Please Won't You Be My Neighbor?

An ailing ACT's new artistic director hopes to reconnect with the public.

KURT BEATTIE SOUNDS like a small-town country doctor. Oh, he has the articulateness of a man who has spent his life in the theater, but aside from his intellect, his distinguishing characteristic in person is a kindly reassurance that everything's going to be OK, friend. And a doctor is just what ACT Theatre needs right now.

The downtown Seattle venue is getting back up on shaky legs and walking toward the future after the news that it had somehow crippled itself with $1.7 million in debt. The board of trustees, amidst concerns that it reneged on the "trust" part of the public bargain by operating in ignorance of the theater's mounting debt, contributed $636,000 toward saving the theater. Private sector donations have raised another $1.5 million that will allow the company to produce a five-play season beginning in July (including Edward Albee's Tony-winning The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?).

A longtime Seattle theater veteran who had served as associate artistic director at ACT since 2001, Beattie took over as artistic director about a month ago, after the recently hired Robert Egan changed his mind about accepting the position in the wake of the financial disaster. In an interview, he talked calmly about the theater's woes, its potential, and how good, old-fashioned communication can keep the wobbly company from becoming "a phantom."

Seattle Weekly: How do you feel taking over the theater at this particular time in its history?

Kurt Beattie: I feel wonderful about it, and I feel revived as an artist and as a theatrical professional. But it's been a very strange journey. I went through the search process in the summer, and I was not selected to be the artistic director. And, like anybody, I had an ego, and I was somewhat devastated by the rejection. But I made my peace with that15 years ago, I might have thrown myself off the Aurora Bridge [laughs]. And then I got a call from [board co-president] Sheena [Aebig] saying, "Would you be willing to step forward as the artistic leader of the theater?" I certainly felt that, in terms of what the community needs and what artistic value the theater has, it was worth saving.

So, what is the artistic value of ACT?

Well, I hate to be corny about it, but the old title of this theater was "A Contemporary Theatre," and fundamentally, it's a theater that has to live in the here and now. That can be reflected in theater that's been written in any language that's been translated into English in the last 100 years. But it has to be theater that reflects who we are right now.

How do you balance the need to make money with the desire to do contemporary theater?

There isn't a better formulation than Aristotle's in the sense that human beings as animals require a certain amount of stimulation that's pleasurable to them. And, in Aristotle's equation, spectacle is part of that. So you have to be willing to understand that the audience comes to a theater to be healedsometimes that means having a play talk about things which the society won't talk about, and sometimes it means taking the audience away from what is being talked about in the public arena. [A theater] has to do both. So there's that aspect of programmingentertainment, whatever that might be, is something you can't walk away from. The other aspect is a real intercourse with the absolutely painful conflicts that we live with in the moment and finding some way to discuss them in the public.

What's the status of the board at this point?

Well, the board is reconstituting itself. There have been some departures, and there'll be some recruiting of new members. And there's no question about itone of the chief undertakings of the overall management is going to be strengthening the board: finding new blood, bringing back some of the great old blood. There are some great past members of this family that could be of great help to this theater right now, and I think some are ready to be active again.

Has there been a change in how much the board communicates with the administration?

Yes, I think, with the advent of Sheena, who was a very new board member when all this happened. She's virtually abandoned her law practice to work with the theater. You know, an illness does one of two thingsyou get cured of it or it kills you. It purges your body of extra weight and all these other things in the process. And what that's done for us is it has identified some sterling, powerful, strong members of the current board who are becoming part of the solution. And we have a very strong financial officer, and we really didn't have that person before. And that person has a crucial job in giving the theater the right information.

Do you feel like you have to assure subscribers, "We're not going to lose money again"? Is that your job?

Yeah, I think it is my job to a certain extent. Those subscribers gave us money up front. And what do they want for that? They want to be able to go to a season of plays. So, if we provide that, we have ponied up on the deal, and that's fundamentally what we have to do. And also, I think, we're obliged to communicate with the audience in a way that, perhaps, we haven't in a while, so that they see us as people who are really interested in the audience.

How do you reflect that?

Well, I think we have to go back to a much older idea about the work we have to do in the community. E-mail, Web sitesthey're great marketing tools. But they also contribute to the distance that people feel between themselves and institutions and the world outside of their home. It's really about being present in the flesh in as many ways as you can. So I think finding ways to have in-person dialogue with the audiences is fundamental to making the place feel like it's your family.

You know, they used to have Tupperware kinds of parties at the very beginning of the Rep. They had coffee klatches, basically, where supporters would invite friends from their neighborhood to come to the home of somebody and get a talk from the artistic director and some actors about why it was valuable that they participate in this experience. While I'm not saying we're going to do something like that, I think it's actually become a novel idea. The problem is that it came out of a society that was much more neighbor-orientedthat generation had experienced door-to-door salesmen and didn't feel horribly uncomfortable when some stranger showed up trying to sell you Fuller brushes.

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