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The Role of a Lifetime

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When Sarah Nash Gates joined her high school’s Drama Club, she was asked which of its committees interested her. She chose the costume committee “because I knew my mother would bail me out if I got in over my head.” But when the drama teacher complimented Gates’ costumes, she was hooked. “She said I was ‘so artistic,’” Gates recalls. “This was not anything I had ever heard in my life.”

Sarah Nash Gates

Sarah Nash Gates, surrounded by costumes in the School of Drama costume shop. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Gates’ passion for costume design grew and led to a successful career as a designer, professor, and—for the past two decades— executive director of the UW School of Drama (SoD). She retired in July, passing the executive director baton to Todd London, former artistic director of New Dramatists, a playwriting center in New York.

When Gates arrived at the UW as an assistant professor, her sole focus was costume design. But she soon discovered a talent for leadership. As the first female president of the U.S. Institute for Theater Technology (USITT), she enjoyed “facilitating things for other people and trying to make systems work to serve a purpose.” She took on the School of Drama executive director role soon after. 

Sarah Nash Gates

Sarah Nash Gates. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Of her many accomplishments as executive director, Gates is most proud of the renovation of the UW’s Playhouse Theatre, now named the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse. The theater, whose long and colorful history includes serving as home to the Negro Federal Theater Projects in the 1930s, had fallen into disrepair. “It had [become] a dreadful theater, with all sorts of problems,” Gates recalls. “The State was providing funds for renovating University of Washington buildings, and the Playhouse Theatre was on the list.  But the project was only budgeted to bring the building up to code, not to improve it. I decided it was just stupid to merely bring it up to code. I saw an opportunity to make it better.” Gates contacted UW supporter Floyd Jones, whose interest in the arts and social issues seemed a perfect fit. Jones made a major gift toward the renovation, resulting in a theater that “is lovely now and works very well,” says Gates.

Gates also oversaw the creation of a design wing in SoD’s Hutchinson Hall, in space vacated by the old Hutchinson Pool. Other accomplishments include shepherding a groundbreaking production of All Powers Necessary and Convenient that garnered national attention. The play, written by SoD professor Mark Jenkins, focuses on the Canwell “un-American activities” Hearings, an important chapter in Washington state—and UW—history. Gates also established the 24-member School of Drama Advisory Board, which has played an increasingly important role as state funding for the School has diminished.

I believe that the School will benefit from fresh eyes, a fresh sensibility, a fresh everything. We are fortunate to have found a person with such deep and wide experience as a practitioner, writer, and historian.

“The board members are not only donors but supporters,” says Gates. "They come to the plays and smaller productions we do in the building, and they get to know the students. The students and faculty know that there are people out there who care about them. It really means a lot. With the board’s help, we’ve built a fundraising organization. We just plain can’t do this without that private support.”

Todd London

Incoming School of Drama Executive Director Todd London. Media credit: Susan Johnson

Though Gates is proud of all that she has accomplished, she looks forward to what’s next. She plans to devote more time to costume design, including an upcoming production of Carousel at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Gates will also teach the SoD's Western Dress course as a part-time faculty member.  As for handing over the executive director reins, she is more than ready.  ”I believe that the School will benefit from fresh eyes, a fresh sensibility, a fresh everything,” she says, welcoming Todd London’s leadership. “We are fortunate to have found a person with such deep and wide experience as a practitioner, writer, and historian.”

London’s experience includes nearly 20 years as artistic director of New Dramatists—the nation’s oldest center for the support and development of playwrights, located in New York City—and teaching at Harvard University, New York University, and most recently, Yale School of Drama.  London also is a former managing editor of American Theatre magazine and has written, edited, and/or contributed to more than a dozen books.

While the new job means leaving the Big Apple, London welcomes the move to Seattle’s smaller but still vibrant theater community.

“Theater is such a local phenomenon,” he says. “I'm drawn to that localness, but it's something you can't quite get your arms around in New York City, where even smaller theaters participate in a kind of national identity and lose touch with the local.   Seattle theater seems to be distinguished by the coherence of its artistic community.  Add to that the theater community’s long and deep relationship with the UW School of Drama, and it seems like a perfect place to explore and contribute to the cross-pollination of training and the profession. A great theater school in a great theater city—I can’t wait to begin.

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In honor of Sarah Nash Gates’ retirement and her legacy, the School of Drama has established the Sarah Nash Gates Endowed Graduate Student Support Fund at the University of Washington. Gifts to this fund will help recruit and support graduate students in acting, directing, design, theater history, and criticism. Gifts can be made online or by phone (877.894.4387).

Some quotes in this article are excerpted from an in-depth interview with Sarah Nash Gates, published in the June 2014 online edition of Columns magazine.