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Bringing 'An Iliad' to Life

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Bringing 'An Iliad' to Life

Lisa Peterson, Hans Altwies and Denis O’Hare of An Iliad. Comments artistic director Jerry Manning: "What they brough to the stage was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen."

© The Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Angela Mitchell: Jerry, what's your proudest moment in this job thus far?

Jerry Manning: I would have to say honestly, if I would pick one moment, it was I would say closing night of Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare’s An Iliad, which featured the magnificent Hans Altwies. It was the proudest moment for me on two or three fronts, because I agreed to do that play before a script even existed, a year well in advance, Lisa and Denis were working on it, so I went into it blind. Except for this – I have a twenty-year relationship with Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, and I knew what they were doing, and I trusted that. And what they brough to the stage was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.

I would add to that conversation testing one of Seattle’s leading actors, Hans Altwies, in the leading role. I recall Hans worrying about whether he could do this at first, and I said, "It's going to push you."

And by closing night, you couldn’t get a ticket, and people were mad for it and screaming approval at the curtain, and I just remember Hans at the curtain call. I could see him disarm himself, he looked so relieved and weary with pride and what we had all brought together.

So that was extraordinary for me. A situation where everyone was saying, ‘Okay, really, an adaptation of The Iliad? Where’s the script?’ And there wasn’t one. But I relied on my trust of those three artists and it worked, and it’s going to be done all over the country.

Angela Mitchell: It’s already in motion. It’s been fascinating to read about the other productions following your world premiere production, at McCarter Theatre, Portland Center Stage, and more.

In addition to An Iliad, what have been some of your favorite productions at the Seattle Rep to date, thus far?

Jerry Manning: This season, we closed recently on a production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, and it was one of the two or three best things I’ve ever seen at this theatre, it was directed by Allison Narver, and starred three extraordinary women.

I already cited last season’s production of An Iliad, a personal favorite of mine, and sort of going back through the years, Juliette Carrillo directed a production of Eduardo Machado’s The Cook that was thrilling. I always love Mary Zimmerman’s work and her production of The Secret in the Wings was a revelation to me. And to name one more, I was completely smitten with Stephen Wadsworth’s production of The Triumph of Love. Stephen is a grand master of theatrical staging, he’s just unparalleled.

Angela Mitchell: What's the most important thing to you, when assembling a support staff for a group like yours?

Jerry Manning: For me it’s kind of intuitive. I don’t know that I can describe a formula. I am someone who loves to laugh, and if someone doesn’t have a sense of humor, I just don’t even know how to talk to them. Let me put it this way -- I think many people can stage a play. But I’m most interested in people who are engaged in their community -- socially, politically, and artistically, and who have opinions about the great issues of our day. If you’re not aware of what’s going on in the world, then you have little to say.

And for number two on the list, this is where intuition comes in -- I can smell passion a mile away. Passion is a necessary precondition. Doing theatre is not like other work. People do this because they have to, because their passion overrides their rationality.

So I look for people who have a sense of humor, and I always look for the unconventional take, someone who thinks about things differently than anybody else. How do you mark these things? I don’t know, I just know it when I see it, and I’ve been really successful thus far. I can think back over the twenty or so interns I engaged over the years, and one has now been a Senior Vice President for casting at NBC, another is at Comedy Central. I know how to find and pick people with passion, and I also stay in touch with them, it’s important to me.

Angela Mitchell: Meanwhile, how do you work to differentiate yourselves, as far as branding, marketing, and promotion?

Jerry Manning: Hmm… The Rep has a very idiosyncratic style of adapting novels for the stage – an aggressive eclecticism. We’re not going to just produce one thing, whether it’s Shakespeare, adaptations, musical theatre, et cetera. This company (which is just about to be 50 years old) has the wherewithal to do all of it.

We’re very lucky here, in that we have two and a half spaces, so that one theatre favors a certain kind of work, and another favors another, so we’re able to mix it up. We’re aggressively eclectic, and we do anything we can and will do. And we do excellent work. That’s what it comes down to and that’s what we promote.

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