Evolution of Revolution

The University of Washington Playhouse Theatre helped transform the cultural climate of Seattle, while changing its own shape along the way.

(from top) Outside the theatre after the 1967 remodel; outside the theatre after the most recent 2009 remodel.

Every day, hundreds of people walk past the humble brick building just off campus at the corner of NE 41st and University Way, most of them unaware of how much history has been made there. Racial history. Political history. Artistic history. The University of Washington’s Playhouse Theatre has been a hotbed for them all. And now, with a historic $11 million renovation completed, the Playhouse is hotter than ever.

You think Seattle has scant African American culture? In the 1930s, the Playhouse was home to the Negro Repertory Company, where black and white actors boldly worked side by side.

You say Seattleites are reserved and standoffish? The left-wing radical Playhouse founders produced Marxist plays, one of which incited the audience to rush the stage and join the (red) flag-waving finale.

You think all experimental theatre comes from New York? In the 1960s, the UW Drama School reconfigured the Playhouse from a traditional proscenium theatre into a then-innovative thrust stage where rebels staged a theatrical revolution. And it all happened right there on the Ave.

Once a tile warehouse, the Playhouse was modified into a cozy theatre in 1930 by husband and wife Burton and Florence James, liberal New Yorkers who came to Seattle in 1923 to start the theatre department at Seattle’s arts epicenter, the Cornish School. When the bluenose board closed down their 1928 production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author because of the brothel scene, the Jameses quit to start their own Seattle Repertory Playhouse (no relation to the present-day Seattle Rep). They established a new home for artists, writers and audiences of all ethnicities, producing everything from popular comedies to works by Ibsen and Goethe.

Inside the renovated house of UW’s playhouse, now dubbed the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse.

A few years later, when the Federal Theatre Project, a branch of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, was looking to create “Negro units” around the country, the Jameses leapt at the chance to create one. Eager to expand their troupe and express their socialist ideals, the couple produced and directed new plays, some of them written by black playwrights, that questioned racial segregation and embraced Marxist themes.

One of these, Stevedore, took up both. Its story of a black union organizer unjustly accused of raping a white woman caused a sensation. It also showed white longshoremen working alongside black longshoremen — one of the only Negro units in the country where this kind of integration went smoothly.

“The fact that this group had supported a Negro theatre in a segregated community was very significant,” explains Barry Witham, theatre historian and retired director of the UW School of Drama. “It was important that these artists were being heard, and also important that they were being paid.”

Florence James talks to actors in a rehearsal at the original Playhouse sometime prior to 1950, when the theatre was still a proscenium space.

But life was not all rosy for Mr. and Mrs. James — which they apparently liked just fine. They kept scandalizing Seattle audiences, getting shows shut down (like the wives-on-a-sex-strike comedy Lysistrata in 1937) and putting on more shows.

“This kind of art frightened a lot of folks,” notes Witham. “It was a decidedly left-wing venture, and always under suspicion.”

The Jameses also staged pro-labor plays like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and opened their hall to meetings of the Washington State Pension Union and the Group Health Cooperative. During the Red Scare days, these were dangerous allies. The couple wound up in front of the 1948 Canwell Committee, our state’s version of the McCarthy hearings. When witness George Hewitt accused them of being used by the Soviet Union for “cultural infiltration,” Mrs. James stood up and called the man a “liar” and a “perjurer” — and was promptly carried out by armed guards.

“These activities eventually caused their demise,” Witham concludes. “It lost them many of their subscribers. Mr. James’s health declined; and Mrs. James left to work in Canada.” She helped start Saskatchewan’s biggest theatre and won a medal from the Queen.

The Playhouse went broke in 1950 and was purchased by UW for the school’s burgeoning drama program. But in the ’60s, theatre fashion was changing as radically as clothing and hairstyles were. Avant-garde director Peter Brook famously said: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him; this is all I need for an act of theatre.”

The WPA Negro Theatre Unit performs Androcles and the Lion at the Playhouse theatre.

So now the school needed a thrust space, the kind of theatre where the stage juts out into the audience. Greg Falls, who went on to found A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), was head of the department. In 1967, he altered the Playhouse yet again. The first production in the remodeled theatre was a Greek drama, The Bacchae; one of its actors was a grad student named M. Burke Walker.

“One of the reasons I chose UW for graduate school was because they had a proscenium [the Showboat Theatre], a theatre-in-the-round [the Penthouse] and a thrust stage, and I wanted to work on all three,” says Walker, who founded the legendary Seattle company named, in tribute to Brook, the Empty Space Theatre (1970 – 2006), and now works mostly in New York. “It certainly affected my work later on when I started the Empty Space; for our first fifteen years or so, we reconfigured the theatre with almost every play.”

And now, four decades later, the Playhouse has had its largest makeover yet: a remodel that raises the roof an extra story, improves sightlines and lighting capacity and brings the building up to seismic code. “It really improves the actor-audience relationship,” says a satisfied Witham.

The building has also been renamed the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse, honoring the foundation that donated $2.4 million to the project. Floyd Jones, whose late wife was devoted to the arts, social justice and Democratic politics, believes it’s a perfect match. “We went there many times,” he says. “Delores was always thrilled when they took on plays that had something to say, like All Powers Necessary and Convenient [by faculty member Mark Jenkins, about the Canwell hearings]. This truly is Delores’s playhouse.”

Passing the generational torch, Burke Walker returned to direct The Tempest for the October 30 grand reopening of the Playhouse. It runs through November 15. Later in the season, there will even be a performance of Waiting for Lefty — only this one shouldn’t lead to any government crackdowns.