Tuesday, October 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Robert Egan, ACT's new artistic director, knows Seattle well

Seattle Times theater critic

Robert Egan wants to put out the call: He's looking for a good place to live in Seattle.

"It could be an apartment, or half a house," says the divorced father of two sons — one a student at Hampshire College, the other a high-school senior considering University of Puget Sound. "I just want something with real charm in a great neighborhood."

Egan will relocate to Seattle early next year, to take up his new post as artistic director at ACT Theatre. He'll be leaving behind a life at the center of the theater whirl in Los Angeles, where he is producing director at the Mark Taper Forum, the city's largest, best-known resident company.

George Willoughby, co-chair of ACT's artistic director search committee, says Egan's old ties to Seattle (from 1980 to '84 he was associate director at Seattle Repertory) helped him win the ACT gig.

"That was a big factor," says Willoughby. "Bob knows Seattle ... I think he really feels he's returning to a place he likes. He understands what ACT is, and what he's coming to."

But Egan will return to a city, and theater, that are much-changed in the 18 years since he headed to Los Angeles.

Egan says he's kept in touch with many professional colleagues here, and is eager to check out what's new on the scene.

"I love Seattle, and I particularly love the acting community here," said Egan, at ACT yesterday to confer with staffers. "I have very fond memories of doing new plays here when I was at Rep, almost entirely with local actors."

Developing and premiering new scripts is, by all accounts, Egan's major theatrical passion.

"I know what it means to be eclectic, and the programming at ACT will continue to be that," he says. "But I'm very interested in plays that speak to the world we live in today, in complex and immediate ways. I'm interested in plays that reflect the social reality around us, because theater can create a unique kind of discourse."

Egan contends he wants to instill an "open door" policy at ACT. He will hold mass auditions to assess the current acting pool, and he will also try to familiarize himself with area writers and directors.

"A fundamental tragic mistake artistic directors make is to come into a new theater with a high level of hubris. I won't do that. And I'm interested in diversity of all kinds — class, race, sexual."

Egan won't be starting from scratch at ACT, though. He is friends with ACT's associate artistic director Kurt Beattie and producing director Vito Zingarelli.

And he has strong ties to many U.S. and English playwrights, including such writers of color as Chay Yew (artistic director of Northwest Asian American Theatre) and Luis Alfaro.

"Someone who will play a big part in my tenure here is (playwright) Jon Robin Baitz," he adds. "Robby was a very big supporter of me taking this job, and will probably become a major and integral force in the life of ACT."

As for ACT's budget (which at $6 million is about half the Taper's), Egan takes a proactive stance. Since moving into its new four-venue downtown theater complex in the old Eagles Building, the company has faced fiscal deficits and constraints. But Egan sees them as "a short-term as opposed to a long-term problem."

"I want to get out into the philanthropic community and raise more money. And create the kind of high-quality work that gives us high ticket sales.

"I'm not in the mode where I'm looking to systematically cut back the operation. I want to put us in an intelligent, well-crafted growth phase."

Egan, who signed a three-year initial contract with ACT, will also continue heading up the annual Ojai Playwrights Festival in California. But, as the Los Angeles Times reports, might he still be a candidate for the top job at the Taper, which head honcho Gordon Davidson plans to vacate in 2004?

Egan demurs. "I wouldn't be coming to ACT unless I wanted to make a commitment to be here and meet the challenges of this theater," he insists. "If I had wanted to leverage this job against a potential job in Los Angeles, I wouldn't be here today."

Misha Berson:


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