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In 1936, a joint effort between the Washington State Department of Education, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Seattle Repertory Playhouse created the Washington State Theatre. The first of its kind in the nation, its founders conceived and operated the theater as an integral part of the state school system. The Department of Education provided the supervision, a $35,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation provided the funding, and Florence and Burton James, the controversial pioneers of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, along with their close friend and Playhouse colleague Albert Ottenheimer operated the touring company. It would tour for three seasons.
Behind the motivating vision of the WST resided some very categorical cultural, social and political goals. Ottenheimer emphasized a close complementary relationship between theater and education, and the importance of both in the fight against fascism. The Jameses shared this opinion. “To put it bluntly,” Burton claimed, “the race today is between education and death.” Florence viewed the WST as a crucial step in stripping away the age-old isolation of the stage as “an institution preeminently for the production of money and the dispensing of entertainment. . . . The theatre’s potential resources which had either lain fallow or had been prostituted to speculative ends, now moves forward to its proper position.” Stanley Atwood, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, concurred, and strongly emphasized his department’s commitment to utilize the WST as an instrument of instruction. Florence ardently hoped to integrate the new “theatre in education” with literature, history, biography, fiction, the social sciences, the natural sciences, music and architecture. “With the press, the radio and the screen practically impervious to scientific educational suggestions, only the theatre remains ready to our purpose,” she avowed.
Members of the company received a monthly $75 paycheck. During the raw-boned years of the Depression, the amount of the check was ample and its regularity a boon. Touring, however, proved arduous. “You can always tell how long a man’s been traveling by how bad his digestion is--or rather how bad his indigestion is,” Ottenheimer noted wryly to an amused school assembly. Scheduling the plays required exacting navigation around numerous time conflicts among participating schools. By the time the company disbanded, it had made five 3,000 mile circuits around the state. Among the staged works were Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Comedy of Errors,” Talbot Jennings' "No More Frontier," and Benjamin Kaye's "On Stage." HISTORY (cont.)
In the first season alone, 70,000 students from all areas of the state attended WST performances. In order to accentuate its pedagogical role, Ottenheimer would preview each play with the high school and devise study plans with the English department built around the performance. The actors remained on stage after the final curtain, talking with the students and fielding questions. Not all students did attend, however. Even though a WST promotional flyer promised to bring “always the finest living drama staged originally and brilliant AT PRICES YOU CAN AFFORD [caps in original],” with a 27¢ student admission charge, many parents--at a time when the state’s minimum weekly wage for women was only $14.50 a week-- either could not or would not pay to send their children. One educator from Spokane’s John Rogers High School questioned whether the WST should stage plays during school time since not all his students could afford the admission charge. An English teacher noted to the Jameses that she had to do “an oral job in class to let the less fortunate know what they missed.”
Those who did attend wrote their reactions to the play; these reports became part of a survey study by Dr. Ralph Gundlach of the UW Psychology Department. Girls, he determined, were more appreciative and attentive than boys. He also made the similarly unsurprising discovery that the young spectators often reacted in ways which one would not expect from an adults. Moments of romantic tenderness on the stage often provoked guffaws from the audience, and scenes with elements unfamiliar to the children often caused them to lose interest and fidget. “The students turned out to be a strange audience,” he perceived. On occasion, there was a certain degree of mutual incomprehension between the company and its young audiences. One performance of “Comedy of Errors” garnered only a single laugh, and that was when an actor accidentally sent his sword pinwheeling into the audience after falling on his posterior during a dueling scene. The actors, however, did not necessarily understand the children better. One member of the company remarked that “most of the audience had never seen a live stage production before and some in the high schools felt moved to shoot paper clips, spitballs and other missiles at the actors to see if we were indeed real.” Clearly, the actor confounded the kids’ natural mischievousness for gross stupidity, apparently assuming the lack of previous exposure to the high culture of the stage equated somehow with imbecility. Despite the periodic misconceptions on both sides of the stage lights, the choice of plays indicates that overall the WST took the students and their power of discernment seriously, and the program did meet with a tremendous degree of success in favorably introducing Washington students to drama. When the opening curtain rose on a performance, on average only a quarter of the audience previously had witnessed a legitimate stage production. Of those students surveyed on their reactions to “The Taming of the Shrew,” 94% admitted that they enjoyed it and 90% declared that they had left the auditorium with a higher opinion of Shakespeare.
Teachers and school administrators embraced the WST warmly. “It cultivates taste and wholesome critical attitudes,” one educator enthused. Another praised the program because it provided “our only opportunity in Aberdeen” to see a play. A teacher even lamented the limited scope of the program, noting ruefully that the interest in the theater generated by the WST evaporates because there is nothing else to satisfy the student’s new-found appetite. When asked on a questionnaire after the first season whether or not the WST should continue, the response was a hearty, all-but-unanimous “yes.” One administrator from Olympia qualified his support by saying it should continue long enough to determine if its value justifies its cost. A principal from North Central High School in Spokane ardently endorsed the WST, hoping that the success of the program would insure its continuation, but cautioned vaguely to “keep away from problem plays.” The sole “no” as to whether the WST should continue came from an administrator in Everett, who did not like the idea of a state-funded theatre (which in fact it then was not), but said he would embrace it as a private venture. “With a small cast, little equipment and lower admission fees, it probably should be self-supporting,” he reasoned. The support of the overwhelming majority, however, was unqualified.
After touring for three seasons, the company had exhausted the Rockefeller grant, given originally with the expectation that the state would pick up the funding. But, because of the stark fiscal realities of the Depression, state officials decided not to devote sparse public resources on the continuation of the program. The brief experiment ended.
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