As he leaves his post as ACT Theatre’s artistic director, Kurt Beattie stages a new play dear to his heart.
Kurt Beattie bounds into his office at ACT Theatre, snatching a sandwich and a conversation during a rehearsal break.
Animated, good-humored (and hungry), he’s in the midst of staging the premiere of the new Steven Dietz play “Bloomsday” at ACT, now in previews.
It is Dietz’s 11th play produced by ACT. And this is Beattie’s final directing assignment at the downtown theater as head artistic honcho.
by Steven Dietz. Through Oct. 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; tickets start at $20 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
But while he jokes that “they’re getting every last drop out of me” (he also will play Scrooge in ACT’s holiday show “A Christmas Carol” this winter), Beattie is no poster boy for burnout.
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Yes he’s retiring from his post, but eager to get back to his first love (acting). He’ll keep directing. He’s working on an adaptation of the Japanese epic “Tale of the Heike” with dramatists Yussef El Guindi and Philip Kan Gotanda, which he’ll mount for ACT in 2017.
“It’s hard to articulate the complex feelings I have about moving on,” says Beattie, who has guided ACT for a dozen years. “But I feel the harder parts of the burden lifting off my shoulders. And I really feel good about our next artistic director [John Langs]. ACT is moving in the right direction, financially and otherwise.”
The nonprofit company was in a much more precarious condition in 2003, when Beattie took the reins. It was broke, mired in debt. Co-founded in 1965 by Gregory A. and Jean Burch Falls, the respected theater was even in danger of folding.
But former managing director Susan Trapnell returned temporarily to solicit major donations and help right the ship.
And hiring Beattie, then ACT’s associate artistic head, was a no-brainer in the midst of crisis. He had a long, productive history with ACT as an actor, director and writer as well as administrator. And within a few years he, new manager Carlo Scandiuzzi and a beefed-up board of directors consolidated the debt, shed costs and won new support.
Beattie also gradually made good on the vision of ACT as a lively theater multiplex. Today audiences for five different shows might mingle in the lobby of the former Eagles Building, bought and refurbished by ACT 20 years ago.
Along the way, Beattie underwent grueling treatment for lung cancer. Now, fit and energetic at 67, he is celebrating his good health and ACT’s golden anniversary as he moves on.
“Kurt has had a great tenure at ACT,” says Jim Kelly, director of the King County arts agency 4Culture. “Look at the situation they were in when he took over. They’ve really turned it around. Like many arts organizations they’re not exactly flush with cash, but they have a model that really works.”
Kelly praises Beattie’s willingness to try new things, like the popular Central Heating Lab series and the monthly ticket ACTPass. “That kind of innovation really shows an open heart and an open mind.”
ACT’s focus on hiring Seattle talent is another plus, in Kelly’s book. “The main difference between Kurt and some of the other theater leadership we’ve had is that he’s from here. He knows what an excellent talent pool we have.”
The son of an opera singer, Beattie initially came to Seattle to study theater. “I started going to ACT when I was in my third year at University of Washington,” he recalls. “The first show I saw there was ‘Waiting for Godot,’ and it had a profound effect on me.”
With mentoring from Greg Falls, Beattie began working at ACT — performing, cowriting with Falls durable versions of Homer’s “Odyssey” and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” He also became a prime mover at Empty Space Theatre, a hip Capitol Hill upstart.
Linda Hartzell, then an actor and later artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, remembers Beattie’s intense artistic commitment, even in the zanier Empty Space shows. “I met Kurt in a wonderful production at the old Empty Space in 1975, in a show called ‘Cheese Whiz, or Puttin’ on the Ritz.’
“As I watched, Kurt put his heart and soul into learning to dance ‘Swan Lake’ with all the talent, passion, and determination that have come to exemplify his career as a consummate artist in the Seattle theater community, and certainly throughout his tenure [at ACT].”
Beattie’s theatrical passion (which also led to a literary manager stint at Seattle Repertory Theatre) has been matched by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity that encompasses chess, politics, classical music, history, world literature. His caustic sense of humor and voluble erudition delight (and occasionally annoy) his friends.
Dietz (a part-time Seattle resident) and Beattie met in 1988 when the latter was in the ACT cast of “God’s Country,” the playwright’s docudrama about white supremacists.
Referring fondly to his old “pal and collaborator” as “my great nemesis, champion, and provocateur,” Dietz remarks, “Kurt is always one breath away from an obscure historical anecdote or bit of quoted poetry that seems completely out of the blue and then, usually, ends up being absolutely spot-on for the moment or conversation at hand.”
In recent seasons ACT has had both hits and misses (including some stale comedies). But the considerable achievements, dear to Beattie’s heart, include an ambitious Harold Pinter Festival, and launching new works by El Guindi, Samuel Hunter and other hot writers (some developed with the Icicle Creek Theater Festival) that have won awards and national attention.
Introducing “Bloomsday,” which takes its title from the day depicted in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” holds special meaning for Beattie. Dietz says it’s about “how time is an invented and malleable thing … [The play is] an elegiac, bittersweet homage to that fact.”
“Steven’s written a lot of darker plays, but this is a very generous one about time, getting old and looking back on being young,” notes Beattie, long married to notable actress Marianne Owen. “It’s about two people played, as their younger and older selves, by four actors. I find it really moving, charming, mysterious and true to life.
“It’s also weirdly synchronistic with my retirement and the theater’s 50th anniversary. That’s all somehow encapsulated in this play, which is a summation of a life’s journey.”
Beattie’s theatrical and life journey is still in progress. But Dietz says, “As he leaves ACT, I hope Seattle properly appreciates — and celebrates — Kurt’s unparalleled contribution to our city, at Empty Space, the Rep, ACT, and in the hearts and minds of hundreds of theater artists.
“Just don’t tell him I said all that nice stuff,” he adds. “I have to deal with him in previews.”