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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 28, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 52
Arne and Gordon - Two stalwarts of Seattle theater talk early days
Arts & Entertainment
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Arne and Gordon - Two stalwarts of Seattle theater talk early days

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

OUR TOWN
HIT AND RUN
THEATER COMPANY
December 28 - January 19


Recently, SGN sat down with two men who each represent over 40 years of theater history in Seattle. Many people recognize Arne Zaslove by name - if not by his slightly-deranged-professor looks - from his years of teaching at the University of Washington, where he helped develop the Professional Actor Training Program with Greg Falls and Duncan Ross. He went on to helm the Bathhouse Theater for years. Gordon Coffey joined the resident company that Stuart Vaughan was developing for the Seattle Repertory straight out of Yale graduate work in 1964 and has worked here, off and on, ever since.

Now the two are joining forces in Zaslove's new Hit and Run Theater Company, where Coffey will appear as the Stage Manager in Zaslove's new production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Performed at the Century Ballroom West Hall on December 28-29, January 11-12, and January 18-19, Zaslove reports that his version will be far less 'hearts and flowers' than what has become a standard method of performing that play.

A NEW ERA
Coffey relates that the Seattle Repertory was developed 'at the height of the repertory movement, given a shape by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis. His idea grabbed on and repertory theater starting popping up all over.

'Bagley Wright jumped on the bandwagon, I think, and put one here. He was a very culturally minded businessman. He approached Hal Holbrook, as the story goes, who didn't want to be an artistic director and who duped him into [taking] Vaughan, since they had worked together.

'It was a 'resident company' and all the actors played all the roles in all the plays. There were about 13 of us, Equity [union] members. Vaughan added associated positions for local people. We didn't have a lot of old farts. You contracted for certain roles in plays and 'as cast' in others. If you were called upon to be an old guy, you got make up and you acted. We had an extremely talented company.

FAMILY TIES
'The interesting thing was that a lot of us had growing families. Elizabeth Farwell-Moreland [one of the kids] is now the producing director at the Rep. I remember when she was six, seven years old. Dad brought her to every show. We were godparents for each other's kids.

'We felt it was quite groundbreaking. We played almost year-round in rotating repertory except summers. We had a touring program in the summer. No one had ever toured the parks before. We took a couple of shows across the state.

'We started a new play festival - we did a production of e.e. cummings' poetry. It was very popular, and we took it on tour. We did the first developmental production' (workshopping an unfinished new play).

'We did the first children's show by adults for children, called The Tinder Box. One of the greatest reviews I ever got was in that show, as a witch. I was coached by Margaret Hamilton' (best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz).

STYLISTICALLY DIVERSE
'As a resident company, we got to know each other pretty well. We played together; we got on each other's nerves. We dealt with each other's politics. It was a diverse company, classically trained all the way to Actors Studio of [New York]. An amalgam of all kinds of styles, but we all came together under a director's concept and it worked. Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Death of a Salesman.

'We did the first musical. It was a drama with music called The Hostage by Brendan Behan. It was hard work. We played six days a week, eight performances a week, long hours. You were working all the time. We rehearsed daytimes and performed at night.

'I got so confused one time, I forgot we were doing Hamlet and dressed for King Lear. I remember when we did King Lear and Hamlet in one day! The joke about King Lear is that when the mad king comes to his great line, all the actors come to the wings to hear if he's going to blow it. The line is: 'The wounds I bear and the blows I suffer.'

'If you're not really sharp, it will come out 'The wounds I suffer and the bears I blow.' The actor had to stop and gather himself for that to make sure he got it right.'

THE BIRTH OF ACT
Zaslove arrived at the UW in 1967 as a professor. He reports that a lot of students started working at ACT (short for A Contemporary Theater) when Greg Falls started it in 1965. ACT presented contemporary theater, Zaslove says, 'specifically, Beckett, Stoppard, Brecht, Ionesco, Pinter. I ran their children's theater. Out of that came 'collage' shows, where we'd make up a show based on children's literature or trains or old-time radio. Anything could follow anything - it was not linear, and usually had a social theme.

'In '74, I went to work at the Rep and ran their 'second stage.' Former students and I built a company there. Duncan Ross had disbanded the concept of a resident company and brought in stars like Christopher Walken and Richard Chamberlain. He was after names and a more commercial viewpoint.

'I started my own company, the Floating Theatre Company, with John Aylward and Marjorie Nelson. We did the first Midsummer Night's Dream with rock 'n' roll. People still know about it. I created The Big Broadcast of the golden age of radio.

CITY WAS SUPPORTIVE
'When I moved it into the Bathhouse, we made a company that stayed there, with the same people, but we got hired to be employees of the [Seattle] Parks Department. Seattle Children's Theater was also a Parks Department program. They had a dance company, which became Spectrum, and painting/sculpture, which became Pratt Fine Arts. There was a 2% for arts [tax], until the mayor cut the budget.

'In '82, the funding cut out. We were settled enough to weather that change. A lot of students of mine started the Empty Space Theatre. I did Midsummer three or four times, and sold out every time. It was the longest-running show in Seattle [at the time] and ran for six months.

'[A reason I had success was because] it was the ensemble. I had a group of very talented young actors. I was able to choose plays to stretch the actors. If I had someone to play Hamlet, I did Hamlet. If not, I got people trained up, like a basketball coach, to mold them into an ensemble. Then I made a season where I could satisfy my artistic itch. 'I've always wanted to do Playboy of the Western World,' I'd think, 'or The Skin of Our Teeth.' We did shows at the Moore for 700 children at a time, with an educational program. That ensemble was able to entertain and educate, and we had adults who then came back to play [later] in Midsummer.'

Tickets for the Hit and Run Theater Company's production of Our Town are available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/307931.

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