W. Duncan Ross: Actor, Teacher, and Artistic Director of the Seattle Rep

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In academic circles and in theater communities, W. Duncan Ross was highly respected as one of the country's leading teachers and actors. The late Ross not only headed the acting program in the UW School of Drama from 1965 to 1975, leading the School's renowned Professional Actor Training Program with Arne Zaslove, but he also was a key figure in building up the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Ross is credited with helping to turn the Rep's fortunes around with a highly successful production of Richard II, featuring the Seattle debut of the well-known actor Richard Chamberlain in the title role.

Born in England, and trained there as an actor-director, Ross was recruited to the UW in 1965 by Greg Falls, then director of the UW School of Drama and founder of A Contemporary Theater (see Gregory A. Falls: Drama Director, Founder of ACT). Ross built up the acting program into a three-year professional training experience involving intensive work in acting, movement, voice, speech, as well as in special skills such as dialects, combat, fencing, and dance. He recruited students nationally, many of whom went on to become celebrities--for example, Jean Smart (Designing Women) and Harry Groener (Cats, Crazy for You).

In addition, Ross directed and acted in many productions at major theaters in Seattle. Ross left the UW in 1979 to become head of the School of Drama at the University of Southern California. He often was seen in television productions, appearing in shows such as Family Ties, Cheers, and Miami Vice, as well as in a series of televised dramas by Arthur Miller.

In 1971, while still at the UW, Ross became Artistic Director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Rep had opened in 1963 in one of the buildings at the Seattle Center left after the World's Fair. Originally housed at the Seattle Center Playhouse, the Rep began as a true repertory company, offering plays in rotation with a relatively large resident company of actors.

Ross joined the Rep at a critical point of the theater's evolution. It had been founded on the model of European theater, which eventually became outmoded for Seattle audiences. In a 1970 Seattle Times article, Ross was quoted as saying:

The assumptions on which the Rep was founded no longer reflect the interests of our times, and, indeed, were never properly applicable to the particular situation here.

When the Rep started, the Berliner Ensemble had captured the imagination of the theatrical world, and in America people were eager to adopt it as a model. Organizationally, such a theater was derived from the old state theaters of Europe, but artistically it represented the end of a movement, the socialist- expressionism of the twenties. The danger with such theatres is that they become museums of drama, anonymous, sober, and out of touch. Also, they only work well in a situation where a large transient population regularly provides their long- standing repertoires with fresh audiences. In Seattle, some 30 or so performances represent saturation.footnote 1

Indeed, theater reviewers of the time had been criticizing the Rep for its grey, aloof, cerebral quality, citing lackluster productions and elitist play selections. When Ross took over artistic direction, he was intent on turning the Rep into a more integral part of Seattle and engineered an array of dramatic changes. He offered a wide selection of more popular plays; cut the company's permanent staff and brought in guest artists, including actors, directors, and design staff; and he targeted the youth of the region in the theater's audience- building efforts. "The theater must respond to the great tides of change which the last decade has brought to the surface," said Ross. "Everywhere, in our fashions, music, films and theater, a new irreverent, comic spirit is evident. The theater will speak to this new mood, and not just with plays from the past. Unlike the state theatres of Europe, we cannot accept the role of a museum of drama." footnote 1

The Rep reached a turning point when it was able to book the actor Richard Chamberlain in Richard II. With that success, the Rep embarked on a financially prosperous decade that allowed it to build up its cash reserves and ultimately go to the voters in 1977 with a bond issue for the construction of a new theater: the Bagley Wright Theatre, which honors the Rep's first president. The new facility opened in 1983.

Today, the Seattle Repertory Theatre is one of the nation's largest and best- known resident and professional theaters. It has achieved international recognition for its high technical, production, and literary standards, including the 1990 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. The Rep attracts an average of nearly 20,000 season ticket holders each year, and serves an annual audience of some 250,000 people.

  1. "Rep Appoints Ross Managing Director," Wayne Johnson, Seattle Times, p. 1, cited in The Role of the Artistic Director in the History and Development of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, dissertation by Andrew Eli Longoria.

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