A Fiendish Conversation with ACT Theatre's Kurt Beattie
The classics are classics for a reason. In 1965, ACT Theatre produced Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as part of its debut season. Now ACT is set to reprise the Pulitzer Prize–winning play to begin the theater’s 50th anniversary celebration. The play’s reflections on family schisms, homosexuality, alcoholism, and death—all set against a tense and humid Southern backdrop—still resonate after all these years. Previews for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof begin April 17, and the show offically opens April 23 and runs through May 17. The production also speaks to the enduring longevity of ACT, which has maintained its quality and local prominence for half a century.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to ACT Theatre's artistic director Kurt Beattie about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's timelessness, ACT's commitment to new plays, and reefs.
What about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has allowed it to maintain enough relevance to be performed in ACT’s first year and its 50th?
It's managed to establish itself as one of the great plays in the contemporary American canon. Its many revivals, many of which have been successful revivals, have demonstrated that it can appeal to different generations. That its verities, if you will, are deep, and that it continues to be compelling as a play; just as a story to watch and be held by.
It also is significant to ACT’s 50th season, and contemporary theater in America, because Williams, [Arthur] Miller, and [Eugene] O'Neill really are the trinity of great playwrights who established the American theater and the contemporary American theater. So we felt it was really important to do this play in our 50th anniversary season for all those reasons.
What does it mean to you to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of ACT? What does it mean to Seattle?
ACT was the second regional professional theater that Seattle had, and it came very shortly after the Rep was established. And it has been a longtime contributor to a really dynamic cultural and theatrical scene. And it's also been a place that has created the ability for high-caliber professional artists in the theater to stay in Seattle, to make Seattle their homes. It has also generated a tremendous amount of good work. With its focus mainly being on contemporary work, it's created an audience for that work. It's not an easy thing to do in a lot of communities. And it has really successfully done that.
It also, for me, is a place where I got my Equity card in 1975, a place where I became a professional actor and where I've continued to work as an actor and a playwright and a director since the beginning of my career in Seattle in 1975; so 40 years. So it means a whole lot to me personally and I think it means a whole lot to the community historically and in the moment.
Do you have any favorite ACT productions over those 40 years? I know that’s like asking you to pick your favorite child, but still…
There was a production that I was in—although you're not always the best judge of something that you're in, to be honest with you—The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which was one of my favorites. The first production I ever saw at ACT was a production of Waiting for Godot that deeply impressed me. And then many others. I think some of the ones that come to the top of my head are Red Noses, Tales from Hollywood, Steven Dietz's Halcyon Days, and...oh gosh, so many...A Chorus of Disapproval that I was in is a very favorite one of mine. The Pillow Man, which I directed in my first season at ACT. Mary Stuart, which we did recently. Sylvia, definitely. I'm leaving out stuff that I'm sure I would put into this list. You know, I'm 67 and there's a part of my brain that has become permanently vacant. [Laughs]
How do you feel ACT fits into the cultural tapestry of the Seattle arts community?
It's a professional theater that has opened itself to the community through the ACT Lab program. And so, it does two things, it's principally interested in producing contemporary work professionally, which is a unique aspect to it. And it is also about developing relationships with other groups of artists to create a sort of many-voiced organ. I’ve always had a couple of metaphors for ACT, and one of them is a reef, which is a vertical system of mutually sustaining life forms. There are many fine artists around town, and they all have different voices. ACT is interested in being porous and open so that our stuff can go out into the world and so that stuff can come into this world that is ACT.
Who are some of the up-and-coming people in the Seattle theater scene that have voices which interest you?
John Langs, who is my associate artistic director, is an incredibly exciting young artist. Yussef El Guindi, the playwright. Oh gosh, there are a whole variety of people. Sheila Daniels, the director. Braden Abraham—definitely—at the Rep. New Century Theatre Company is always doing something interesting. Washington Ensemble Theatre is an interesting, strong, and enduring company. Seattle Public Theater has been doing some kind of interesting work.
And the Seattle Children's Theatre; I don't know why people don't name it. It's a really important theater in Seattle, and has done a lot of tremendous work over many years under the leadership of my dear friend Linda Hartzell, who’s retiring this year. Really, some of the remarkable things that have been done in Seattle theater over the last 30 years happened at Seattle Children's Theater. So I definitely think they are hugely important.
What do you look for in plays when putting together a season lineup at ACT?
I certainly look for new work. That's one of the major preoccupations that I have. But the other aspect to it is creating a variety of experiences for the audience. We tend to be an animal that likes various kinds of experiences and whose taste reflects the changeable nature of the world, so I hope that my seasons reflect that. Director Peter Brook says that tragedy is important, but we're not up to it all of the time. We need the healing experience of populist work and comedy, which is as important to us as those probing plays that create consciousness in us and get us to think differently about the world or think anew about the world.
So it's really looking for that combination of pieces that also matches what I think our community needs and is interested in. And it’s also about what the resources of the community can sustain, because we really are about Seattle. While we occasionally bring artists in from out of town, it's really a theater that's about our community, particularly about our community's patrons and artists. So what gets our artists in town to shine best?
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Apr 17–May 17, ACT Theatre, $20–$68