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Seattle Children's Theater Chief Reflects On A Lifetime Of Comedy And Tragedy

Linda Hartzell’s office at the Seattle Children’s Theater is packed with memorabilia. Photos of colleagues, friends and family clamor for space on the credenza behind her desk.

Hartzell’s happy to give details about these mementos, but she pauses when asked about a framed child’s drawing. 

It’s a picture of a rabbit, surrounded by books and other trappings of a living room.

This picture depicts the set of an SCT play called “Bunnicula,” a mystery that features a rabbit and other family pets. It was drawn by a young boy whose parents brought him to SCT to see the show.

“Apparently, this little boy was intelligent, but he had no language skills,” Hartzell explains. “What I have sitting in my office is this detailed colored drawing the little boy did after seeing 'Bunnicula' one time!”

Everything is accurate, including the titles of the books on the shelves and the ethnicities of the actors the boy saw onstage.

“The parents called us up and said, ‘We know he’s bright, we know he can learn! Thank you, thank you!’”

Hartzell can tell you many stories like this, gleaned over her three-decade tenure with the theater company.

Her first introduction to SCT was in 1977, when she answered an open call for acting auditions. “I was working an office job at Peter Pan Seafoods,” she recalls. “I was divorced and raising my little boy.”

Hartzell almost didn’t audition. But she got the job, and she’s been involved with Seattle Children’s Theater ever since.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The set of SCT's 'Bunnicula,' as recreated by a young audience member. This framed colored pencil drawing hangs in Linda Hartzell's office. The credit reads: 'Created by Nigel Thomas (age 11)'.", "fid": "125309", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201604/007.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman"}]]Many arts professionals can trace their passion for the performing arts to childhoods rich with visits to the theater, ballet or the symphony.

Hartzell wasn’t one of those kids.

“No, we never went to see theater,” she says. “My dad thought it was an elitist activity, and he didn’t feel comfortable.”

Hartzell’s father was a machinist. He was also an alcoholic. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Linda Hartzell, center, surrounded by the cast of the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice'", "fid": "125305", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201604/sct-sorcerersapprentice_183_copy_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Chris Bennion"}]]She says music and movies were her escape when things got tough at home. Hartzell remembers her father would tap dance in the kitchen, and her mother liked to sing.

She was captivated by the movies she’d watch on the family’s black and white television. Hartzell particularly loved the big MGM musicals and comedians like Lucille Ball.

“I learned early on there’s a very fine line between comedy and tragedy, and for me, going to the silly side is a coping mechanism.”

Although she sang and performed in high school plays and took drama classes in college, Hartzell never imagined a career in theater.

A former University of Washington friend hired her to direct her first play.

She laughs about that. “I know he asked 20 people [before me] and everyone said no. He was out of options. So he took a chance on me.”

The play was a hit. So was the next one she directed. “The third show, I got hired to direct at a theater called Skid Road Theater.” That show was called “Angry Housewives.”

To say it was a success is an understatement. “Angry Housewives” ran for eight years in Seattle and has been produced across the country. Hartzell’s theater career was firmly established.

By that time, Hartzell had taken a second job teaching drama at the private Lakeside School. When SCT’s artistic director suddenly quit, the parent of one of her students asked if she’d be interested in stepping in.

Hartzell took the job — and never left.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Linda Hartzell with Louis Sachar, author of 'Holes'", "fid": "125303", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201604/lh_and_louis_sachar_holes_before_a_speech_about_seattle_reads.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Seattle Children's Theater"}]]One of Hartzell’s main artistic missions has been to produce shows that give her young audiences a sense of possibility when life seems bleak.

“There needs to be positive role modeling, some characters who are getting through bad times and knowing things can and will get better,” Hartzell believes.

It’s a mission that stems from Hartzell’s own childhood, where art was her lifeline.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Groundbreaking for SCT's Charlotte Martin Theater at the Seattle Center, 1992. Hartzell is second from left.", "fid": "125301", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201604/cmt_ground_breaking.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Seattle Children's Theater/Chris Bennion"}]]“It saved me as a kid. It saved me,” she says, simply. “I don’t want to get maudlin. There were many wonderful times at home. But there were many scary, sad times that I don’t think children should have to experience.”

This mission resonates with Hartzell’s old friend and colleague, Kurt Beattie, artistic director emeritus at ACT Theatre. He believes theater has always been about more than entertainment.

“It’s not only about theatricals and the magic of making it,” Beattie believes. “It’s also about us relating to each other and the responsibilities we have for each other. In that respect, she’s done a very profound thing.”

Hartzell hasn’t been afraid to tackle major social and political issues like racism, the Nazi Holocaust and terminal illness.

But Seattle Children’s Theater has a lighter side, too. Hartzell has commissioned more than 100 new plays for SCT, including adaptations of such classic children’s books as “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

During the 2015-2016 artistic season, more than 100,000 children and adults attended SCT, many on reduced price tickets. The theater presents 11 performances each week; five of those are school matinees. No tickets to these shows cost more than $12.

That’s important, according to Lisa Elliot, a kindergarten teacher at Seattle’s Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.

All Gatzert students qualify for free and reduced price lunches; most of them speak English as a second language.

Elliott says most of her students’ families couldn’t afford to attend performances without the scholarships that SCT provides.

Most recently, her kindergartners saw a performance of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Elliott says it was particularly exciting for her class. “Because the children actually sat on the stage and participated. They were wild things for about an hour and it was pretty great!”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Actors Allan Galli, right, as the Fish, and Chad Kelderman as The Cat rehearse for Seattle Children's Theater's production of 'The Cat in the Hat'", "fid": "125311", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201604/009.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman"}]]This may all sound ideal, but Hartzell’s tenure at Seattle Children’s Theater hasn’t been perfect.

The 2008 recession combined with the rise of digital entertainment alternatives hit SCT hard. Season subscribers dwindled and charitable contributions were harder to come by.

Hartzell was forced to lay off staff and trim production costs. But she remained committed to SCT’s subsidized ticket program.

[asset-images[{"caption": "SCT's Charlotte Martin Theater at Seattle Center opens to the public, September 20, 1993", "fid": "125307", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201604/cmt_opening.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Seattle Children's Theater"}]]Now that the theater is on more stable financial footing, Hartzell has decided, at age 68, she can step away from what has been an all-consuming occupation.

“Most of the time, I put my husband and son second, and I’m sad I did that,” she reflects.

Hartzell looks forward to spending time with them, reading novels and listening to music.

And even though she’s been the public face of Seattle Children’s Theater for most of its existence, Hartzell is confident the theater will thrive under new artistic leadership.

“They’re going to have somebody more organized, somebody who doesn’t lose their car keys!” she laughs. “Somebody with computer skills!”

And one day, she’ll be a regular audience member, waiting in the dark to laugh or cry, as another play unfolds.