Last fall, Charles Leggett showed up for the first rehearsal of ACT’s new comedy by Steven Dietz, Becky’s New Car. He and the rest of the cast were anticipating several weeks of lighthearted work on a “fast-moving farce without any doors” (to quote the playwright). Then director Kurt Beattie began to speak. “He talked about the way in which the play was about one of the most profound themes in our society, the dictum to ‘know thyself,’ and how the lead character fails at this,” Leggett recalls. Beattie went on to talk about how our fundamental failure to know ourselves as Americans is what allowed the Bush administration to seize and hold power. Somewhat chastened, the cast got to work.
Despite his convivial manner and easy laugh, every time I talk to Beattie our conversation soon follows a similar path. I call him up to talk about Pharaoh Serket and the Lost Stone of Fire, a new play by John Olive that he’s directing at the Seattle Children’s Theater. With a title like that, I’m expecting some chuckles about how David Pichette and Tim Hyland look in their ancient Egyptian costumes. Instead, he’s soon reflecting on how SCT’s audience is open to education in a way that ACT’s isn’t—and not just because of age, but because of the relationship the theater has built up with them. “I’m envious of that,” Beattie says. “I think that’s something we could learn from.”
Beattie’s sincerity, along with his prodigious learning (his talk is peppered with quotations from poets, asides about politics, and references to academia), has set a tone of highbrow populism for ACT since he helped save the theater from its near-death experience in 2003. His profound commitment to theater is literally written on its walls—a Manifesto covers one of ACT’s windows on Seventh Avenue, filled with Beattie’s unmistakably high-sounding verbiage. (A sample: “If the theatre has no supersensual utility, it is nothing. If it cannot lead its patrons to another plane of experience—metaphorical, abstract, or deeply affective—it remains earthbound and less than pop media. It has no reason to exist. If it does not reflect the complexities of the world, it is false.”) While such language isn’t to everyone’s taste, to me this unapologetic and earnest intellectualism is downright bracing.
Beattie has worked hard to balance more serious fare with crowd-pleasers. Last year’s season began with two poetic dramas from the Uzbekistan’s Ilkhom Theater Company, followed with an Alan Ayckborn comedy and a Noel Coward revue. What’s particularly impressive is how often Beattie finds a work like the Dietz play which manages to win both critical acclaim and audience approval. (Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, which I loved, sadly did below expectations.) In 2009, hip-hop drama The break/s may be a tough sell, with Das Barbecu and solo football show Runt of the Litter likely popular draws. With some luck, Stoppard’s big loud comedy/drama about music and revolution, Rock and Roll, could make both critics and crowds happy.
At our conversation’s end, we commiserate about the tough financial times facing ACT and other theaters (ACT’s marketing and production departments are being cut by a third this season), but Beattie remains hopeful. It is the day after the Inauguration, after all. “That was some great theater, but what really cheered me up was that he had a little bit of classical music and a poem. That’s helpful. In the last eight years, artists have been looked on as vermin. So the thought that we have a president who reads books and cares about things like poetry and Duke Ellington, who might understand and value what we’re trying to do, is wonderful. Maybe we’ll get a cabinet-level post out of this, a Secretary of Culture [as many artists, including Quincy Jones, are currently calling for]. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?”
If ACT didn’t need him as much as it does, I know exactly whom I’d nominate for such a job.