ACT–A Contemporary Theatre opened in the summer of 1965 in a former community hall at the base of Queen Anne Hill and has since become one of Seattle’s most popular and artistically adventurous theaters. It was the brainchild of Gregory A. Falls (1922-1997), head of the University of Washington’s theater department. Falls believed Seattle needed an alternative to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which emphasized the classics. The opening 1965 season included provocative works by Arthur Kopit and Tennessee Williams and drew loyal audiences. The theater continued to thrive with plays that addressed racial, political, and cultural themes while also staging mainstream shows such as The Fantasticks.In 1976, the theater inaugurated an annual Seattle holiday tradition with Falls’s own adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which has continued every holiday season since. Over the decades, ACT outgrew its Queen Anne space and in 1996 moved to a new $30 million, multi-venue space in downtown Seattle in the former Eagles Auditorium. ACT has survived several financial crises and remains one of Seattle’s key cultural institutions.The Plays of Our TimesGregory Falls arrived in Seattle in 1961 to become the director of the University of Washington’s School of Drama. He had done previous stints at Ohio’s Mad Anthony Players, the University of Vermont’s drama program, and the Champlain Shakespeare Festival. In 1965, he looked around Seattle’s professional theater scene and saw that the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s emphasis was on the classics. He became convinced that Seattle needed a theater that reflected the artistic and theatrical ferment of the 1960s. It was the era of provocative playwrights such as Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter.“Our theater concerns itself with the plays of our times,” Falls said in an early interview. “We believe that the Puget Sound area should have the opportunity to see the plays which are being seen and discussed now in other metropolitan centers around the world. Our play selection is not concerned with whether a play will become great literature, or even whether we like it personally. If theater reflects the many ideas and attitudes of its time, then it serves an important and dynamic cultural function. This, we believe is the reason for A Contemporary Theatre” (McCloy).The idea was to create theater that, as one early actor put it, “walks right up and demands (your) attention” (McCloy). Falls also had one other motive. He wanted to provide a way for graduates of his University of Washington drama program to stay in Seattle, pursue their art, and make a living.After Falls dreamed up the concept, he and the other ACT pioneers — including his wife, actor Jean Burch Falls — began searching for a building. They found it in an unused space called Queen Anne Hall, at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, at 1st Avenue and Roy Street (709 W 1st, in the numbering parlance of the day). They turned it into a thrust-stage configuration, which meant it had seating on three sides. At 420 seats, it was an intimate space in which the actors and audience were never far apart. The Seattle Times, in its first review, called it “a little gem in design” (Baker). Falls also introduced some ’60s informality into the theater-going experience. There was no dress code. Patrons could wear jeans if they wanted. Falls wanted to get away from the established notion that theater had to be a dress-up occasion.Oh, Dad, Poor Dad …The new theater was also intended to fill another niche: summer theater. Seattle had little in the way of live theater in what was traditionally considered the theatrical off-season, so Falls decided to mount a five-play summer-stock season in 1965. For the first play, Falls chose a show that epitomized the ACT’s direction: Arthur Kopit’s comedy, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. It was an absurdist comedy that also satirized other absurdist comedies. Kopit himself subtitled it “a pseudoclassical tragifarce in a bastard French tradition.” It was only three years old, it was irreverent, it was a bit avant-garde, and it was far from the typical Seattle theatrical fare. And on opening night, June 29, 1965, it also turned out to be a critical and popular hit.
“A capacity audience showed its appreciation of professionalism by calling the actors out for half a dozen curtain calls,” wrote Seattle Times critic Ed Baker. “Unseen, but sharing the applause, were Falls and his technical crew, who mounted some delicious staging effects” (Baker).