Jerry Manning, Artistic Director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, died on Wednesday night, shocking friends and colleagues on both coasts. Manning, during his time at Arena Stage in the late 1980s and into the mid 1990s, was a well-known, well-liked, and well-respected member of the DC theatre scene, who played a pivotal role at an important juncture in the development of DC theatre.
Manning, 58, had a history of medical challenges, including, according to The Seattle Times, a congenital heart problem, but his death was sudden and unexpected, described this way in a statement by Seattle Rep’s Managing Director Benjamin Moore: “Complications arose after Jerry underwent a routine procedure in March.” The statement continued, “As you can imagine, our staff and those close to us are in a state of shock as we wrap our heads around this news. Jerry was a force to be reckoned with at the Rep, equal parts collaborator and fearless leader. His biting sense of humor, irascible spirit, and sharp mind will be sorely missed by all who knew him.” (Incidentally, Seattle Rep had just hired Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann to succeed the retiring Moore.)
Manning left Arena Stage in 1995 to join his erstwhile colleague James Nicola, who had left Arena in the 1980s and had become Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop, where Rent and Once began life before heading to Broadway. Manning left for Seattle Rep in 2001. He rose from Associate Artistic Director overseeing casting and artist relations to become Producing Artistic Director in 2008, serving in an interim capacity during a search for a permanent leader of the company. In 2010, he was given the top job outright.
Manning’s career is unusual in that it is not often that someone rises through a theater’s ranks to become its leader. Generally, theaters choose among free-lance directors, associate directors, resident directors. It is rare that the path to leading a major theatre company runs through the casting office.
But even while working in casting offices, Manning directed plays. He directed at several of the smaller theaters in DC while working at Arena, including at Washington Stage Guild, Studio Theatre, and Signature Theatre. Probably his best-remembered production was at Source Theatre Company, where he directed Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. It proved so popular that its run was extended and, later, the production was revived. It won a Helen Hayes nomination for its lead actor, Daniel Escobar, who also died this year.
At Arena, he worked in fund-raising and literary management. However, it was his time as casting director that had the largest and most lasting impact.
Manning led the Arena casting office at a crucial point in the development of the DC scene as we currently know it. At one time, there were two Equity theaters in Washington, and both cast out of New York City. As the indigenous theatre scene began to become really vital in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, local actors still faced a glass ceiling at Arena, lucky to get understudy gigs or spear-carrier parts. That changed during Manning’s tenure.
Manning was a ubiquitous presence around town, seeing work at the smaller theaters as well as at the bigger houses. Suddenly, the parts local actors were getting were perhaps small, but more notable. Eventually, actors such as Nancy Robinette and TJ Edwards and others who weren’t brought down from New York were playing substantial roles. This coincided with Michael Kahn’s arrival in town and his cultivation of local talent.
But the shattering of that glass ceiling was something that Manning had a lot to do with. Also, a play I saw at New York Theatre Workshop during his time there (The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Naomi Wallace) featured not only Robinette but also Philip Goodwin. I can’t imagine that finding familiar faces on the NYTW stage was totally coincidental to the fact that Jerry Manning, Artistic Associate, was in charge of its casting.
Jerry Manning talking about the importance of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Good People.