In 2016, Cornish College of the Arts’ graduate Courtney Sale was selected as the artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, which was named one of the top five children’s theatres in the country in 2012.
Now halfway through her first season as artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, Courtney Sale oversees an operation that caters to audiences ages 3-years-old to adult. Locally produced and built shows often feature Cornish alumni both on stage and back-of-the-house throughout the season at the Seattle Center. The 42-year-old theater company also brings other organizations here, such as the recent production of The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats by Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. Cornish students had a chance to work with the latter during a special visit to campus.
Sale left Seattle not long after graduating from Cornish in 2001, receiving a master’s in directing at the University of Texas and serving as association artistic director at the Indiana Repertory Theater in Indianapolis. She has created or developed new works in New York City, Austin, and Indianapolis as well as directing dozens of plays. Taking time off from her busy first year at SCT, she talked about how the city has changed since she was a student in the late 1990s and about the importance of creating theater for children.
Why did you go to Cornish College of the Arts?
Sale: I grew up in the middle of Virginia, in a rural part of the state with limited access to professional arts. In my sophomore year of high school, I was lucky to visit my aunt who lived in Seattle and introduced me to Cornish. The first tour on campus was love at first sight. What I found at Cornish was a bold student body, an engaged faculty, and a setting that provided the perfect alchemy of a nurturing environment for a young artist in the context of a vibrant artistic city.
Sale: The more I learned about Cornish, the more the college felt like a collision of my passions. Cornish provided a platform to explore directing, writing, leadership, and acting with equal engagement. I needed my college experience to support all of those pursuits and I found that in Cornish. It was the perfect balance of structure and choose your own adventure.
What did you want to do after graduation?
Sale: When I graduated I was very interested in starting my own company. Building a team has always been part of my DNA as an artist. I am not very good at small talk. I want to be in long conversations and relationships with other artists, I want them to challenge me when I try to use a shortcut, I want to practice patience and loyalty. Those desires are better exercised over time. After leaving Cornish, I was lucky to make work in a couple of configurations and companies. Those years were invaluable training for my work today. It was the kind of “roll up your sleeves” and make it happen theatre. It required me to be a utility player—both a left brain and right brain artist. Those impulses are still very much a part of my practice—the scale is a tad bigger however the spirit of yes and “all hands in” are the qualities I want to inculcate and inspire.
Why is children's theatre important to you?
Sale: Theatre is a mechanism in which we create a passionate and engaged society. No matter what age, everyone deserves beauty, complexity, ritual and hope. When we offer those ideas to young people, the people in our communities who have the bulk of their lives ahead of them, we signal boost the ways in which we want to see real change in the world.
Could you describe a typical day as an artistic director?
Sale: “Typical” is a tricky word in artistic leadership. No one day quite feels the same to the next. What I find thrilling about this role are the ways in which I serve as a dramaturg for the entire organization. In one hand you hold the incredible legacy and past that SCT has built over 42 seasons of making work for young people and in the other you hold on to the tremendous opportunity of future invention. To my mind, you can’t white-knuckle grip either one because then you risk either losing relevancy or making cavalier financial decisions. All of those considerations influence how a season is built, how creative teams are formed and the ways in which we engage our audience. I will say that in a “typical” day I collaborate with each area of the theatre: artistic, education, development, and marketing.
What's the most fun thing you get to do as the artistic director of the Seattle Children's Theatre?
Sale: The most fun aspect is sharing the work. No doubt. The immediacy of young people is a litmus test on each moment of the play. Youth is a brief window in our lives and gloriously young people have no time for filters or perceived social norms. It’s a miraculous gift as a theatre artist. The audience says out loud in the moment (sometimes literally, other times through the important communication of physical movement) what’s working and what isn’t. That is the most fun and often, the most diagnostic.
How does it feel to be back in Seattle?
Sale: I love being back in Seattle. Every day walking to work, I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to be surrounded by a breath taking landscape. The city has changed tremendously since I left. I lament the loss of some incredible gathering spaces like the Harvard Exit and Sit and Spin, not to mention many theatres that are no longer in operation. However, those sunsets have made way for new endeavors. I am excited about the work I am seeing from young artists. There is an incredible amount of energy and innovation in Seattle right now. What I am moved by is Seattle’s pioneering culture of inclusivity, particularly in the theatre community. We’ve certainly got much more work to do---but the important ingredients and passion are in place.
What advice would you give to a high school student interested in majoring in theater?
Sale: Before ever offering any morsel of advice, I would celebrate them and ask them one thousand questions about their path to the theatre--because I guarantee it will be an engaging story. I would invite them to share what they want the future of theatre to look and feel like. I would ask their advice about what the profession can do better, and what stories we are missing. The best advice I have ever heard about studying or practicing theatre is to invest equally in someone else’s process as much as your own. Pour your interest, advocacy, and curiosity into other artists.