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Looking Back on the Role of a Lifetime

Sarah Nash Gates has had a career full of drama. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gates has been executive director of the School of Drama for two decades, leading the school through building renovations, collaborations with other UW arts units, and the establishment of a volunteer board. She has weathered difficult budget crises and has witnessed students’ talents soar at more than 180 School of Drama performances.

As Gates prepares to retire in June, she answers a few questions about the challenges and triumphs of her leadership role.

You came to the UW as an assistant professor of costume design. How did you become interested in that field?
I joined the drama club in high school and picked the costume committee because I knew my mother would bail me out if I got in over my head. During my senior year, the drama teacher commented that I was “so artistic.” This was not anything I had ever heard in my life. I really started to get into the idea of telling something about people and the world they live in by what they wear. I don’t know why I respond to costuming this way, except you just find your calling.

How did your appointment as executive director of the School of Drama come about?
At the time, I was serving as the first female president of U.S. Institute for Theater Technology (USITT). In that role, I discovered that I really enjoyed facilitating things for other people and trying to make systems work to serve a purpose. My USITT term ended just as the School of Drama was looking to fill the director position. I felt it was a little early for me to take on that role, but I was just about the only person who had any interest in it. Most of my colleagues were saying, ‘We’re so glad you want to do it and we don’t have to.’

You’ve had many accomplishments during your two decades of leadership. Which tops the list for you?
Absolutely, the Jones Playhouse renovation. It had been a dreadful theater, with all sorts of problems. The State was providing funds for renovating University of Washington buildings, and the Playhouse Theatre was on the list. But the project was only budgeted to bring the building up to code, not to improve it. I decided it was just stupid to merely bring it up to code. I saw an opportunity to make it better.

An expensive opportunity, which could not be realized without private support.
Yes. Fortunately, I knew that Floyd Jones was a big supporter of the arts, education and liberal political values. In the 1930s, the Playhouse Theatre had been the home of what was known as a Negro Theater Unit, and I felt certain that the theater’s history would speak to Floyd’s sense of the way the world should be. And I was right. His major gift made all the difference. The renovated theater is lovely now and works really well.

Another big project was the renovation of the School of Drama’s design wing. Why was that needed?
Most of the graduate design facilities were located on the other side of campus in a space shared with the West Campus custodial hub, far from the School of Drama’s Hutchinson Hall. And the facilities were awful. The worst was the light lab, where lighting design students hang lighting instruments and practice what they would do in a theater. That lab was housed in a tiny, tiny room. We finally had an opportunity to address the problem when the University wanted to build a new dorm in that West Campus location. Dean Bob Stacey was able to convince the University that closing the old pool in Hutchinson Hall—a pool that was costing the UW a lot of money–could free up space for much-needed academic design facilities. We were able to create faculty offices, a computer lab, a graduate design studio, a beautiful light lab, a student lounge and a classroom.

Beyond bricks and mortar, you shepherded a groundbreaking production of All Powers Necessary and Convenient, about the Canwell “un-American activities” Hearings in Washington state during the McCarthy era.
My colleague and friend [and UW drama professor] Mark Jenkins wrote the play, and I felt it was an important story to be told. It deals with political and social issues that directly affected the University of Washington and Seattle. It seemed to me that if we want to be relevant to our community, we should make theater about our community. It was a big cast—almost two dozen people—which is larger than almost any theater in town could afford to do. Being at a university, there was an opportunity to collaborate with other UW units—the Law School, the Libraries, the History Department, and the Center for Labor Studies—and have access to additional resources.

How was the play received?
It got national attention, and a lot of attention locally. And the play has been revived twice as a reading, because people want to see and hear it again. Also, some of the families involved with the Canwell Hearings mentioned that it really gave them a sense of closure that they had not had.

The School has weathered some difficult times, most notably during the recent budget crisis. How has that affected School of Drama programs?
With the recession, we lost money in our scholarship endowments and the University cut back on teaching assistantships. Those are the two ways you fund graduate students. So we reduced the number of students we would have, and also decided that we would skip accepting graduate students for a year. We had a plan that we were going to recruit two years in a row, then skip a year, recruit for two years again, then skip a year again. Fortunately, the stock market picked up and we only had to skip one recruitment year. But the size of each class is still half what it once was. When I took over we had twelve actors in each class of the three-year Professional Actor Training Program. Now we have six actors in a class. We’re about as small as we can be and still have critical mass and have our programs make any sense.

Private support has become increasingly important at the UW. Can you talk about the School’s relationship with its donors?
As executive director, I established the School of Drama Advisory Board. Its 24 members have become a real team of supporters and friends of the School. They are not only donors but they come to the plays, and to smaller productions we do in the building at the end of each quarter, and they get to know the students. The students and faculty know that there are people out there who care. It really means a lot. With the board’s help, we’ve built a fundraising organization. We just plain can’t do this without that private support. And it’s not just about major gifts. It’s really cool when you get a first small gift from a former student. Sometimes it’s just $15. And then maybe the next gift is $25. Those gifts mean a lot. They mean the student had a really good experience here, and that’s what we’re all working for.

A lot of those students go on to careers unrelated to drama. With all the concern about choosing a major that will lead to a lucrative job, do you think drama prepares students well?
I think drama is a great major. You learn to think and you learn to work with other people. You have to work with other people. The world of drama is all about collaboration and being imaginative—that’s what we do day in and day out. And we do it on a schedule. In a lot of fields, you work on a project and you push back the rollout repeatedly. We can’t do that. The curtain goes up and we’re opening. So our students come out with a lot of firsthand experience of how to work with other people on a project and how to be creative about it.

Your retirement is official on July 31, 2014. What’s at the top of your to-do list once you step down?
When I took on the executive director role, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do much costume design work, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to do any. In the past ten years, I’ve only been able to work on about one show every two or three years, so I’m eager to take on more design work. I did Oliver last year for The 5th Avenue Theatre and they’ve asked me to do Carousel next winter. I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll also continue to teach the Western Dress course for the School of Drama.

You sound very ready for this next chapter to begin.
I’ve felt for a while that it was time to retire. I want to do other things, and I believe that the School will benefit from fresh eyes, a fresh sensibility, a fresh everything. I probably would have stepped down two years ago, but it just didn’t feel right to leave during the budget crisis, especially when the University has been very good to me all these years. I was entrusted with this responsibility, and I needed to make sure it was handed off safely. Now I’m excited to see what happens next—both in my life and in the School of Drama.

In honor of Sarah Nash Gates’ retirement and her legacy, the School of Drama has established the Sarah Nash Gates Endowed Graduate Student Support Fund at the University of Washington. Gifts to this fund will support graduate students in acting, directing, design, theatre history, and criticism and will help the School recruit outstanding candidates into its graduate programs. Gifts to the fund can be made online or by phone (877-894-4387).

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