Seattle Children's Theatre

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/06/2012
  • Essay 10239

Seattle Children's Theatre dates its birth to 1975, but it actually got its start in 1971 when the City of Seattle and the fundraising organization PONCHO together built Poncho Theatre at Seattle's Woodland Park Children's Zoo. Starting from scratch, using largely volunteer staff, sharing the venue with everything from dance troupes to live animals, the theater suffered through some lean times in its early years, while still putting on well-received plays for the younger set. After losing most City funding in 1983, it turned to private and corporate sponsors, which brought it through the dark days and have helped sustained it since. Seattle actor and director Linda Hartzell (b. 1948) took over as artistic director in November 1984, and under her leadership, aided by managing directors, dedicated staff, and a supportive board of directors, the theater has prospered. A dedicated home, Charlotte Martin Theatre, was completed in 1993 on the grounds of Seattle Center, and a second, smaller venue, the Eve Alvord Theatre, was added in 1995. Since its beginning, Seattle Children's Theatre has produced more than 214 plays, of which 109 were world premieres, many penned by some of  the country's leading playwrights. Today (2012) the theater has an annual budget of $6 million, ranks among the top 20 professional regional theaters in the country in all genres, and is widely considered one of the two best children's theater companies in the nation.

A Brief History of Children's Theater

Literature written specifically for children barely existed before the nineteenth century. Works such as Aesop's Fables from ancient Greece and Charles Perrault's (1628-1703) Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (subtitled Tales of My Mother Goose and first published in 1697) were written for adults, but often used to provide lessons in morality to the young. The famous Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), did not publish their first volume of fairy tales, entitled Children's and Household Tales, until 1812, and it was largely a compilation and reworking of old folk legends that carried moral lessons. The first children's book to appear in America came in 1744, when English printer John Newberry (1713-1767), known as the father of children's literature, published A Little Pretty Pocket-book, an illustrated collection of songs and moral tales intended to be used by "Parents, Guardians, and Nurses" for instilling right behavior in children (A Little Pretty Pocket-book).

As for theater, for most of its long history the young were not viewed as an audience separate from adults. Puppetry, pantomime, and melodrama have been around for centuries, and a handful of stage productions geared to young people appeared in America as early 1810, but it still would be many years before such works became commonplace. When they did, the first were taken from both old sources, such as Perrault's Mother Goose stories, and from the new genre of children's literature, of which Washington Irving's (1783-1859) Rip Van Winkle is an early example.

The late nineteenth century saw the first "golden age" of children's literature, and this set the stage for children's theater. Authors started writing stories children could enjoy as simply stories, although they were not necessarily empty of deeper meaning. Among the first notable authors of children's books were Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Mark Twain (1835-1910), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). But it is J. M. Barrie's (1860-1937) Peter Pan, from 1904, that is generally recognized as the first play written specifically for children and not adapted from another work.

To Educate and Entertain

In late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America, organized children's theater was almost entirely an urban phenomenon, and it had an agenda. As historian Nellie McCaslin notes:

"The first theatres for children were established with three clearly stated objectives ...: to provide wholesome entertainment for children in urban neighborhoods devoid of recreational and cultural resources; to provide another way for the children of immigrants to learn the language and customs of their adopted country; to provide a gathering place for immigrant families" (Historical Guide to Children's Theatre in America, 4)

Pioneering social workers (a profession that itself did not exist until the late nineteenth century) in America's teeming cities put on some of the first stage presentations intended primarily for young audiences. One notable group in these endeavors was the Association of Junior Leagues of American (commonly called the Junior League), which in the 1920s became the first national organization to sponsor a wide-ranging theater program for the young, one that continues to this day (2012).

The First "Seattle Children's Theatre"

The first "Seattle Children's Theatre" was started in 1937 under the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), the largest and most ambitious of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882-1945) New Deal programs. Its debut production, The Clown Prince, opened on November 13, 1937, at the W.P.A.-run Federal Theatre at Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street. This was followed by a production called Mother Goose Goes to Town, which ran in December 1937 and January 1938. Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby, staged by the Negro Ensemble of the Federal Theatre appeared in May 1938, followed by several additional productions.

The Federal Theatre Project was abruptly cancelled in June, 1939, amid complaints of censorship and allegations of communist infiltration. During its brief existence more than 50 different plays for young audiences were staged nationwide, many of them original works. The concept of "children's theater" was firmly established, but when the final curtain came down at the Federal Theatre, the name "Seattle Children's Theatre" would disappear from the city for more than three decades.

Keeping the Footlights Lit

The Junior League soon stepped into the breach with its national Junior Programs, which for decades brought to Seattle (and many other cities) opera, ballet, drama, concerts, and other entertainments specifically designed for young audiences. With regular shows at The Moore, the Music Box, and other local theaters, children's theater was kept alive. Junior Programs continued to produce children's theater in Seattle for the next 45 years and merged with the Young ACT Company, part of A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), in 1984. Seattle impresario Cecilia Augspurger Schultz (1878-1971), who managed the Moore Theatre from 1935 to 1949, also presented occasional children's shows at the Moore, including two appearances, in 1945 and 1946, of Clare Tree Major's traveling program of children's plays.

But what was missing in Seattle was a permanent and purely homegrown organization that could mount stage productions specifically geared to young audiences. The Piccoli Theater on the grounds of the Seattle Center opened in 1962, but appealed primarily to very young children. Plays for older kids were rare and sporadic. This would start to change in 1971, when a local arts charity and the City joined forces to build a theater at the Children's Zoo at Seattle's Woodland Park.

Poncho Theatre, 1971-1975

The Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations (PONCHO) was incorporated in January 1963 and held its first auction that April for the limited purpose of saving the Seattle Symphony Orchestra from bankruptcy. The event was a huge success, and over the ensuing years PONCHO auctions raised more than $35 million for local arts organizations.

In 1971, PONCHO and the City of Seattle's Forward Thrust bond program together financed a 6,400-square-foot, 280-seat theater in the southeast corner the Children's Zoo at Woodland Park. Designed by Fred Bassetti and Co. and run by the Performing and Visual Arts division of the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, it was the first venue in Seattle purpose-built for young audiences.

Poncho Theatre formally opened on July 10, 1971, with an appropriately titled children's play, The Language of the Beasts, presented by the Seattle High School Summer Stage '71 Stock Company. That year would also see productions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, sponsored by the parks department, the YWCA, and the Pitch-in Program of the mayor's office. But presenting plays for younger audiences would not be the facility's sole or even primary use. It also hosted conservation talks, movies and slideshows, musical events, classes for zoo volunteers, theater-arts classes for students, and up-close introductions to some of the zoo's smaller and gentler denizens -- a contemporary newspaper account noted that a door to the side of the stage was "large enough to permit a pony or small elephant to enter" ("Zoo Theater to Open"). At least one non-play event brought controversy -- a dance performance during the city's 1974 Arts Festival caused a stir when members of one of the dance groups stripped bare during the last performance of a three-night run at the theater.

Poncho Theatre, 1975-1984

On February 7, 1975, the Poncho Theatre Advisory Council was established to work with the parks department to provide "a maximum number of opportunities in the performing arts for residents of Seattle throughout the year" (Articles of Incorporation). The City was to bear the costs of building maintenance and the salaries of permanent staff -- a producing director, program coordinator, technical director, and part-time technical assistant. The advisory council would hire and pay actors, designers, and directors of specific presentations; a publicist; its office staff; and "all other expenses" (Maureen O'Neill, "Fact Sheet"). In effect, the City would own and manage the facility, with the advisory council as a tenant.

Although the council's articles of incorporation made no mention of "children's" theater, it was soon clear that this would be a primary focus. Molly Welch, the theater's first managing director, explained in a 1975 interview:

"What we're trying to do is become the first fully professional children's theater in Seattle. What we really want is for people to realize that what we're trying to do is more sophisticated and valuable than what they might be used to seeing in children's theater.

"Our real dream is to make our theater into something that will give Seattle the kind of recognition that Minneapolis gets from the Minneapolis Children's Theatre"  ("Big Plans for Poncho Theatre").

According to its own account, the current "Seattle Children's Theatre" was born that year, although it did not legally adopt the name until 1983 ("Seattle Children's Theatre -- A  Chronology"). Starting with the 1975 season, the theater staged five plays each year for children and families (except for a shortened, three-play season in 1981). Among the early offerings were fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, 1975; Cinderella, 1979); adventures tales (Treasure Island, 1980); classics of American literature (Tom Sawyer, 1976; Huck Finn, 1980); fantasy (Alice in Wonderland, 1977; The Wind in the Willows, 1978, The Hobbit, 1979), and more serious fare (Ice Wolf, 1976; To Kill a Mockingbird, 1980; The Miracle Worker, 1981; The Diary of Anne Frank, 1981-1982).

The children's theater enjoyed early support from the University of Washington's Masters Program in Theatre for Youth and started offering theater-arts classes for young children and teens. Its productions and educational programs attracted national attention, and in 1978, just its third year of operation, what was now called Poncho Children's Theatre was awarded the national American Alliance for Theatre and Education's Zeta Phi Eta Winifred Award, given each year to "an outstanding children's theater company" ("A 'Knightly' Serving by Poncho").

Toil and Trouble

Even as the children's theater reaped favorable reviews and grew in popularity, trouble was afoot. City budget woes in 1981 forced Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to recommend substantial cuts, including more than $90,000 from Poncho Theatre's allotment. The response from the arts community was loud and emotional. Sharon Sikes, president of the theater's advisory council, told The Seattle Times, "We've been raped" ("Proposed Cuts Hurt Arts Workers…"). The newspaper's drama critic, Wayne Johnson, reviewing the theater's presentation of The Diary of Anne Frank, closed with a scathing comment on the claim that community theaters were "nonessential frills":

"Anyone who can see this production of The Diary of Anne Frank and believe it is a nonessential frill has lost his soul in the gloomy hollows of the labyrinthine bureaucracy" ("Poncho Has Sensitive Acting in Anne Frank").

Noted Hollywood film director Stanley Kramer (1913-2001), who had moved to the Northwest and whose 14-year-old daughter, Katherine, played the title role of Anne Frank, used his column in the newspaper to lament:

"When an artist dies, some part of all of us dies. When a theater goes dark, a piece of the fabric of what we are, or can be, simply disappears" ("Call to Arms...").

The City blinked and much of the theater's funding for the 1982-1983 season was restored, but with a warning that in the future, community theaters could expect to be largely on their own. With this reprieve, the children's theater planned its upcoming season and brought on board as "artistic consultant" Richard Edwards, a nationally known stage director. Within months, he was hired fulltime as artistic director.

Edwards's tenure would be short and end badly, but under his guidance the theater took some bold and successful steps as it contemplated life, or possibly death, without government subsidy. In the 1982-1983 season, its eighth, the theater took its first plunge into Shakespeare for young audiences, producing The Comedy of Errors, adapted and directed by Edwards. It was a huge hit, and in February 1983 the theater received national honors once again when the American Theater Association bestowed the Jennie Heiden Award in recognition of excellence in children's theater.

Even as the theater was garnering awards, things were not going smoothly between the parks department and the Poncho advisory council. The public/private nature of the relationship was proving awkward. One source of friction was wages -- theater workers who were parks department employees received considerably higher pay than those employed by the nonprofit council. While matters rarely became openly contentious, on occasion tempers frayed.

What's In a Name?

One clash started in June 1983 when the advisory council, without notifying the City, decided to change its name to the Seattle Children's Theatre Association. This was viewed by the parks department as a serious breach of protocol, if not contract, and the ensuing discussions brought to the surface other festering differences. Polly Conley, who had replaced Molly Welch as the theater's managing director, explained to the City that the change was made "because of a need to clarify that we are a children's theatre in a specific geographic area, and to avoid the continuing and embarrassing confusion with PONCHO (auction)" (Conley to Hundley, August 1, 1983). The parks department head, Walter R. Hundley (1929-2002), insisted that the name of the venue (Poncho Theatre) and the name of the association's theater program should remain the same, and he characterized the name change, and the failure to notify the City in advance, as "a serious breach of our agreements to date" (Hundley to Conley, September 9, 1983).

Soon other differences surfaced. In another letter to Hundley, Conley wrote that "our negotiations with the City for the use of the facility have brought home the fact that we are not guaranteed permanent tenancy" (Conley to Hundley, August 1, 1983). If the organization retained the Poncho name and subsequently were forced to leave the Poncho Theater, Conley asked, "what name would we take with us?" And if that was not reason enough for a name change, she noted that "some members of the Hispanic community have expressed to us the offensive racist overtones of the word 'Poncho'" (Conley to Hundley, August 1, 1973).

Hundley remained unappeased and unpersuaded, and just over a month later he stoked the associations's worst fears, warning that the City was "seriously contemplating requiring you to vacate the premises at the end of the upcoming season" (Hundley to Conley, September 9, 1983). This did not occur, but it was becoming clear that the Seattle Children's Theatre eventually would need to find a new home. But for the time being, and in fact for the next nine years, the City and Poncho Children's Theatre worked in relative harmony. In the 1983-1984 season, its ninth, the theater presented five plays at the Woodland Park venue, including Dickens's Great Expectations and Shakespeare's The Tempest. That year's showing of the popular The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was staged at the University of Washington's Meany Theatre (now Meany Hall for the Performing Arts).

Despite Hundley's objections, Poncho Children's Theatre officially became Seattle Children's Theatre on September 30, 1983. Under the guidance of Conley and Edwards it survived the loss of City funding, staged five well-received plays, and beefed up both its fundraising and marketing efforts. The last play of the 1983-1984 season, Tall Tales from Mark Twain, was sponsored in part by grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and Citicorp USA, apparently the theater's first corporate sponsorship.

The theater was shaken when, in September and October of 1984, first Conley and then Edwards resigned. Conley's departure was publicly amicable, but Edwards launched a broadside at the theater board on his way out the door, claiming that it had been "interfering with the day to day operation of the theater and not spending time and energy on fund raising" ("Children's Theatre Director Quits"). His was a respected name in theater, and one letter to the editor of The Seattle Times predicted that, by accepting Edwards resignation, the theater's board had been "shortsighted at best, perhaps suicidal" ("Regrets Resignation").

All's Well That Ends Well

The dire prediction proved unfounded. Conley was soon replaced, on an interim basis, by James Weyerman. The theater began a national search for a new artistic director and found, in its own front yard, Linda Hartzell.

Hartzell, born in Pennsylvania and a graduate of Meadowdale High School in Edmonds, earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Washington but filled out her schedule there with drama and theater courses.  She married at 21 and had a son, Adam:

"I was a stay-at-home mom, counting checks at night for Seafirst Bank to make money. Then one day a friend called and said, 'I'm doing this late-night show at Empty Space Theatre. Want to be in it?'" ("Life Stages: Seattle Children's Theatre Director ... ").

It was a fateful and fortunate turn, for Hartzell personally and for the city of Seattle. The play was Cheez Whiz, the first midnight show at Seattle's Empty Space Theatre (1970-2006). Hartzell's performance led to roles in plays staged by several regional theater groups, including the Seattle Rep and the Tacoma Actors Guild, and it was as an actor and singer that she first gained wide notice and good reviews.

Hartzell joined Poncho Children's Theatre's first resident acting company in 1976, staying until 1979. In 1977 she began teaching drama at Seattle's Lakeside School (which she would do until 1992). Her first shot at directing professional actors came in 1982, with a play written by David Freeman, a Canadian playwright born with cerebral palsy. The title was Creeps, and referred not to the characters, but to those who, faced by severe handicaps in others, act like creeps. Five unafflicted male actors played men suffering from cerebral palsy, which causes muscle spasticity while leaving the mind untouched. The play movingly showed that despite severe handicaps, the five experienced the same emotions, desires, fears, and hopes as the rest of humanity.

Both the play and Hartzell's direction received glowing reviews, but it was a play she directed the following year that brought far greater recognition. Angry Housewives, a "feminist, punk-rock musical," opened at Seattle's Pioneer Square Theater in November 1983. It became the "biggest smash hit in Seattle theater history" and went on to play to sold-out houses for several years ("Life Stages: Seattle Children's Theatre Director … ").

With her reputation enhanced by Angry Housewives, Hartzell was asked to return to the children's theater in November 1984, this time as interim artistic director. Longtime board member Eleanor Nolan, who first approached her about taking the job, would later recall:

"I was hunting for someone to fill the void and Linda Hartzell's name kept coming up. People raved about her. At first she told me, 'I can't do it. I don't even know what an artistic director does.' She didn't even have a resumé"  ("Life Stages: Seattle Children's Theatre Director…").

Nolan pushed and persuaded, and Hartzell eventually agreed to come aboard. Her original contract was for six months, and the theater board continued its search for a permanent artistic director. They needn't have bothered -- long before the six months was up it was decided to give Hartzell the job. Some 28 years later (2012) she is still there, and under her leadership the Seattle Children's Theatre has become a beloved city institution and a national model.

The Play's the Thing

The "interim" was removed from Hartzell's title in February 1985. In announcing the permanent appointment, Eleanor Nolan told the press:

"During Linda 's tenure as interim artistic director since November we have observed the energy, vitality, sensitivity and commitment which she has brought to the organization and which she has clearly focused on the mission of SCT" ("SCT Selects Hartzell As Art Director").

Generally speaking, an artistic director "is responsible for conceiving, developing, and implementing the artistic vision and focus of a theatre company" and is answerable to the managing director ("Artistic Director"). Artistic directors are often the public face of a theater organization and closely involved with budget preparation, fundraising, and community outreach. In most theater companies, the artistic director also is expected to direct at least one play each year.

The 1985-1986 season was Hartzell's first full year as artistic director, and she put her stamp on it with the first presentation. The Former One-On-One Basketball Champion, written by Israel Horowitz, used only two actors. One, 14-year-old Jonas Basom, was a three-year acting veteran of the theater and stood 5 feet 6 inches tall. His costar had far less acting experience but was much more famous, and a commanding presence at 6 feet 9 inches tall. This was Bill Russell, legendary basketball star and coach of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977, whom Hartzell had somehow prevailed upon to costar. She directed the play and spoke of working with the sports icon and his young costar:

"I was scared at first. I mean, what do I say to a basketball legend? I was nervous about it, but then Jonas whipped in with all his self-confidence and everything smoothed out ... . Jonas has amazing skills for such a young actor. He's teaching Bill a lot about acting. Bill is very shy, but when you get to know him, he's real funny and so dear'' ("Bill Russell Holds Court On a Different Kind Of Stage").

It was a huge hit, and the rest of Hartzell's first full season as artistic director did not disappoint. It included Charles Perrault's Puss in Boots; The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (at the Meany Theatre); Robin Hood; and two more Hartzell-directed plays, The Curse of Castle Mongrew, by Seattle writer Roger Downey, and Little Lulu, with music and lyrics by Chad Henry.

For the next several seasons, Seattle Children's Theatre put on a full slate of performance each year, most staged at Poncho Theatre, with a scattered few at the Meany or Intiman. Almost every play had significant private funding by foundations and corporations. By 1987 the theater, led by Weyerman and Hartzell, with the support of producers, directors, actors, staff, and a dedicated board, was for perhaps the first time in its life on sound financial footing. The Seattle Times marveled at the turnaround:

"Two years ago, the Seattle Children's Theatre was at the brink of going out of business: It was buried in debt and each payroll was a cliffhanging adventure.

"Now the company is one of the conspicuous success stories in Seattle's financially troubled arts community.

"'There were times in the spring of 1985 when we were hours away from not making our payroll,' recalled James Weyermann, SCT's managing director. 'But we've survived and become fiscally sound. In many important respects, the company has come of age.'

"In the past two years, the SCT has doubled its annual contributed income, its season subscriptions and its sales of performances for schoolchildren. Moreover, the quality and intrinsic excitement of its productions have shot up dramatically" ("SCT Rewrites Rocky Past Into Success Story").

Since Weyerman and Hartzell were hired, Seattle Children's Theatre had nearly doubled the number of season subscribers, from 3,300 to 6,400. Private contributions more than doubled, from $113,000 to $235,000, with the help of a board of directors that had grown from 12 members to 23. In 1987, the theater reached agreement with Actors Equity, the union representing actors and stage managers, to employ full Equity casts by 1993. This gave the theater added professional credibility and access to top actors who otherwise would be unavailable. To top it off, 1987 also saw its first touring production when Little Lulu was taken on a four-week, 21-performance tour to Kent, Walla Walla, Bellingham, Auburn, Anacortes, Olympia, and Tacoma.

Although its financial house was in much better order, Seattle Children's Theatre, together with most arts organizations, remained sensitive to the larger economy. The recession of the early 1990s hit the children's theater as it did others, but it had the resilience and reputation to come through relatively unscathed. With the artistic side firing on all cylinders, one large goal remained unfulfilled: Seattle Children's Theatre needed its own permanent home, and getting one would be the focus of much of its effort in the coming years.

The Charlotte Martin Theatre

Charlotte Yeoman Martin (1919-1987) was one of Seattle's quiet wealthy. Her father-in-law, Clarence Martin Sr. (1884-1955), had been the state's governor from 1933 to 1941. Along with her husband, Dan (d. 1976), Charlotte Martin supported causes ranging from college athletics to wildlife habitat. She spent her last years at her home on Lake Washington, and shortly before her death she established the Charlotte Y. Martin Foundation to continue her good works. In August 1990 Seattle Children's Theatre was named recipient of a $1.2-million foundation grant to help fund a new and permanent home, to be built on the grounds of Seattle Center. The theater space within would be called the Charlotte Martin Theatre.

A dedicated space for the theater was long overdue. Since Hartzell had taken over as artistic director in late 1984, Seattle Children's Theatre had broken attendance records every year. By October 1991, when the design of the new theater was announced, managing director Thomas Pechar, who had replaced James Weyerman in January 1989, pegged the most recent annual attendance at 185,000, making the theater the second-largest professional children's theater company in the nation, trailing only that in Minneapolis.

Martin was not alone in her generosity. A setback came in May 1991 with the defeat at the polls of a King County ballot measure that would have provided money for several arts organizations, but by October 1991 the City of Seattle, which a few years earlier had cut nearly all funding for community theaters, had pledged $2 million. The state ponied up $1.2 million and private donors and foundations (including PONCHO) nearly $3 million of the fundraising goal of $9 million. And in 1992 the King County Council, spurred by Councilman Larry Phillips (b. 1956), stepped up and provided $2 million from its hotel/motel tax fund.

By June 1992 the children's theater building fund had grown to $8.8 million. The total project cost had been revised upwards, to $10.5 million, and now included a Phase II construction of classrooms, scene shops, and offices. But the theater was doing well, running in the black, building a reserve, and had increased its annual budget by $200,000. On July 7, 1992, ground was broken just west of the Pacific Science Center for the building and the 482-seat Charlotte Martin Theatre. It was the first new public facility to be erected at Seattle Center since the Bagley Wright Theatre in 1983, and it came just in time. In 1992, Seattle Children's Theatre had drawn more than 220,000 playgoers and was still growing.

The new Seattle Children's Theatre (Mahlum & Nordfors McKinley Gordon, 1993) opened to the public on September 20, 1993, with the world premiere of Afternoon of the Elves, based on a children's book by Janet Taylor Lisle. Near the stage in the Charlotte Martin Theatre were three carpeted tiers for informal seating, a good place for restless children. The main seating area was steeply sloped, designed to ensure that no one was more than 50 feet from the stage, which measured 36 feet wide by 88 feet deep, with a 20-foot-high proscenium. A trade magazine, Theater Crafts International, enthused:

"Local artist Garth Edwards was commissioned to create works for the theatre as part of the 1% For Art Fund. Edwards designed expansive murals composed of more than 700 tiles and canopy support brackets -- dubbed "Garthgoyles" -- which herald arrival to the theatre with characters ranging from smiling cacti and jesters to birds and sea creatures. Inside the lobby, Edwards has incorporated the figures into laser-cut steel handrail panels, auditorium entry arches, and air conditioning/heating grills.

"A large, three-tiered chandelier designed by Chuck Loomis graces the main barrel-vaulted lobby, while a flock of origami-like lighting fixtures is suspended by thin wires above the grand staircase, giving the impression of birds in flight. The entire lobby is windowed by large panels that stretch from floor to second balcony level, providing a view of Puget Sound and the surrounding Seattle Center grounds. Meanwhile, the exterior of the building is clad in a mosaic grid of russet, beige, blue, and cinnamon spectraglaze blocks, a form of ceramic concrete" ("Sleekness In Seattle").

Less than two years later, in February 1995, Seattle Children's Theatre unveiled a second venue within its confines, called the Eve Alvord Theatre (Bassetti Architects, 1995), in honor of a longtime supporter. It is a more informal space, seating 280, with bleacher seating, less elaborate technical capabilities, and a small play area for younger kids.

Although most productions at Seattle Children's Theatre have been for older children, 2007 brought a production, in collaboration with Seattle's  Children's Museum, of The Green Sheep, an Australian play intended for ages 1 through 4. Said Hartzell:

"We were embarrassed to do toddler theater for a long time. For the little ones, they need to smell it. They need to feel it, too. You need to engage every single part of their little beings" ("Serious Play Date...").

This tactile approach was not entirely trouble-free. The title character, a stuffed "Green Sheep," was passed around to the toddlers at the end of each peformance. This of course raised some issues of hygiene, and after some experimentation with various cleaning compounds, all of which proved too malodorous or toxic, the little sheep was wiped down with vodka after each day's mauling.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Recounting in detail the last 15 or 20 years of the Seattle Children's Theatre is well beyond the scope of this essay, but it can at least be summarized. Linda Hartzell has been the theater's one constant, still serving as artistic director in 2012. Kevin Maifeld replaced Thomas Pechar as managing director in 2001 and was in turn replaced by Tim Jennings in 2008. In 2011, Jennings became managing director of the famed Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company, and in 2012 Mary Ann Ehlshlager took over the post at Seattle Children's Theatre.

Both the organization and its artistic director have received multiple local and national awards, including:

  • 1999 -- A&T OnStage Award for the Book of Ruth, a Holocaust story (the first such award to a children's theater).
  • 2000 -- The Gregory Falls Sustained Achievement Award from Theatre Puget Sound, to Linda Hartzell.
  • 2002 -- a second A&T OnStage Award, this time for Holes, adapted from the children's novel of the same name.
  • 2004 -- an unprecedented third A&T OnStage Award, for Tibet Through the Red Box. Also in 2002, Time magazine ranked Seattle Children's Theatre second among the 10 leading children's theaters in the country, behind only the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company, founded in 1961.
  • 2006 -- Seattle's Mayor's Arts Award for contributions to the cultural vitality of our region.
  • 2011 -- an Artist of Excellence award from the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People, to Linda Hartzell.

Between 1995 and the 2011-2012 season, the theater has mounted 110 productions, with a mere handful of repetitions. Forty plays are identified as "World Premieres" and seven as "American Premieres." The range of topics and genres is broad and covers everything from beloved fairy tales and fantasies to works by Shakespeare, Greek myth, musicals, classics of children's literature, and such thought-provoking plays and mature offerings as The Outsiders, The Shape of a Girl, The Red Badge of Courage, and the dystopian Animal Farm. Not every effort earns rave reviews, but the winners have far outnumbered the less well-received. The lineup for the 2012-2013 season is typically diverse, featuring plays geared to all ages from infants to teens, including a new performance of The Wizard of Oz, last presented in the 2008-2009 season and again directed by Hartzell.

In addition to its own productions, the children's theater has on occasion hosted touring shows by other groups including the Puppet State Theatre Company of Scotland presenting The Man Who Planted Trees, 2010-2011; Help, about the Beatles, performed by Holland's Theatergroep Max, 2012. It has also collaborated with other theater companies, including A Year With Frog and Toad, with Arizona's Childsplay, 2005 and Perô, with Speeltheater Holland, in 2010.

Seattle Children's Theatre does much more than put on plays. Its drama school offers classes each year for kids ranging from preschoolers to high-school seniors. For each play, the theater prepares a multi-page "Education Resource Guide"  that provides detailed information about the production -- the story, the author, the director, sets and costumes -- and extensive material to help teachers develop curricula and encourage discussion of a play and its meaning. The theater has made concerted efforts to increase ethnic diversity at all levels,  and as long ago as 1993 it made plays accessible to the hearing impaired with special productions interpreted into American Sign Language. From 1993 to 2007, the theater offered a Deaf Kids Drama Festival as part of its Deaf Youth Program. Started in 1993 by deaf theater artists -- and brothers -- Billy and Howie Seago, the program gave deaf and hard-of-hearing students two opportunities a year to showcase their talents, and their ASL performances were voice-interpreted for the "signing-impaired" ("Drama Festival Will Have a Voice-Over For the 'Signing-Impaired'").

In the 2011-2012 season, the latest for which precise numbers are available, the theater saw:

  • 135,794 Mainstage attendance (65,267 school show and 70,527 public attendance
  • 4,100 attendance at Drama school summer season performances
  • approximately 3,000 Drama School students
  • approximately 4,500 individuals reached through education outreach programs

A Guiding Philosophy

Linda Hartzell is quick to credit others for the success of Seattle Children's Theatre, but after over a quarter century as artistic director, her personality and artistic sensibility pervade the organization. In interviews through the years, she has spoken of her philosophy of children's theater and what she hopes to provide young audiences:

"I taught for 17 years and I’ve seen first hand that theater makes for smarter, braver, human beings. Theater helps connect the head to the heart" ("Why Children's Theater Matters").

"I feel strongly that art should be a part of a child's education, a part of their developmental process ... . It makes them better human beings if they have art in their lives" ("Seattle Children's Theatre a National Powerhouse").

"I would never produce a play in which the main character did not change for the better" ("Children's Theatre Hits the Big 3-O ... ").

"I never promise kids a happy ending, because in the '50s we were promised that and it often didn't happen. But kids aren't cynical. They're usually loyal and trustworthy, even in the worst circumstances. And they need to hear that life can get better, if they just hold on ... ."  ("Life Stages: Seattle Children's Theatre Director ... ").

"My feeling is you must always be truthful with children, and not tell them that the world is a perfect place. On the other hand, I think kids need some joy and hope, too. I'm happiest when I hear them laughing" ("SCT: Still Castings Its Spell ... ").

Seattle Children's Theatre has been at it for nearly 40 years now, growing from a tiny cadre of mostly volunteers to one of the largest, best, and most successful children's theater companies in the world. It has become a Seattle treasure, one that will entertain, inform, and delight the children of the children who today wait expectant and entranced as the theater lights go down and the curtain goes up.

Sources: Mary E. Brown, "A Brief History of Children's Literature," Southern Connecticut State University website accessed June 15, 2012 (; John Newberry, A Little Pretty Pocket-book (Worchester, 1744), available at Library of Commerce Digital Collections & Services (; Shirley Granahan, John Newbery: Father of Children's Literature (Minneapolis: Abdo Publishing Company, 2009); Nellie Mc Caslin, Historical Guide to Children's Theatre in America, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Inc., 1987), 6-8; "Junior League History," Association of Junior Leagues International website accessed June 13, 2012 (; "PONCHO," Seattle Foundation website accessed June 13, 2012 (; "Artistic Director," American Association of Community Theatre website accessed October 31, 2012 (; "Articles of Incorporation," Poncho Theatre Advisory Council (February 7, 1975), Washington State Secretary of State website accessed June 14, 2012 (; "Certificate of Amendment," Poncho Theatre Advisory Council (June 1, 1983), Washington State Secretary of State website accessed June 14, 2012 (; Maureen O'Neill to Richard Kalinoski, "Fact Sheet" (undated), Folder 1, Box 2,  Record Series 5807-15, "Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation Theatre Program Records," Seattle Municipal Archives; Pauline C. Conley to Walter Hundley, August 1, 1983, Folder 7, Box 2, Record Series 5807-15, "Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation Theatre Program Records," Seattle Municipal Archives; Walter Hundley to Pauline C. Conley, September 9, 1983, Folder 7, Box 2, Record Series 5807-15, "Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation Theatre Program Records," Seattle Municipal Archives; "Seattle Children's Theatre -- A  Chronology From 1975 To the Present," Folder 12, Box 13, Record Series 1612.08, "Miscellaneous Projects -- Seattle Children's Theatre,"  Seattle Municipal Archives; "History," Seattle Children's Theatre website accessed October 29, 2012 (; "About Charlotte Y. Martin," Charlotte Y. Martin Foundation website accessed October 31, 2012 (; Kelly Otis, email to John Caldbick, June 19, 2012, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington; Kelly Otis, email to John Caldbick, November 5, 2012, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington; "Sleekness In Seattle," Theater Crafts International, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1994), p. 14; Ellen Gamerman, "Serious Play Date: These Critics May Create a Fuss Over a Show," The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2010 (; Danielle Wood, "Why Children's Theater Matters," website accessed November 4, 2012 (; Doree Armstrong, "Drama Festival Will Have a Voice-Over For the 'Signing-Impaired,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 8, 2009 (; John Levesque, "Seattle Children's Theatre a National Powerhouse," Ibid., October 2, 2009; Joe Adcock, "Children's Theatre Hits the Big 3-O But Its Fans Are All Ages," Ibid., September 16, 2004; "Plays for Children Planned by W.P.A.," The Seattle Sunday Times, November 7, 1937, p. 15; "Children's Theatre Will Continue Soon," Ibid., February 6, 1938, p. 40; "'Br'er Rabbit' Play Starts Tomorrow," The Seattle Daily Times, May 6, 1938, p. 17; Timothy Egan, "A 'Knightly' Serving by Poncho," Ibid., November 5, 1978, Pictorial, p. 4;  Stanley Kramer, "Call to Arms: Speaking Out In Order to Save Theater's Funds," Ibid., November 15, 1981, p. A-30; Ruth Brinton, "Regrets Resignation" (letter to the editor), Ibid., November 11, 1984, p. G-2; Wayne Johnson, "Bill Russell Holds Court On a Different Kind Of Stage," Ibid., September 8, 1985, p. L-1; Melinda Bargreen, Deloris Tarzan Ament, and Misha Berson, "The Red And The Black -- As Fiscal Year Ends, Arts Groups Assess What Color Their Ink Will Be," Ibid., June 21, 1992, p. L-1; Misha Berson, "A New Playhouse -- Children's Theater Unveils," The Seattle Times,  September 5, 1993 (; Misha Berson, "SCT: Still Casting Its Spell -- Now In Its 25th Year, Children's Theatre Continues To Enchant," Ibid., September 15, 1999 (;  Misha Berson, "Seattle Children's Theatre Director Takes Her Cues From the Real World," Ibid., Pacific Northwest Magazine, November 4, 2001 (; "Zoo Theater to Open," The Seattle Times, February 21, 1971, p. H-1; "Children's Theater Opens Saturday," Ibid., July 7, 1971, p. D-13; "Children's Zoo Theater Opens with Beastly Play," Ibid., July 11, 1971, p. C-1; Val Varney, "Group's Dance in the Buff Hits Raw Nerves in Park Dept.," Ibid., July 9, 1974, p. A-11; Wayne Johnson, "Big Plans for Poncho Theatre," Ibid., Tempo section, p. 3; Wayne Johnson, "Proposed Cuts Hurt Arts Workers Only When They Don't Laugh," Ibid., September 22, 1981, p. B-4; Wayne Johnson, "Poncho Has Sensitive Acting in Anne Frank," Ibid., October 20, 1981, p. B-2; Stanley Kramer, "Call to Arms: Speaking Out In Order to Save Theater's Funds," Ibid., November 15, 1981, p. A-30;  Wayne Johnson, "Budget Action Pleases City's Nonprofit Theaters," Ibid., November 24, 1981, p. C-2; Wayne Johnson, "Children's Theatre Director Quits," Ibid., October 27, 1984, p. D-2; "SCT Selects Hartzell As Art Director," Ibid., February 21, 1985. p. D-10; Wayne Johnson, "STC Rewrites Rocky Past Into Success Story," Ibid., April 14, 1987, p. E-1; Wayne Johnson, "Children's Theatre Unveils Design of 489-Seat Complex," Ibid., October 21, 1991, p. C-3; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Federal Theatre Project" (by Paula Becker), and "Schultz, Cecilia Augspurger (1878-1971), Impresario Extraordinaire" (by John Caldbick) (accessed October 31, 2012); "Certificate of Amendment" (name change), Washington State Secretary of State Digital Archives website accessed October 27, 2012 (
Note: This essay was emended on April 5, 2013.

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