1919

The Legacy of Drama Professor Glenn Hughesfootnote 1


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The School of Drama at the University of Washington, catalyst for the development of so many of the theaters we enjoy today in the Pacific Northwest, has been at the forefront of theater education sin its founding in 1919 as an academic division in the UW English department. In recent years, the school has consistently ranked among the top three in the nation for its Masters of Fine Arts programs.footnote 2

Under the leadership of its first director, Glenn Hughes, the division flourished at a time when the study of drama at the university level was still experimental. Hughes fashioned the new drama program, then located in Denny Hall, after the mode of professional acting conservatories, with emphasis on practical aspects of theater training. Plays staged by the division were done in repertory, 52 weeks a year. Audiences flocked to the theaters, as the drama division quickly became a center of Seattle's burgeoning cultural life. Opening nights were black-tie and evening-gown affairs.

Hughes joined the UW faculty in 1919 after graduating from Stanford. He served as the executive director of the School from 1930 to 1960, where he wrote more than 60 plays as well as various literary and scholarly publications, and launched one of the West coast's first foreign film series.

[Hughes and the Penthouse Theater under construction]
  Glenn Hughes, with his wife Babette, surveying the Penthouse Theater under construction

One of Hughes's experiments initiated in the early 1930s eventually led to the construction of the now famous Penthouse Theatre, the first theater-in-the-round constructed in the United States. The saga began in 1932, when Hughes began staging drawing-room comedies in the Penthouse suite of the Edmund Meany Hotel in Seattle. An audience of about 50 people, seated in chairs arranged in a circle around the stage, watched performances by Hughes's student troupe, the Penthouse Players. Hughes believed that this intimate setting plus a menu of lighthearted theatrical fare would appeal to audiences who were growing accustomed to the immediacy of the cinema.

After eight years of performing at the Meany Hotel and at other locations--always in the round--the Penthouse Players moved to a new facility: The Penthouse Theatre. Designed by Hughes and UW drama professor John Conway, the theater was built with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its Art-Deco style made innovative use of laminated plywood arches, designed by Sergius Sergev, professor of civil engineering, and manufactured on-site by WPA workers. When it opened in 1940 to national acclaim, the Penthouse joined the Showboat Theatre, a faux Mississippi steamer boat along the shore of Portage Bay, as crown jewels among Seattle's emerging cultural treasures. Today, the Penthouse Theatre on the UW campus "remains a first-rate and charming performance space," notes School of Drama Director Sarah Nash Gates.

By the 1940s, the division of drama had gained new standing in the University as the School of Drama, and many new faculty were being hired who would go on to have long and influential careers at the UW and in the arts community. Professor Agnes Haaga headed a new child drama program, which included puppetry classes taught by master puppeteer Aurora Valentinetti. Former New York stage director Donal Harrington taught a new class in directing, while Conway taught scenic and lighting design to generations of students--in the classroom, and by example. For 48 years, Conway's evocative and technically accomplished designs graced the University's stages, adding immeasurably to the School's reputation for professional-quality theater. James Crider, hired during this period to head the costume area, began cataloging the School's extensive collection of period costumes. Today, four rooms are needed to house the collection.

[The Penthouse Theatre]
The Penthouse Theatre

Under the leadership of Haaga and Geraldine Siks, the School's program in Creative Dramatics and Child Drama gained national recognition. The program, which continued until 1982, prepared many of today's leaders in the field of children's theater.

Three of the four leading children's theaters in the country are or were headed by UW alumni: Linda Hartzell, artistic director of the Seattle Children's Theatre (formerly the PONCHO Theatre); Pamela Sterling, artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth (then with the Idaho Children's Theatre); and Moses Goldberg, director of Stage One, Louisville Children's Theatre. Hartzell was honored with the 1994 Distinguished Achievement Award of the UW College of Arts and Sciences for her achievements in children's theater. This UW alumna (School of Drama, 1973) taught drama at Lakeside School and then assumed the post of artistic director of Seattle Children's Theatre in 1985. Under her tenure, the Theatre's audience has grown to more than 226,000 per year and subscriptions have increased from 3,200 to 13,200. The Seattle Children's Theatre is the second largest resident professional children's theater in the U.S..

The UW School of Drama played a seminal role in the diversification of Seattle's theater life. Founders and artistic directors of many of Seattle's leading and nationally acclaimed theaters were students or faculty at the School: Duncan Ross, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre (see W. Duncan Ross: Actor, Teacher, and Artistic Director of the Seattle Rep); Gregory Falls, founder and artistic director of A Contemporary Theatre (see Gregory A. Falls: Drama Director, Founder of ACT); Ruben Sierra, founder, and Tim Bond, artistic director, of The Group Theatre; M. Burke Walker, founder and artistic director of The Empty Space Theatre; Arne Zaslove, founder and artistic director of The Bathhouse Theatre; and Angus Bowmer, founder of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the largest nonprofit theater on the West Coast.

The School's roster of celebrity alumni spans generations: Frances Farmer and Ella Raines in the 1940s; Dawn Wells (Gilligan's Island) and Robert Culp (I Spy) in the 1950s and 1960s; and in recent years, Jean Smart (Designing Women), Patrick Duffy (Dallas, Step by Step), Pamela Reed (Kindergarten Cop, Cadillac Man, The Right Stuff), Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks, The Doors, Dune), Harry Groener (Cats, Crazy for You), Peg Phillips (Northern Exposure), and Richard Karn (Home Improvement).

The UW School of Drama today owes its place at the forefront of theater education to the legacy of its past. It has been ranked third in the nation for three years running by U.S. News & World Report for its Masters of Fine Arts programs.footnote 2 MFA students in acting, directing, and design have the opportunity to practice their craft by means of ten plays mounted annually at The Penthouse Theatre, The Playhouse Theatre, and The Studio Theatre; the series is attended by a total of approximately 15,500 people each year.

The School is home to two of the eight drama instructors in the U.S. who are authorized to teach the famous Suzuki methods, developed by noted Japanese theater artist Tadashi Suzuki. Drama professors Robyn Hunt and Steven Pearson have worked extensively in Japan with Suzuki, and they have made this specialized training part of the work done by both BA and graduate drama students at the UW. The Suzuki methods are "the first major innovation in actor training since the 1950s," notes Drama Director Sarah Nash Gates, adding that this training is available in the U.S. at only a handful of schools.


  1. Adapted from a history of the School of Drama by Denise Jarrett, Public Relations & Marketing, School of Drama, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, based in part on a thesis by Marilyn Bennett, The Glenn Hughes Years: 1927-1961.
  2. "Full House at Film School," U.S. News & World Report, Mar. 21, 1994.

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