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Originally published Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 6:18 AM

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Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning: a critic’s appreciation

A celebration of the life of Jerry Manning, the artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, is Monday, June 2. Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson shares what made Manning’s life and career so memorable.


Seattle Times theater critic

CELEBRATION OF LIFE

Jerry Manning

6:30 p.m. Monday, June 2, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

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On Monday night, friends and colleagues of Jerry Manning will gather at Seattle Repertory Theatre to celebrate his life. Manning had faithfully guided the artistic course of Seattle Repertory Theatre since 2008, and made vital contributions to the institution for over a decade. He died on April 30 from complications after heart surgery. And his loss was a blow to the heart of the local theater community.

I will be there on June 2 — yes, as a journalist who closely covers the Rep for this newspaper, but also because I (like so many others) really appreciated the élan vital and admired the work ethics of Jerry, and witnessed how he enriched the Seattle arts scene with his presence.

The connection between critics and those who run theaters, especially in a close-knit arts community where the two can’t avoid each other, is inherently tricky, and sometimes adversarial. One’s job is to design and promote a theater’s artistic work, and the other’s role is to critique the work for public consumption.

There’s peril for both sides in getting too cozy in the relationship. But alternatively, remaining aloof can mean missing out on what one could learn from the other.

With Jerry, there was no wall of defenses to breach, no grudges held when we (inevitably) disagreed at times, no power maneuvering. He didn’t operate that way. His passion for theater, his intellectual vigor and inherent generosity and graciousness toward others helped me do my job, and helped him effect meaningful changes at the Rep, for local artists and audiences alike.

Some have suggested that Jerry was so well-loved because he never was gunning for the top job here, or anywhere. Before taking the reins and stabilizing the company, after the short tenure and abrupt departure of previous artistic director David Esbjornson, Jerry was a behind-the-scenes MVP — advising Esbjornson and previous Rep artistic head Sharon Ott on casting and literary matters. But he was also an avid cultivator of talent, a confidante and a booster.

He came to Seattle with great credits he didn’t flaunt: long stints at major East Coast theaters (Arena Stage, New York Theatre Workshop), casting gigs for big Hollywood movies (“Forrest Gump”). He also brought but didn’t tout substantial experience directing plays.

Everywhere he worked, Jerry had a superb eye for talent. He scouted smaller and fringe theaters, and promoted many worthy, up-and-coming actors to the Rep stage. To Jerry it was rewarding excellence, but also investing in the artistic capital of this city and making the Rep more of a truly Seattle institution.

Jerry also established an open communication channel with Rep patrons, and the press. I could ask him about anything, any time, which (trust me) isn’t so typical with heads of major arts organizations. Speaking on or off the record, he’d give it to me straight — even about the Rep’s finances, a constant concern.

Periodically, I would have lunch with Jerry (and, usually, his trusted protégé and associate Braden Abraham, who is now the Rep’s acting artistic director). I looked forward to those sessions at T.S. McHugh’s. Jerry was informative, but also such stimulating, delightful, wickedly funny company. We’d dish a bit, laugh a lot, talk openly about what was exciting and bothering us in the theater world.

At times I questioned Jerry hard, about his artistic choices: why revive musty Rep productions of “Sylvia” and “Inspecting Carol”? Why wasn’t the Rep debuting more new plays? Why so many small-cast shows?

Jerry’s answers were frank. He was an idealist, but also a pragmatist who balanced artistic desire with budgetary realities and box office demand.

But he kept faith with a larger vision, and gradually, doggedly was realizing his dream of commissioning, nurturing and launching meaningful new works by artists he believed in — like “An Iliad,” adapted by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, and “Pullman Porter Blues,” a musical by Seattle author Cheryl L. West, both of which went on to wider success. I didn’t always share his taste, but his respected his enthusiasm.

At our last lunch at T.S. McHugh’s in April, I’d never seen Jerry so happy. He was delighted with the Rep’s 2014-15 season lineup, and he was as excited about a first-break premiere of a rock opera by local artist Justin Huertas as he was about the first complete staging of Seattle author Robert Schenkkan’s two-part epic on the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

His upcoming operation to repair a congenital heart defect was, Jerry cheerfully assured me, a slam-dunk. It should have been, and would have been, if he had not contracted a deadly infection after fairly routine surgery. Jerry had weathered other health challenges, but this was a medical catastrophe that seemed so arbitrary, so unfair.

The Rep continues without him, and its identity under Abraham and new managing director Jeffrey Herrmann (who replaces retiring manager and devoted Manning ally, Benjamin Moore) is bound to shift and change. But Jerry’s spirit will linger — not just in future Rep projects and the institution, but in the many people he inspired and touched, who will miss him. That includes me.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com



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