Last week, Jerry Manning—artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre and longtime member of Seattle's theater community—passed away after complications arose following a routine heart procedure. At the Rep, he distinguished himself by navigating a large, nationally prestigious institution while swinging hard for the careers of local actors. In an interview last fall, he told me that when he first came to the Rep, "This city was hemorrhaging its best and brightest." He made it his work to change that. Of all the directors and casting directors in town, he's the one I saw most often in theater lobbies and theater bars.
He was also remarkably—sometimes shockingly—candid, both merry and melancholy in his honesty about how he, and the rest of us, should be doing better. And he was a master politician, able to deal with the most abrasive theater-world personalities with aplomb. Sometimes one got the sense he even took an impish glee in absorbing other people's drama so they could get back to the more important business of making theater. Soon after Jerry passed away, a local actor read me an e-mail Jerry had sent him after a dustup involving an immensely talented—and immensely difficult—director who was working at the Rep: "I just spent three hours scraping [redacted] off the ceiling. Like the Sin Eaters in old timey Ireland, I am hired to eat the bread set upon the corpse and thereby consume the sins of the dead, freeing them to the Pearly Gates."
Braden Abraham, associate artistic director at Seattle Repertory Theatre: We met in 2002 when I interviewed to be his intern—I went in thinking I really wanted the literary internship, but Jerry was the casting director. The first thing I said to him was, "The internship I really want is the other one." He said, "That's fine, just let me tell you a little bit about what I do." At the end of the conversation, I thought, "I don't care what I do here, but I want to be with this guy."
One of the first stories he told me was about showing up at New York Theatre Workshop, and the first two plays on his desk were Quills and Rent. [Both had their world premieres at NYTW.] And what a messy, hard, and brilliant process that was, working on them. It gave me a sense of the grit and determination and the sense of family that putting a show together requires. That's what locked me in with Jerry. If you're with him, you're family, and he's going to be an advocate for you and fight for you.
He knew how to look for talent in unlikely places—little towns, regions, hole-in-the-wall theaters. He was always looking for people who were slightly off-center, and he would say, "You're amazing where you are, but you should also be at the big stage—you have what it takes and you should be over here." He brought so many people to the Rep for the first time: Chuck Leggett, Marya Sea Kaminski, Stephen Hando. There aren't many people like him around in our business. Our business encourages specialty now—you need to be a director, an actor, an arts administrator. And that's not the spirit of theater. You should know how to do many things. You need to collaborate with people. You should be messier. If I was working on a particular moment or scene, he'd always push me to go further than my choices. If I thought I had an edge on something, and the audience was stunned and silent, I could sometimes hear him in the back row with his mischievous laugh. And that's how I could tell it was working.
Charles Leggett, actor: Did you ever hear his little chuckle? It was a cross between a chuckle and a snort. It was sudden and loud and brief. I think the way people laugh is revealing. His laugh was an expression of knowledge and understanding, in a sort of perverse way. Not "Oh, yes, hmm, I understand," but more "Yeah, I know that bullshit."
He definitely had a skin as thick at any given moment as he needed it to be. A person can be a very special leader if they have an intimate experience with death. That fucker held off HIV for 30 years, and he spent those 30 years and more in what I can only imagine as high-stress jobs in the theater. He wrote me once about five people he knew dying in one week. He watched how many people he knew die? And still, to soldier on, not with any sort of Pollyanna-ish good humor, but optimism. If it was a jaded optimism, it was still optimism. Because of all that experience he had, he was a person who did not have a lot of delusions about life. If he had, they had been peeled away. I think that put him in a unique position to lead.
Gretchen Krich, actor: I auditioned for him in New York, maybe 15 or 20 years ago. When I moved to Seattle, I called the casting directors, went to his office, and handed him my picture and résumé. He kind of looked at it and said, "You know, I've seen everything you've ever done in New York City." Things were on his radar that you didn't even know were on his radar. He was a complete advocate for the actor and wanted us to do really, really well. I bet you could ask any actor in town who's auditioned for him—it was not scary. You could see him being moved, or laughing, or crying based on someone's interpretation of the material. You don't always see that. Sometimes people just eat a sandwich.
We became very close. But it's a delicate relationship, actor and casting director! There was this unspoken agreement that there were going to be boundaries, we'd figure them out real quick, and be respectful. He hated the phone calls to my house saying, "Well, no, we've decided to go another way." I hated those conversations, too. But I never blamed him. He loved actors—he'd very often be in awe of actors and what they do.
He was a fiercely private, private man. To be invited into the inner sanctum was an honor and a pleasure. I'd say, "Hey, what are you doing after work? Want to come over?" And he'd show up with flowers and a bottle of Belvedere, and we'd just talk.
Laurence Ballard, actor and professor: Performing-arts institutions all around the country have found themselves in a weirdly flattened fiscal landscape for more than 15 years. The dot-com bubble, 9/11, two wars, a real-estate bubble, and a major recession each took their successive toll on everything from endowments to corporate largesse to the cost of plywood. In this latest economic environment, they were suddenly forced to "discover" the breadth and depth of their local acting pool. (Out-of-towners require housing, furnishings, transportation, etc. I know. For the better part of 20 years, I lived out of a suitcase.) Jerry had quietly watched, observed, and noted the local scene for several years, making lists, checking them twice. When his opportunity came, he was ready. He was on the side of the angels before it was necessary.
Gary Phillips, Jerry's lifelong friend: He did the same thing when he was casting director at Arena Stage [in Washington, DC]. Most nights of the week, he was out because he felt like it was his responsibility to see every actor. He probably related to them because he was not a person who went to Yale drama school or NYU—he had worked his way up from nothing in the theater world, and understood there were lots of people out there who were talented but not well-recognized. And he identified with them, because he depended himself on being recognized for his talent instead of his credentials.
Erin Kraft, casting director at Seattle Repertory Theatre: Jerry used to drop people with his backstory—he was such a huge personality, you assumed he'd always been this way. He worked in DC. He dropped out of getting his master's at the University of Chicago in medieval history and alluded to some scandal everyone would be too discreet to ask about. He blogged on Daily Kos but never told anyone his nom de plume. He could burp the alphabet and then talk about Peter Brook for an hour. And the navy! He loved the idea that way before the days of "don't ask, don't tell," gay, gay Jerry would be walking around the city in his navy uniform. To him, that seemed like the gayest thing you could do, but he was still part of this macho, aggressive world.
I always told him I'd sew bells into his clothes, because he was the most elusive man in the theater. He was always out talking to people—he didn't do things over e-mail. For him, it wasn't only about the information. Or it was only loosely about the information. It was about knowing people. It was about relationships. And he realized that sometimes he just needed to go home and let people talk shit about him.
It's hard to talk about Jerry without talking about the interns. He's probably had two decades' worth of interns. He called them all "Jerry's kids." It was great to hear him talk about them—people would be doing wildly disparate things, in theater or not, and he was always so proud of the success they found. He knew that some people were terrible employees but fabulous people who'd be successful in other ways.
Jerry talked about Rent and being near Jonathan Larson while it was being created—he said there was one line that Jonathan asked if he could take from him. Jerry would ostentatiously say that which line was his secret. But the night he passed away, one of his friends from the East Coast told us: "Reason says/I should've died three years ago." It's when one of the characters is talking about being HIV-positive and not knowing how to talk about that in a rational way. Jerry knew how lucky he was after so many of his friends never got that chance.
He's not a series of events to me. He's all the things I hear myself saying when I'm teaching my intern—or the knowledge that I wouldn't be who I am as a person in the world without him.
Justin Huertas, actor and author of Lizard Boy, which will premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in March 2015: I ended up a few years ago on a national tour for Spring Awakening. I played some concerts for 14/48 and New Voices. Jerry was in the audience for one of the shows, and he said, "Call me." If Jerry says "Call me," you call him! He said, "While you're on tour, every day write a journal entry and send it to Andrea" [Andrea Allen, a Rep-affiliated director who passed away in 2012]. It ranged from everything: "I hate this tour because it's like high school and I hated high school" or "I like to get to know a new city through food, but all these new cities have some specialty that's meat and potatoes, and now I'm getting fat." Andrea asked me to write my coming-out story, but it was boring—I came out my sophomore and junior year, and everyone said, "We already knew that"—so I spiced up the story with the idea that I had lizard skin and just wanted to fit in. That really resonated with Jerry. He noticed in my journal entries that I talk about comic books. One day, I came in and he said, "Hey, as we're warming up to this idea, I want to show you these." He pulls out a grocery bag and dumps 100 issues of Fantastic Four and other comic books, like from the '60s, still in plastic, on the coffee table. He said, "Here are some comic books I own, take a look." I said, "I don't want to touch these—they look so expensive!" He said, "Draw the Lizard Boy character and write a scene about him." So every week, I'd come in with a different drawing and scene. It felt like I was in a master class for playwriting, but in a class for comic-book lovers.
I was always caught off guard by the amount of confidence he had in me. So Lizard Boy has to be amazing. It has to be a show Jerry and Andrea would be proud of.
Debbie Killinger, board member at Seattle Repertory Theatre: Everybody you will talk to was Jerry's best friend. When he was with you, he was talking to you—he wasn't on his phone, being interrupted, and you knew he was listening to you. There were people who Jerry helped that nobody knew about, people with substance problems and other problems. He had a lot of very loyal people and he earned their loyalty. I talked to him the day before he went into surgery. I said: "You've put together a really good team, you have people you really trust—the sign of a good leader of an organization is that he can leave for a while and it runs fine. You trust these people you've put together, and they know what to do." He said: "I know that, which is why I'm able to put the Rep away for a while." He told me at one point that he wanted to end his career here, with these people. Unfortunately, he did end it here—but it ended too soon.