ACT Seattle Loses Its Artistic Director

John Langs, artistic director of Seattle’s ACT Theatre, will leave the company at the end of the summer to become dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the theater announced Thursday. 

Langs, who began his career at ACT as associate artistic director in 2013 and became artistic director in 2016, has overseen more than 60 ACT productions during his tenure, and is directing the final show of the company’s 2023-24 season, “The Lehman Trilogy.” 

“It’s hard to leave,” Langs said Thursday during a break from technical rehearsals for “Lehman,” which begins performances on April 27. “But I’m comforted by the fact that it’s hard to leave. I’ve loved this place — Seattle in general, and this particular theater — and some of the most important relationships in my life I’ve made here. I will always be connected and always serve if they will have me.” (Don’t fret too much, Langs fans: He is slated to direct Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” at ACT in June 2025.)

After “Lehman” wraps, Langs will stay on as ACT searches for both his successor as artistic director and continues the search for a managing director to replace Anita Shah, who left ACT at the end of 2023 (Michael Ross has since been acting as interim managing director on a contract basis). Alyssa Montgomery, who has been with ACT for 16 years and is senior director of productions, will become the company’s general manager. Langs’ departure is part of an ongoing once-in-a-generation leadership transition that has seen dozens of departures and arrivals among local arts organizations in the past few years. 

Throughout his time in Seattle, Langs has become known as a champion of new work, an advocate for local artists, and a director who values long, collaborative working relationships. 

In an email to ACT supporters, Langs described his new job as “perhaps the single opportunity that would take me away from this beautiful theater company.” 

“It was on my dream board, right next to ‘running a kick-ass theater company,’” he joked, of the UNC job. “And you can’t control the timing on these things, but this felt like the right time.”

In 1996, Langs graduated from the School of Directing within University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ School of Drama. Gerald Freedman, then the dean of the School of Drama, became an important mentor for Langs early in his career, introducing him to the world and the work of artistic directing, and hiring him back to UNC many years in a row to work with rising seniors on a graduation showcase and “be kind of a midwife for them into their professional careers,” Langs said. “It’s been a home for me for a very long time.”

Langs’ first show in Seattle was “King Lear” at Seattle Shakespeare Company in 2004, in which he directed ACT’s then-artistic director Kurt Beattie in the title role. He would go on to direct all over town, and remains exceedingly proud of his work with the now-defunct New Century Theatre Company and the Chekhov-centric troupe The Seagull Project, to name a few. 

While at ACT, Langs directed 21 productions, including Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” and Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” and new works such as “Daisy,” “Alex and Aris” and “Hotter Than Egypt,” by Yussuf El Guindi. This fall, Langs will direct El Guindi’s play “People of the Book,” which premiered at ACT in 2019, at Urban Stages in New York City.

During his time at ACT, Langs also led collaborations with the Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, The Hansberry Project and many other local arts groups. Internally, he helped launch initiatives such as the acting and creative ensemble known as the Core Company, and New Works Northwest, a weekend of play readings launched in 2023 to support the work of local playwrights. Two plays from the inaugural 2023 festival — Andrew Lee Creech’s “Golden” and Katie Forgette’s “Mrs. Loman is Leaving” — are slated as mainstage productions in ACT’s 2024-25 season. 

In recent years, Langs and ACT have moved intentionally toward more equitable, inclusive ways of theater-making. In 2022, the entire ACT board of directors stepped down to restructure in a more collaborative model, and those values will be an important part of the search for Langs’ successor, he said.  

“I think we’ve gotten very sharp and clear about what this theater company means to the city right now,” Langs said. “I feel like [the current board members] are holding this vision of active theater, as the voice of the Pacific Northwest, working with local playwrights and lifting up the local art scene. That’s their vision for it, so I think we’ve got to find somebody who can really plug in that way.”

In the meantime, Langs said, he will also be spending his summer selling a house, spending quality family time before he starts “drinking from the fire hose” of his new job in September, and meditating on curiosity, rigor and how to teach “a human-centered vision of how to live as an artist.”

“It’s gonna be interesting,” Langs said. “I’m 52 years old and in ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ they quote a rabbi who says, ‘50 years old should be the age of wisdom.’ Now, I’m not sure if I’ve achieved that yet, but I’ve done hundreds of productions and I’ve worked with thousands of actors, and I feel really ready and curious to find out what it really is to help someone achieve a high level of craft in this discipline that I love.”

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