Jeffrey Herrmann became Managing Director at the Seattle Repertory Theatre last year. He has a very specific view of his mission. “I’ve always believed that we are in the ‘community business,’ not the ‘theater business.’ Theater is our medium, but the point is not theater, the point is to bring us together. That demands different kinds of partnerships, programs, and a more expansive view of what it means to put on a play,” he says.
In an interview with Seattle Gay Scene, we discussed what happened when Jeff arrived in a transition from the Washington, D.C. new play powerhouse, Wooly Mammoth, and what his experience has been for his first year. We also get a sense of where he intends to move the theater in the coming year and years to come.
Jeff’s first year here was tumultuous, to say the least. “I was not looking for a new job. I was very happy at Wooly Mammoth and in Washington, D.C., but when an opportunity to lead an institution like the Seattle Rep comes along, you have to sit up and take notice. The Rep is one of the great regional theaters in the country, a flagship of the Northwest, and the opportunity to help move it forward seemed like a great one.
“It was not the transition I thought it would be. I thought I’d be partnering with (Artistic Director) Jerry Manning. That was part of the attraction. With his experience, his humanity, his great theatrical sensibility. Three weeks after I said ‘yes’ to the job offer, he was gone. (Note: Jerry died of complications from a heart defect, suddenly on April 30, 2014.)
“In fact, Braden (Abraham, then Assistant Artistic Director and now Acting Artistic Director) and I both started in our new positions last July. Braden is a great guy, a great leader, and we both see eye to eye with where the theater should go. The fact that we’re doing it together feels good.”
Jeff also had a challenge of following in the footsteps of Ben Moore, who had been at the Rep as Managing Director for years and is well-regarded as a steward of the largest (straight play) theater company in the entire area. Jeff says, “Ben Moore is a legend in the field. I was in high school when he started this job. When an organization has someone in that job for that long, it arrays itself around that person’s strengths and weaknesses. I like to say there was a ‘Ben-shaped’ hole in that organization and I’m not Ben. So the systems and processes have to change to accommodate the ways that I work and I’m different.
“Things were complicated due to everyone’s grief at Jerry’s passing. I came in with things I wanted to do, but it was apparent that people were still grieving, and also exhausted from a search for Ben’s replacement. I saw quickly I was going to have to move more slowly and adjust my expectations.”
Recently, there were reports about financial difficulties at the Rep – though arts orgs and theater in particular (a “handmade” art) go through constant money challenges. The Rep had completely closed down on Mondays for a number of years, now, due to trying to save money.
Jeff says, about his understanding of the finances, “Everyone was open and transparent about the financial challenges. Certainly the organization has had a tough time, with the passing of Andrea Allen, the Education Director (November 15, 2012 of breast cancer), and Jerry’s passing. When I got here, I knew there would be a financial challenge, but felt the organization was financially stable. It’s manageable. We had to make some changes, but I would not use the word ‘crisis.’
“We had a fantastic success (last season) with (playwright Robert Schenkkan‘s) LBJ plays which I feel was a game changer for the organization. There were huge expenses but it penciled out at the box office. All the Way was the highest grossing play in production in Rep theater history and The Great Society was the third highest grossing in (our) history.”
Last spring, the Rep made a significant internal reorganization. We asked if that move was more financially motivated than was publicized at that time. Jeff says, “Even if the Rep had no financial issues, we would have made those changes. There were financial issues that came into play, but we reallocated the money and didn’t really save money in making the changes. It’s incorrect for people to assume that it was strictly financially motivated.”
In fact, Jeff says that this was a decision that focuses the Rep toward where Jeff sees the organization moving. “I think we were trying to do too much in the theater (youth) education area. We can’t do everything and we have to pick. We wanted to pick the programs that were the most unique to the Rep and open the space to more programs that serve adult populations, instead of just serving ‘youth.’ We are still serving 85-90 percent of the youth we were serving (and) we’re opening the doors wider than we were before.”
This dovetails with where Jeff sees the goals should be. He says, “Community engagement is very important to me, and what I wanted to bring to Seattle Rep. I want programs that open us up to broader cross sections.
“I’d like to see us produce our way into financial stability rather than cut our way out (of financial problems). We need to get outside of our building and partner with organizations outside of our field: culturally-specific organizations, social services, health and human services, senior services.
“I’d like to create ticket programs that appeal to a broader audience: more discounts, more free programming, more special tickets, partnering with the public library, Town Hall. Lectures, classes, talks. Scheduling programming around the shows in the lobbies, more pre- and post-show conversations, more website content. The goal is to reach tentacles all across this community and make this (the Rep) a home where different citizens can come together.”
Jeff sees bigger changes coming in the next season, which starts this month with the mounting of the classic Arthur Miller play, A View from the Bridge. “This season is the first that Braden and I worked on together, so I’m excited and looking forward to it,” Jeff says.
“In general, we need to produce big shows of scale each season. The three ‘big’ shows this season are A View from the Bridge, the new musical, Come From Away and Sherlock Holmes. What the city wants to see is shows of big scale and size and we need to do that on a regular basis.
“(Also,) the demographics of the city are changing and we have not responded rapidly enough. You’ll see more diversity on our stages, different kinds of stories. Programming that is trying to reach out to everyone in Seattle. That is a commitment that Braden and I believe in and that will keep the organization strong for the next decade and beyond.
“Whatever financial concerns. we have to fix them, but we’ve already made strides this year. We have to make more changes in the size of the work and I’m feeling bullish and don’t look back with any regret. I think great things are ahead.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of the Rep. It’s been a challenging first year getting to know donors, board members, staff, subscribers; but we’ve had fantastic success and we have a great season planned, and the best is yet to come.”
Individual tickets can be ordered online (www.seattlerep.org), by phone (206-443-2222), or in person at the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office. Seattle Repertory Theatre is located at Seattle Center at the corner of Second Ave. and Mercer St. Season tickets for the 2015/2016 season are also still available for purchase.
Upcoming Shows at the Seattle Repertory Theatre:
September 25 – October 18, 2015
A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller
Bagley Wright Theatre
One family’s dark secret is exposed when they agree to harbor two family members illegally in their home. This American tragedy about a deep family secret—and the suspicion, jealousy and betrayal that results from it—remains topical and thought-provoking 60 years after its 1955 Broadway premiere. The Rep is pleased to present Braden Abraham’s new staging of this American classic in the centennial year of the playwright’s birth.
October 23 – November 22, 2015
Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins
Leo K. Theatre
November 13 – December 13, 2015
Come From Away, book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Presented in association with La Jolla Playhouse
Bagley Wright Theatre
November 25 – December 13, 2015
Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales: Unwrapped
Leo K. Theatre