Any way you slice it, a half century is a milestone to celebrate.
And that’s exactly what Seattle’s ACT Theatre plans to do this 50th anniversary year.
But celebrations can be bittersweet.
As ACT commemorates the big anniversary, it also says goodbye to Artistic Director Kurt Beattie, who will retire at the end of the season.
Beattie has spent 40 years in Seattle theater; the last dozen of those years at ACT. His ties to the theater company go back to 1975, when he was cast in a show at ACT’s old home on lower Queen Anne Hill.
Beattie’s career started long before then.
“I got my equity card as a child actor in musicals in summer stock outside of Buffalo, New York,” he says. That card from the stage actor’s union, Actor’s Equity, is the mark of a professional performer.
Beattie was raised in a theatrical world; his father was an opera singer. But he came to the University of Washington to study creative writing, not drama. He worked with the poets Richard Hugo and David Wagoner.
Nevertheless, he did find time to hobnob with the theater students. In 1973, M. Burke Walker cast him in a role in a play called “Kaspar” at the fledgling Empty Space Theater.
“It changed me,” Beattie says. “It was so daunting while I was learning this part that I thought I would expire from anxiety.”
He recalls trembling so hard before he made his entrance that the sparse audience could see the props and scenery shaking.
Despite that inauspicious start, Beattie continued to perform. He also carved out a niche as a playwright, director and literary manager. He was the proverbial jack-of-all-trades and he worked for theaters across the city.
Then ACT’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein asked him to be his artistic associate.
Beattie didn't know that the ACT’s finances were a mess. In 2003, the theater company suffered a very public financial meltdown. Edelstein left, and the theater’s future was in doubt. But a core group wanted to keep ACT alive.
“They called me at night,” Beattie recalls. He was directing a play in Wisconsin.
“They said would you be interested in helping to revive ACT? And I said, of course!”
Beattie and Susan Trapnell did manage to revive the theater company; today ACT runs a half dozen stages, hosts a community umbrella program called ACT Lab, and operates in the black with offerings that range from the annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by ACT founder Gregory Falls, to new work by such award winning writers as Yousseff el Guindi and Stephen Dietz.
Beattie’s retirement comes several years after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the time, he didn’t consider stepping down from his demanding job. Instead, Beattie says the work energized him.
“The value of what my life seemed to me in what I was doing, which was trying to make art,” he says. “I knew that it was hugely sustaining, and ultimately not about me so much as about a collective entity that could mean something to many more people than myself.”
Beattie leaves ACT on a high note. His production of the Tennessee Williams’ play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” opened ACT’s season to positive reviews. He’ll stay with the company until the end of the calendar year, when his handpicked successor John Langs takes over the helm.
Beattie doesn’t plan to take it easy, though. He’ll take on a brand new role, Artistic Director Emeritus. He looks forward to the opportunity to make art, without worrying about how ACT will pay the bills.