Team Player

Jerry Manning jumps in with both feet at the Rep.

Seattle Rep's David Esbjornson announced in April that he'd be leaving at the end of the Rep's current season. But in what seems to be a case of administrative pique, the Rep's board announced late last month that he wouldn't be leaving at the end of the year, he'd be leaving now. (Apparently this was one of those breakups where the guy comes home to find all his possessions stacked outside the door.) Effective immediately, associate artistic director Jerry Manning, who's served in various capacities during the past eight years (most notably as the theater's casting director), was promoted to Acting Artistic Director.It's a surprising choice, since Manning's only previous directing experience at the Rep was the 2006 solo show Thom Paine: Text for Nothing on their smaller Leo K. stage. (He'll be directing Boom later this fall on the Rep's mainstage.) His other local directing gigs have been in small fringe venues like CHAC, Theater Schmeater, and Re-bar. Before Seattle, Manning was at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and New York Theatre Workshop, where he worked in a variety of positions, including fundraiser, literary manager, casting director, and teacher."I'm not a 27-year-old who just got his MFA who has to direct," Manning explains. "I don't have ambition oozing out of my pores. I love line-producing as much as I do directing a play. I'm a good enough director to know really good directing when I see it. I'll bet I could do a good version of Hamlet, but I can name three other people who would be amazing. That's my skill, to put together a team."Manning's clear-eyed that his real job right now is about maintaining institutional stability, not artistic expression or innovation. The Rep is in some ways less a theater than a machine powered by administrators and craftspeople, with Manning's job keeping the wheels greased. "Though it's my first day at my new job, it's really just the same old thing," he says. "It's just another Tuesday. Jolene is still managing props, the same people in the costume and set shops are still building. The board is the same. These are my friends and my colleagues, and my job is to get them what they need."Which doesn't mean he's lacking for ideas. "I think it's time that we put the 'Seattle' back into Seattle Rep," he says, then spends several minutes expounding on the wealth of acting talent that's here and constantly emerging from the UW and Cornish. This is very encouraging: When he speaks about "local talent," it's not the cant of a newbie buttering up his board, it comes from a guy who probably knows more actors, both Equity and non-Equity, than any artistic director working in town.What the Rep also needs, he says, is younger people—not just in the audience, but onstage and maybe even running the show. "If I were to have my say, I think these institutions, not just the Rep but ACT and Intiman and the Arena and the Goodman, should be run by younger people, artists in their 20s and 30s. There's a smart way to do it and a dumb way to do it. But I think for the future of theater in this country it's going to have to be done."Manning's not the first artistic director who's more producer than director; the legendary Joe Papp, for example, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, never directed for his own company. But an Acting AD is an insecure position, a truth that Manning is quick to acknowledge. "I know that the highway of the American theater is strewn with corpses, and by that I mean the people who had jobs like this," he says. The first order of business when a new artistic director comes to a theater is often to clear out the old guard to make way for the new. But Manning, who's been through no less than four such transitions during his career, believes he'll survive this one too. "Really what it comes down to is that I trust the people at the Rep to look out for me. These are my colleagues and my friends, and I think that they'll rally to me now that I need them."

 
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