Courtney Sale, artistic director of The Seattle Children’s Theatre, is making her directorial debut with “The Little Prince,” which opens Jan. 18.
Near the end of my talk with Courtney Sale, the artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, she mentioned that she once got a machete for Christmas.
You don’t say. A machete.
Her brother had one, Sale explained, and she remembered walking in the woods around their home in rural Virginia along paths that he had already cleared. And she remembered wanting to do that for herself. To make her own way not just through the woods, but her life.
“If the path was easy,” she remembered thinking, “you’re probably on somebody else’s path.”
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Thirty years later, Sale has cleared her way to Seattle. She is entering her second season at Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT), where she succeeded founding artistic director Linda Hartzell, who retired in 2015 after 31 years.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sale is making her SCT directorial debut with “The Little Prince,” which opens Jan. 18.
The show is based on the classic book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry about an aviator stranded in the Sahara who encounters a young boy from a faraway asteroid.
The production features original music by David Dabbon and a cast that breaks the mold: The Little Prince is being played by a female actress, Khanh Doan, and the aviator by the African-American actor Lamar Legend.
“The story has been with me for a long, long time,” Sale said the other day, seated in the scene shop in the back of the theater.
As a child in those Virginia woods, “I was alone and was constantly inventing stories,” she said. “I could put myself in the shoes of the Little Prince. I vibrated with the idea of being alone and playing alone.
“It’s in my artistic DNA,” she said. “I wanted to honor the child inside of me.”
And yet, it makes her adult world a little crazy.
After our talk, Sale was scheduled to speak with a translator about the upcoming production of “The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559,” about a Japanese internment camp. From there, she was reaching out to designers about next season, then meeting with department heads and popping her head into a “Little Prince” rehearsal. Over lunch, she planned to write thank-yous to supporters (“I’m a card writer”) and return to rehearsal from 2 to 7 p.m.
“My mantra is, ‘If you love me more, you email me less,’ ” Sale said. “And we have an incredible staff that helps support and protect that time.”
It helps that Sale lives close to the theater with her husband, Sean Manning — they met while working at the Space Needle — and their 12-year-old son, Finn. (Manning’s daughter and Sale’s stepdaughter attends Montana State University.) Manning and Finn visit the theater a lot — as do the families of other production members.
“It’s the best,” she said. “An absolute tonic.”
Growing up, Sale didn’t experience much children’s theater, save for the “Country Jamboree” at school, where the kids would lip sync to songs by artists like Lee Greenwood.
When she was a little older, her mother drove two hours to Richmond to take her to see “A Chorus Line.” Sitting in the theater, Sale felt herself relax.
“I started out like a lot of young people,” she said. “Theater was the place where I could let my hair down.”
As a teenager, she worked as a dishwasher to pay her way to a theater camp at Boston University’s Theater Institute. That same summer, she came to Seattle to visit her aunt, and toured Cornish.
“I thought, ‘This is my tribe,’ ” she said, and later applied and was accepted.
“I felt like I had this incredible buffet that I could pull from,” Sale said of her time at Cornish. “Acting and directing, writing and costumes. By my last year, I was thinking about the whole theater world, from curb to curtain.”
She didn’t think about directing until she became a mother.
“It taught me how to use and make time,” she said. “How to have quality interactions.”
And yet, there’s no magic to directing children’s theater, Sale said.
“Storytelling is storytelling,” she said. “If it’s quality, everyone from 3 years old and beyond is going to engage.”
She is well aware of Hartzell’s legacy.
“She’s a pioneer who said that the children of Seattle deserve this theater,” Sale said. “And that’s what we’re building upon.”
The theater is planning a series of community dinners following the four Saturday afternoon performances of “The Journal of Ben Uchida” to foster multigenerational conversations; a panel discussion for young people on Feb. 8.; and a panel discussion with internment survivors on Feb. 18.
The theater remains committed to access, and it offers free and reduced-price tickets for families receiving state food assistance. Families that show their EBT card will receive up to two $10 adult tickets and six complimentary child tickets. (Call the ticket office at 206-441-3322.)
“We’re better,” Sale said, “when everyone’s participating.”
What else do the children of Seattle deserve?
“They deserve truth. Beauty. Imagination,” Sale said. “We get to be the space where we have conversations that no other adult in their lives can have with them.
“What a glorious opportunity we have here in the stories we present. These are experiences that children will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”