Seattle Shakespeare Company’s artistic director George Mount would like to clear up a misconception: The 18th century isn’t an English-language theater wasteland.
“[In classical theater], you get lots of Shakespeare and lots of Shaw — but there is some good stuff in between there,” Mount said.
After staging Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” last year, Seattle Shakes is headed back to the 1770s with Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” a comedy of manners full of hidden identities and verbal humor — the play’s most enduring contribution is Mrs. Malaprop, namesake of the malapropism.
The show tends to be more commonly seen in college productions than on professional stages, but it’s the kind of comedy Mount would like to see more of, he said.
“It’s got great wit [and] really distinctive comedic characters,” he said. “I like slightly more broadly drawn comedies. My go-to place when approaching comedy stems from the Marx Brothers and Chuck Jones.”
In directing “The Rivals,” Mount is emphasizing the artifice: Center Theatre will be outfitted with a curtain and actors will reference the fact that they’re actors in a show.
“[We’re] underscoring that the play is a lot about deception,” he said.
New to Seattle Shakes is Alexandria Henderson, who stars as Lydia Languish, the heiress whose romance — surprise — isn’t quite what it seems.
Not only is Henderson appearing in her first show for the company; it’s her first nonmusical professional role ever. Henderson’s powerful voice has been showcased in Village Theatre’s “Dreamgirls,” The 5th Avenue Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” and Showtunes Theatre’s “Legally Blonde.” Appearing in a straight play was a challenge she was ready to take on, she said.
“In the past, I’ve had a tendency to rest on my laurels,” Henderson said. “I’m a good singer. I went to school for music, and so I’ve been relying on that for so many years. To actually get to do something without music being the foundation, it felt daunting.”
Henderson and Mount noted some of the similarities between the “highly presentational” world of “The Rivals” and musical theater, but a brand-new undertaking is still a brand-new undertaking.
“I think the most difficult thing for me is when I start something, I want to be immediately great at it,” Henderson said. “[I’m] allowing myself to learn and just be around the stellar cast. Watching them [is] getting a master class every day during rehearsals about how they use their words and how they take risks. Everyone is willing to be a ham and find the funny and find the levity.”
For Henderson, part of finding the funny has been enlisting her director, like when Mount will “fling his body” around to show her how to throw a tantrum.
“I’m like, ‘OK, can you show me that one more time?’ just so I can see him do it again,” she said. “He is thrilled about the work is he doing. I can see it when something works, and it makes his eyes light up. I’m here for that.”
Mount has other reasons for that mood. Last fall, Seattle Shakes announced its 2018-2019 season was one of its most financially successful ever, with more than $2 million in revenue.
That’s not a new trend, said managing director John Bradshaw, adding that 16 out of the last 17 years have ended with a surplus.
“We’ve been strategic in how we’ve approached our growth,” he said.
An increase in contributed revenue has been key. In 2004, when Bradshaw became managing director, donors contributed less than $50,000. Last year, it was more than $800,000, Bradshaw said.
“Donors are people who are not simply giving you an amount of dollars; it’s people who share your values,” he said. “We’ve been very good about engaging with those values.”
It doesn’t hurt that both he and Mount understand the other side, Bradshaw said. Mount worked with financials as head of Wooden O before it merged with Seattle Shakespeare, and Bradshaw began his career on the production side as an equity stage manager.
“We respect each other’s priorities,” Mount said. “I’ll say, ‘I really want to be able to do this’ and John’s like, ‘I think it would be great if we could do that. How do we finance it?’ ”
Bradshaw is quick to point out that doing quality work, not being profitable, is the driving force behind their decision-making. But no one’s complaining when the worlds align.
Case in point: The company’s 2018 production of “Richard III,” produced in partnership with upstart crow collective, was the highest-grossing show in Seattle Shakespeare’s history.
And that collaboration will continue. The companies just announced a new long-term partnership to complete Shakespeare’s history play cycle, with “Richard II” scheduled for January 2021, and “Henry IV” (Parts 1 and 2) and “Henry V” planned for a later date.
“If there’s a way that we as an organization can help perpetuate their unique vision with all female and all nonbinary (casts), that’s something that I’m passionate about,” Mount said. “Classical works — traditionally pretty male-dominated.”
Bradshaw credits people like ACT founder Greg Falls, longtime Empty Space Theatre managing director Melissa Hines and Seattle Group Theatre founder Ruben Sierra for the foundation of such a move.
“The collaboration between Seattle Shakespeare and upstart crow is in many ways reflective of what has made Seattle special as an arts community — definitely as a theater community,” he said. “Our roots in collaboration and collegiality go back very, very deep.”
And though Bradshaw’s clearly proud of Seattle Shakespeare’s financial health, his reminiscence turns to the Empty Space, where he once worked as managing director. After years of financial trouble, the theater closed abruptly in 2006.
“The Empty Space was around for 40 years,” Bradshaw said. “They created great theater. They changed theater in Seattle. They had national impact. And the sense is, they closed their doors and they failed.
“They succeeded for 40 years in a tough profession.”
“The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Tuesday, Jan. 7, through Feb. 2; Center Theatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $32-$58, 206-733-8222, seattleshakespeare.org