RIP, Edie Whitsett
Seattle Theater Loses One of Its Great Talents
Stranger readers will recall the name Edie Whitsett from September's Genius issue, where the renowned scenic artist and designer was short-listed for the Genius Award in theater. As I wrote then, "Edie Whitsett is that rare and wonderful thing: a world-class theater artist who's stayed deeply engaged with her profession while remaining in Seattle." Whitsett's scenic painting and design have drawn national acclaim, and her 30 years working in Seattle scene shops have made her an unusually beloved figure. Aside from being a top-tier artist herself, Whitsett had an unerring flair for managing and guiding other artists—her bone-deep love for the work brought out the best in everyone around her.
Last week, after an extended battle with cancer, Edie Whitsett passed away. But she left behind two lovely opportunities to see her work on Seattle stages.
Whitsett's skill as a scenic artist is evident in Nutcracker at Pacific Northwest Ballet, which premiered in 1983 with design by Maurice Sendak. At this time, Whitsett was one of PNB's scenic artists, part of the crew that worked closely with Sendak to bring his vision to life both onstage and in a 1986 film adaptation. The gorgeous results have lit up PNB every year since. (Spoiler alert: It's about a little girl who spends Christmas Eve dreaming about a rat—which makes the plot sound way more interesting than it is. But the music, dance, and scenery are gorgeous.)
Specifics on the greatness of Whitsett's scenic painting come from one of her most high-profile champions, Ming Cho Lee, the American theater legend/Yale School of Drama professor who spoke to me on the phone from New York City. His first show with Whitsett was 1987's The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet at PNB, where he "immediately identified Edie as the unusually gifted painter of the group. Where you can tell if a scenic artist is a good artist is when you have a backdrop that involves a lot of figurative painting. People who've strictly learned scenic painting know all the techniques—marbleizing, wood-graining, architecture—but when it comes to drawing people, they fall apart. For Romeo and Juliet, we had a backdrop with a lot of human figures, and [PNB] didn't think Seattle had artists who could do it, so it was farmed out to a well-known scenic painter in Canada. We spent a lot of money to have it painted by this famous scenic artist, and he did a wretched job. We were at a loss of what to do, and someone suggested Edie as a person to correct it. And she corrected it! It was remarkable. She can paint things in all periods and styles, and it will be better than anyone else can do it."
Soon, Whitsett's talents were used not just for correction but for inspiration: "After Edie became [PNB's] head scenic painter, I really looked forward to working with them," says Lee. "Because you didn't have to do all abstract design—you could really design a show, with detail and figures, and know there's someone who can actually do it. That was Edie."
More recently, Whitsett devoted herself to three-dimensional work, serving as properties manager at Seattle Children's Theatre (where awesome props are a must) and maintaining her extensive, immaculate collection of collections (everything from 1940s percolator tops to all things tiki; Edie's taste in Things is as well-known as her painting). The current SCT production, A Year with Frog and Toad, is as perfect a representation of the Whitsett aesthetic as you could hope for. Based on Arnold Lobel's easy-reader children's books, A Year with Frog and Toad is an utterly charming musical tricked out with simple and lovely theater magic. In lieu of cartoonishly representational costumes, Frog and Toad are simply two guys in old-timey suits. But between the careful work of costume designer Deb Trout (who outfits each lead with a silhouette that hints at his species) and the careful work of actors Auston James and MJ Sieber (whose demeanors and mannerisms also hint at their species), Frog and Toad comes to simple, charming life. (That the show is easily read as a parable about gay marriage only makes it sweeter.) Vintage bits of Edie Whitsett light up the set, from Frog and Toad's refinished antique mailboxes to their perfectly appointed easy chairs to the matched pair of Staffordshire frogs on the fireplace mantle.
"A great thing about Edie is that she was happy in Seattle, because it's a wonderful city to be happy in," says Lee. "You never worried that someday you'd see her in New York, painting some miserable Broadway thing. You never felt like you were going to lose her, because she had such a wonderful life here."