as the night when not only a theater company but one of America's best theater towns came of age.
First, the building. The Bagley Wright, named for the corporate eminence who generated the civic impulse that created the Seattle Rep in 1963, immediately joins the ranks of the best theater buildings in the country. On the outside, it is a whimsical, vaguely 1950s, multilayered cake-box affair, whose varying shades of green paint are a cause celebre in Seattle.
On the inside, it is something of a theater factory. Only a quarter or so of the space is devoted to actors and audience; the rest goes to management, designers, costumes, the scene shop (with room to drive a semi in through the doors) - all under one roof. This is a house where plays will be not just born, but made.
The Rep, which raised $4.4 million of the $10 million price tag to go with a bond issue voted by the citizens, got what it wanted. And what it wanted was surprisingly old-fashioned.
''An absolutely 18th-century proscenium house, with modern positions for lighting and sound,'' producing director Peter Donnelly calls it. The project's architects, the NBBJ group, responded smoothly to the challenge, devising a comfortable 864-seat theater in which actors can hit the back row with a whisper or a raised eyebrow.
Next, the town and the company. Seattle gives rise to a remarkable degree of theatrical ferment for a middle-size city. There are five fully professional companies that are soundly established and frequently excellent. They are surrounded by hosts of smaller troupes of every description. The University of Washington has one of the best actor-training programs in the nation. And these theaters are supported: The Seattle Rep alone has 24,000 season-ticket holders.
But while Seattle fosters a great deal of very respectable theater, it has contributed relatively little that is innovative. The Intiman is solidly classicist. A Contemporary Theater (ACT) produces recent works whose reputations are already made. Until recently, the Seattle Rep, flagship of the line, had no visible mission at all. While many of its productions individually sparkled, seasons had little coherence, and play choices ranged from the obvious to the tedious. Worse, in the midst of a burgeoning theatrical community, the Rep positively disdained to hire Seattle actors for anything save servant parts. It might as well have been located in Kansas City.
All that changed dramatically with the arrival four years ago of artistic director Dan Sullivan, a self-described ''gypsy director'' who had banged around many of the better regional theaters. Sullivan began hiring predominantly local casts and actively promoting new work.
During the past several years, the Rep has helped to develop new scripts by the likes of Snoo Wilson, Christopher Hampton, William Mastrosimone, and Michael Weller, usually in workshop settings with the authors sitting in. (Mastrosimone's ''Shivaree,'' which evolved in a workshop last year, opened under Sullivan's direction Nov. 9 in the Bagley Wright's smaller theater, the Forum.)
The Seattle Rep began to play an active role in the creation of American theater rather than merely serving to disseminate a received repertory. ''Over the last four years,'' Sullivan said on the day after the opening, ''we have been in transition to last night.''
Finally, then, the work itself. When Michael Weller (''Loose Ends,'' the screenplay for ''Hair'') was in Seattle two years ago, while the Rep was working on his ''Twenty-Three Years Later,'' he mentioned his interest in writing a play about a real-life con man, Jefferson (Soapy) Smith, who ended a tumultuous career in Skagway, Alaska.