Seattle Children’s Theatre artistic director Linda Hartzell is retiring after working at the theater — and boosting its national reputation — since 1984.
When Linda Hartzell was hired to lead Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1984, it was a small, dedicated company with a modest annual budget. Staffed mostly by volunteers, the company presented its shows at the Poncho Theatre in Woodland Park Zoo.
Today, Hartzell presides over one of Seattle’s theatrical jewels: a spacious, fully equipped, two-venue drama complex at Seattle Center, operating on a $5.5 million budget and catering to more than 100,000 patrons last season.
Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) has expanded not only in size, but in reputation. By all measures, it’s become a major force and innovator, introducing generations of children to the wonders of professional theater.
The impassioned, hardworking woman orchestrating this is Hartzell, 67, who has decided to retire as artistic director at the end of the 2015-16 season.
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“Now I’m greeting the children of grandchildren and parents who visited the theater when they were young,” said the convivial Hartzell, known for both her high standards and lack of pretense.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done, and the way we’ve done it. Theater is a team sport, and this is not a dysfunctional place. I’ve worked with so many great people. We collaborate, and we laugh a lot.”
Though Hartzell will continue to do projects with the company, she said her demanding job “ takes a lot of time and stamina. I’d like to spend more time with my family and my dog. And I don’t have the energy to work 90 hours a week anymore.”
Hartzell’s valedictory season opens this week with Elephant & Piggie’s “We Are in a Play!,” a show aimed at small children.
Colleagues in the arts don’t hesitate to sing Hartzell’s praises.
“The Seattle Children’s Theatre is one of the iconic cultural institutions in the city,” said Randy Engstrom, director of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. “Its role investing in young people is an amazing legacy. They were doing that youth thing before it was popular, and Linda has done a fantastic job for 30 years.”
Teresa Eyring, executive director of the national association, Theatre Communications Group, commented, “It’s difficult to quantify Linda Hartzell’s extensive impact on the American and international theater fields through her work at [SCT]. Her dedication to young people, their families and to teachers, to artists and to the canon of work for young people, has rippled out beyond Seattle to touch the larger theater community, nationally and globally.”
A local native and UW grad who started out as an actor at Empty Space Theatre, Hartzell insists on hiring professional, unionized adult artists to create shows with high production values — catering to toddlers up to adolescents. At Hartzell’s insistence, the plays entertain but don’t talk down to youths, or neglect serious social concerns.
“For years it was a struggle just to be taken seriously for doing professional work for young people,” she noted. “I wanted to prove you don’t have to do pratfalls and butt jokes to get children’s attention.”
SCT has presented a wide variety of comedies, musicals, adaptations from contemporary youth novels and storybooks, sports stories, multicultural and international fare. Many shows have touched on serious concerns, like bullying, bigotry, poverty, war, homelessness. (Hartzell directed more than 45 productions herself, including “Little Rock,” a musical about black teens integrating an all-white school.)
“Children understand so much more than we think,” said Hartzell. “They get betrayal, they get exclusion, love, loyalty, success, failure. And they’re not cynical. You can’t promise them everything is perfect because they’ve got to be resilient. But you also can’t tell them the world is ruined.”
Her focus on and advocacy for arts education is evident in the matinees for school groups from around the region, in-class activities, workshops for teachers and the theater’s popular drama school, which last summer instructed 2,600 youths. According to Hartzell, “Art is not fluff; it’s important.”
SCT board President Bob Evans is a former Seattle public-school teacher who was introduced to the company through its school matinees. “When I brought my students to shows, it was often their first time attending theater … Seeing plays with live actors was amazing and sometimes life-changing for them.”
Hartzell has given local actors and other stage artists a boost by providing many union-wage jobs. But her most visible achievement is the spacious Seattle Center playhouse, which opened in 1995. Hartzell say it’s the first building in the U.S. built expressly to house a professional children’s theater.
The city of Seattle, Theatre Puget Sound and UW have honored Hartzell’s work, and SCT was named in 2012 as one of the five top children’s theaters in the country.
Evans says a national search for a new artistic director will begin soon. He knows Hartzell could be a tough act to follow.
“She set the bar high for excellence,” he said.