Bradden Abraham.

SEATTLE: In a move that took the local arts community by surprise, Seattle Rep announced last week that artistic director Braden Abraham would step down in early 2023 to lead the Writers Theater in Chicago.

One reason the news was shocking: Abraham spent his entire professional career with Seattle Rep. A gracious, valued, and dedicated contributor to local and national artists and businesses, Abraham had recently signed a four-year extension from his contact Seattle Rep. when the opportunity to lead Writers Theater presented itself earlier this year. Despite the unexpected timing, Abraham told me this week that he was amicably parting ways with the Rep and simply pursuing a new artistic adventure in another important and very different theater community, which he had long admired, he said.

In a written statement, Seattle Rep Board Chair Nancy Ward said the board “gratefully celebrates Braden’s 20 years with the Seattle Rep and the diverse artistic excellence he has curated on our stages over the past eight years. We are excited about the next chapter in our artistic journey and have full confidence in a flourishing future as we pursue our vision of theater at the heart of public life.

In our interview, Abraham said, “There will never be a perfect time for me to leave this theater that I grew up in. This is an opportunity for me to do something new, having been here at Rep for so long. The mission of writers that places artists at the center is a mission that certainly speaks to me.

A Washington state native, Abraham first came to the Rep as a 25-year-old intern, having worked in Seattle’s then-vital fringe scene as he fresh out of the Western Washington theater program. University. At the end of the internship, he was hired as an artistic associate Rep. “I ran the new parts program under Jerry Manning and ran a few shows a year – it was a dream job for a young artist,” Abraham recalled.

When the highly respected Manning died suddenly in 2014 of an infection following routine heart surgery, Abraham, then 37, was abruptly thrust into the role of acting chief rep. A year later, the board, satisfied with the stability and ideas he brought to the company, promoted him to artistic director.

Abraham credits Manning, former Seattle rep Benjamin Moore, and David Esbjornson (who preceded Manning as art director) for “preparing me for this job in many ways. When Jerry died, it was terrible, hard personally and a great transition for the theater, a real shock. But I was set up because of my involvement in the leadership.

A strong track record of producing new and recent plays has been a hallmark of Abraham’s tenure at Rep. Working with companies such as La Jolla Playhouse, Goodman Theater and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he nurtured and presented early productions of Robert Schenkkan’s dramas about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (the Tony winner All the and its sequel, The big society), the musical hit of Broadway Come from afarand FannieSeattle playwright Cheryl L. West’s musical play about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, among other new works.

In 2021, Abraham launched 20×30, an ambitious program to commission 20 new coins by 2030, “inspired by the life of our moment”. The rep kicked off the project with commissions from Zora Howard, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Sylvia Khoury, Nathan Alan Davis, Amy Freed, Benjamin Benne and Larissa FastHorse. (The future of the project, says Abraham, rests with the next art director.)

Abraham also tackled modern classics in his own stagings of plays such as Treason, Glass factoryand a deeply moving version by Edward Albee Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? featuring brave performances from TV and stage star Pamela Reed and famed Seattle actor R. Hamilton Wright. As Abraham said, “I like to see how the past speaks to the present.”

Under his leadership, the Rep also took seriously a community-wide commitment to promoting cultural diversity on stage and behind the scenes. In 2016, he opened the theater to wider community participation by instituting the Public Works Summer Musicals Project, which involved Seattle-area social organizations and amateur arts groups.

“I was really looking forward to expanding the scope of theater, and how we were doing work, and who we were doing it for,” Abraham explained. “We were one of the first regional companies to borrow the model from the Public Works series of the Public Theater in New York. I just wanted to tie the theater more to the community and really reflect the breadth and depth of talent here.

After running a flagship, Tony-winning resident theater house with a current budget of $15 million and two proscenium houses to fill – the 678-seat Bagley Wright Theater and the 282-seat Leo K. Theater – Abraham insisted he relishes the chance to perform in the Writers Theater’s smaller, thrust-configured main stage and its flexible black box space. “I like the idea of ​​being able to work in the newly designed building,” he said. “He has an intimacy that really welcomes people and makes theater social and fun.” (The Writers Theater’s 2020 budget was approximately $8 million; it’s also worth noting that Abraham will succeed the Writers’ interim artistic director Bobby Kennedy, who stepped in after founding AD Michael Halberstam’s resignation in 2021 due to allegations of inappropriate conduct behind the scenes.)

Along with current Seattle Rep general manager Jeffrey Herrmann, Abraham has faced troubling financial shortfalls and other fiscal issues during his tenure. Although the rep has maintained a constant presence with online productions and events during the pandemic, and been supported by government arts funding when its stages were dark, the challenge of finding continued support in a city that has so much changed was increasingly difficult according to Abraham. While Seattle’s population has grown by more than 20% over the past decade, largely due to the explosion of the tech sector, the cost of living and maintaining theaters has also ballooned. Artists have struggled to stay in the area, and some small businesses have closed due to lack of affordable space and other resources.

Abraham expressed dismay that the city of Seattle recently cut its budget for the arts (citing a decrease in pandemic relief funding); Washington now ranks 47th among US states in arts funding. He also pointed out that with all the wealth being generated in the Puget Sound area’s tech sector, some big corporations and local moguls give little or, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, nothing to arts and culture organizations.

This disconnect stems from the fact that the arts are too often now seen as “market-based” commodities, Abraham a “luxury” rather than an essential piece of equipment that deserves to be encouraged and made widely accessible. Support is essential, he said, as it could take years for some of the city’s many newcomers to discover and start frequenting local cultural institutions. He confessed: “Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that we survived this long.”

The Rep not only survived; it remained solid and relevant. As Abraham advances and his theater prepares a search to replace him, he can take no pride in it. His final production is the first of the piece commissioned by Rep Mr. Dickens and the Christmas Carol. Adapted by Samantha Silva from her novel and developed and directed by Abraham, it takes place at the Seattle Rep from November 25 through December 25. 23.

Seattle-based critic Misha Berson (she/her) is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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