Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society

Founded: 
1954
Active status: 
Producing opera
Company Type: 
Community
About Us: 

The mission of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society has remained unchanged since its founding in 1954: Provide the highest quality musical theater productions to a broad Pacific Northwest audience at an affordable price. In addition to producing all thirteen of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, we also produce works by other authors and composers, as well as training and education for actors and students. We are about the only source worldwide for high quality DVD recordings of all the works of Gilbert & Sullivan.

The main goal of the Society is to provide the best musical theater, in the true spirit of family entertainment, at a price that families can actually afford. We are proud of the fact that grandparents may take their grandchildren to our shows and they can all laugh at the same jokes and hum the same tunes.

We also support other arts groups by making its rehearsal space available and be loaning set pieces, props and costumes.

The Society is one of the preeminent community-based theater production companies in the world and about the oldest in Seattle. We have about 750 performing and contributing members. Through our videos and performances in England, we enjoy a worldwide reputation for production excellence among fans of comic opera.

We regularly introduce new generations of theater patrons to live musical theater with the highest of production values. We offer real “dress-up in the evening” theater with large casts, a full orchestra, superior sets and costumes, performed in one of the finest theater venues in Seattle, the Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center, home of the Seattle Rep.

We treat enthusiastic audiences of up to 10,000 people each July who return regularly knowing they can count on an evening of great live theater. Our performances have won prizes at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in England and receive excellent reviews at home.

Since our inception, we have been a very tightly managed organization. Since the early days, we have been a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) arts corporation in the State of Washington. Our founders and managers through the years have been very careful with funds. While our annual operating budget of nearly $300,000 is large compared to other community theater groups, we stretch it even further by using volunteers to as great an extent as possible to build our sets and props and for in-theater operations.

Our ticket prices are quite modest for live musical theater and while we earn about 60% of our income from ticket sales, our top ticket price is only $40. The rest of our income is derived from patron contributions (about 30%), and from merchandise sales and small grants for office and shop equipment. 

History: 

A Condensed History of Half a Century ("and a little bit over")

The precursor of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society was founded by John and Leslie Andrews in 1954. They had recently moved to the Northwest from New England where he had been a music teacher for an all-girl's school. One of the bright spots in Andrew's days as a prep school teacher had been the Gilbert and Sullivan operas that he had produced with all girl casts.

Soon after their arrival in Seattle, John took a job as a church organist and choir director. Using his choir as a springboard, John and Leslie formed the "Parish Gilbert & Sullivan Society" and began preparing a production of The Mikado in 1954.

The long months of preparation and rehearsal eventually came to an end at 8:30 PM, Wednesday, February 2, 1955, at Roosevelt High School Auditorium. Applause greeted Andrews, immaculate in white tie and tails, as he strode to the piano and took his seat next to Nadine McGowan who assisted him in the four-hand overture.

Our first production, The Mikado at Roosevelt High School. Seattle

The reviews were very encouraging. The presale of tickets had been so good (at $1 each!) that a second night was added. Even with the low ticket prices, a comfortable profit of slightly over nine hundred dollars was realized. Plans were announced for a production of The Pirates of Penzance in 1956 and, after appointing a Board of Trustees, incorporating as a non-profit, and changing our name to The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Inc. (shades of Utopia, Ltd.), the Society was underway

When the "founding patterman" was transferred out of town, John Andrews called upon a fellow who had joined the chorus two years previously, Gordon Gutteridge. John's faith in Gordon was justified for he went on to play all of the "patter" roles for over 30 years.

Unfortunately, by the early '60s, both John and Leslie succumbed to cancer.

Many thought that this would be the end of the Society. However Gordon Gutteridge felt that the finest memorial for Andrews would be to ensure that all his labors should not have come to naught. So Gordon took the fledgling Society by the scruff of the neck and began hammering it into shape. He was, after all, a retired British Sergeant Major who had served through W.W. II, so instilling discipline was second nature for him. Not only that but he was able to teach the cast how to speak proper English!

Under Gordon's leadership the Society began to outgrow the "jolly housewives in the church basement" theme and began to strive to be taken seriously, as an artistic venture, rather than as some sort of a group therapy.

He also felt that performing in a junior high school auditorium carried an amateurish stigma. It was essential, he said, for the Society to mount its productions in the new 800 seat Seattle Center Playhouse that had been built for the World's Fair, and the time to do so had arrived. This was a huge artistic and financial risk for the small company whose cash on hand totaled $21.88.

The tenth anniversary Mikado in 1964 had the bad luck of playing against Bob Hope at the Opera House and was virtually ignored by the press. Nonetheless, the houses ran about 67% of capacity. Among that audience was a young man who had just returned from a stint in the U.S. Army in Europe and had had the good fortune of being able to see several performances by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and by Sadler's Wells. His name was Mike Storie and he joined the Society during the run of the show.

Over the years, the possibility of an amateur orchestra had been frequently considered. This was a scary concept. It seemed much better to have one good piano than an indifferent orchestra. In spite of that, Gutteridge told the Board that the time had come when he felt that no more artistic progress could be made until the productions had the benefit of orchestral accompaniment. Thus a very talented and busy young man named Alan Lund was retained as Music Director and orchestra conductor.

In 1986, the City had completed construction of the Bagley Wright Theater and announced that the Seattle Repertory Theatre would move into it and the Intiman Theater would take over, and completely renovate the Playhouse. Our representatives, notably Duncan Bayne reminded the City that the original charter for bond issue to build the Playhouse specifically required it to be available for Community Theater.

Because of this, and somewhat to the surprise of the Rep, The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society was written into the Usage Contract with the Rep giving us the use of the Bagley Wright Theater each July until 2026.

In the spring of 1992, Mike Storie, now Vice President of the Society, initiated the "Order of the Loose Canon." This award, a handsome lapel pin, is given to all persons who have participated in all 13 of the existing G&S operas with our Society. Considering that we do only one per year, this marks a considerable commitment. As of 2012, there are 65 holders of this award.

To mark the occasion of our 40th Anniversary in 1994, the Trustees decided to make a professional quality video of that year's production of The Mikado available to our members and the public. Skip Barttels volunteered his services as video producer/editor. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society is presently one of very few sources world-wide for high-quality DVDs of the entire G&S canon plus Cox & Box as well as the ballet, Pineapple Poll.

In the fall of 1995, a dapper gentleman with a British accent named "Smith" blew through town looking for amateur G&S companies to participate in the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival held in Buxton, England. He showed a promotional video and pretty well sold the concept.

Mike Storie had just finished his term as President and Jon Palmason had taken over. Between them they convinced the Board that we should do this and they teamed up to engineer the trip. It was a magnificent adventure. The Festival was adjudicated and we returned with just about every music award they had. Everyone was happy with our performance (particularly the English audience!) and we vowed to try it again soon.

But time waits for no one. Gordon Gutteridge, our fearless leader for over 35 years finally had to consider retiring. He and his helpmate Marianne announced their retirement at the end of the 1996 season.

Was there another person who would step out of the chorus to save the day? Actually the person who stepped up had never been in the chorus, but he had been working behind the scenes for over a decade and knew exactly what was going on because he was the editor of our newsletter, Paragraphs. Mike Storie volunteered to take over as executive producer.

Not that he didn't have a pretty strong sense of what a G&S show ought to look like, but his feeling was that if you could tightly organize the Artistic and Support staff, the "art" would be made much easier. Also, while he wanted to make some adjustments to the operation of the production process, he wanted to retain the wealth of talent incumbent in the existing staff, orchestra and cast.

Mike set up the organization so that the Stage Director and the Music Director were co-equals reporting to the Producer. This seemed to him to be in the pattern of the original organization of Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte. Mike's first show was Iolanthe in 1997 and it featured dancing frogs, the orchestra on the stage, and a water fountain that followed the conductor's baton. It was certainly different. The following year we produced Pirates which still holds the record for our largest total audience: 10,026!

The following season the Board chose to produce The Grand Duke for the second time in the company's history. Mike selected Hal Ryder as Stage Director who came up with an inspired concept taking a pretty tired and wordy original and updating it into a 1930's musical. This production bubbled with energy and was a great hit on our second trip to Buxton.

At the end of the 2001 season, Alan and Ellen Lund decided to retire. It had only been 35 years! After a diligent search and an audition before the cast, Bernard Kwiram was selected for this most crucial position in the organization.

Almost at the same time, we learned that we were going to be evicted from our snug home of 25 years in the basement at 800 Mercer Street. The building, owned by the City of Seattle, was being sold as part of the big South Lake Union "bio-technology" development. It was slated for demolition.

We did garner enough sympathy that the property management company found us "temporary" quarters in another space only about a block away, at 522 Dexter Avenue N. It was a totally stripped out and had been abandoned for many years. It had no heat, lights, plumbing, and inadequate power. Over the winter that year many of our volunteers performed the Herculean task of converting the space for our use. They would only give us a 5-year lease but we managed to stretch that to eight years.

Christine Goff, who had been a lead soprano with the Society for many seasons, made her directorial debut with Trial in 2002. She then returned to direct a wonderful version of The Gondoliers and has been our Stage Director ever since.

Wanting to do something special for our 50th Anniversary in 2004, Mike Storie fulfilled a long-held dream of producing the ballet Pineapple Poll as a prequel to HMS Pinafore. He managed to contact Sir Charles Mackerras in London and obtain permission to not only perform the piece but to reduce the orchestration for a G&S sized orchestra. Bernie Kwiram completed this work and garnered praise from Sir Charles. Because the original choreography was in copyright and not available, Mike arranged with Donald Byrd, an internationally-known choreographer who has since choreographed Oprah Winfrey's Broadway show The Color Purple and a new version of Oklahoma! Donald did original choreography for Poll which was danced by his Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater.

After an 8-year stint at Dexter Avenue, we were told that we had to face both a dramatic rent increase and eviction on pretty short notice. The shoe finally dropped in 2009. A number of volunteers, headed by Mike Storie had been looking for a permanent home for over a decade. Even if a building seemed promising, landlords were loath to go into any sort of long-term lease, and we couldn't afford to have to fix up a new space and move every five years.

Entranceway to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's Facility at Crown Hill Center

Fortunately, a couple of our members who were taking a yoga class at a surplus elementary school, heard that the owners wished to turn the old school into a community arts center and were looking for a long-term anchor tenant. It turned out that they had two small gyms that were in disrepair but had 2,000 square feet of space each, plus they had room for a "green room" and an office.

Over the next two years, the Society designed a new facility from scratch, raised a considerable amount of money from our Membership, and, with the help of members of our cast (who just happened to possess carpentry and construction skills), we built a facility exactly suited for us. In April of 2010 we moved into the new space and signed a 40-year lease.

As of 2012 we are in the planning phases of converting an unfinished basement of the school into additional prop and costume storage.

So as of now we are relatively secure and stable. The economy and rising costs are always a threat but we can be confident that if we really need help, someone will step out of the chorus and save the day.

Contact: 
manager@pattersong.org
206-682-0796
Address: 
Crown Hill Center, G & S Suite
9250 14th Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98117
United States