August 20, 2013

Barry Witham chronicles rustic repertory in new book, ‘A Sustainable Theatre’

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"A Sustainable Theatre: Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow" by Barry Witham, UW professor of dramaBarry Witham is a professor emeritus in the University of Washington School of Drama and author of the new book, “A Sustainable Theatre: Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow.” He answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.

Q: What’s the concept behind this book?

A: Doing an earlier book on the Federal Theatre Project I kept running across references to Jasper Deeter and I was intrigued by the praise and by the lack of information. So after retiring, I had some time to explore his career at Hedgerow, which he founded in the 1920s, and I was struck by his vision and accomplishments.

It was audacious to found a theater literally in the woods that became a beacon for all the causes that we found ennobling in the 20th century: Equal rights for blacks and minorities, freedom to challenge violence and military conscription, sensitivity to the environment and sustainability, and devotion to the notion that the theater can be about ideas and not just for making money.

Truth and beauty were not just buzz words at Hedgerow but part of a lifestyle that empowered them for 30 years of continuous production and established them as America’s most important repertory theater.

Q: You write that Hedgerow played in repertory fashion. What exactly is meant by repertory, in this context?

A: Repertory is a method of production whereby a company of actors is hired to perform a variety of roles in productions that alternate nightly. It was the way most theaters operated until the mid-19th century when the “starring system” and the popularity of “long runs” forced them to abandon repertory or modify it into weekly changes of fare. Deeter wanted to restore true repertory with its invitation to “come any night.”

Barry Witham, UW drama professor emeritus

Barry Witham

Q: How many plays were in active rotation at once? And what was the benefit of the repertory format to the theater and its audience?

A: Deeter liked to add three to five new titles each year so they kept 18 to 20 in the active repertory. He believed that repertory stretched acting ability and hence was the best training, and for audiences it provided variety and exposure to many more plays.   

Q: Deeter believed repertory was “the only model of theater that will allow the actor to grow and discover.” Why?

A: He believed that acting only the “type” that you are was not challenging to performers. He wanted actors to embrace a variety of roles so that they could develop a tool box of skills.

Q: Deeter called Hedgerow the only “rooted growth” theater in the nation. What did he mean?

A: It meant a lot of things to him. He wanted the theater to be rooted in its environment. That meant respect for the natural world as well as a sensitivity to how climate and given circumstances of the material world affected acting choices.

He also wanted his theater to exist in harmony with rural America and for his company to live when possible off the land. He wanted to encourage local actors to participate and become part of a local “company” which would sustain their livelihood in the community. A lot of this sounds very utopian but he did make it work for a long time.

 Q: What was the Hedgerow Theatre’s connection to the arts and crafts movement, and how did that affect its work?

A: I think the major influence — other than sculptor Wharton Esherick‘s presence — was devotion to the idea that “honest labor is its own reward” and that the making of theater can be an honest career choice and not a way to accumulate wealth and material objects.

Q: What has the Hedgerow Theatre’s legacy been for regional theater in the United States?

A: I think they demonstrated that repertory could still work. Most of the 1960 regional companies from The Guthrie to the Seattle Rep were founded as “repertory endeavors.” Unfortunately, the economics of 20th century production could not sustain true repertory work.

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