Source Theatre Founder Bart Whiteman
Friday, March 24, 2006
Bart Whiteman, 58, whose frenetic artistic impulses gave birth to the Source Theatre Company and helped to transform the theatrical landscape in Washington beginning in the late 1970s, died March 14 of a heart attack while at work at a mortgage company in Chattanooga. He lived in Lookout Mountain, Ga.
Mr. Whiteman founded the Source Theatre on riot-torn 14th Street NW in 1977 and served as artistic director until 1986. He wrote, acted, directed and produced plays at the small, prolific nonprofit theater, which was the first non-Equity theater in Washington.
Mr. Whiteman created "something from nothing" when he founded the Source, and he influenced the careers of scores of theater artists, said Christopher Henley, artistic director for the Washington Shakespeare Company. Henley worked with Mr. Whiteman in those exciting and chaotic early years.
"Bart was one of the half-dozen or so of the most seminal influences on and pioneers of what theatre in D.C. was and has become," Henley said in an e-mail. "He was part of that synergy -- along with Joy and Tony Abeson -- that really began the small professional theatre movement in D.C. in the late 70s."
Mr. Whiteman has been credited with helping to revive the charred 14th Street corridor, which had become home to derelicts and prostitutes after the 1968 riots. He took an abandoned, burned-out car dealership and created a space for artists to perform. For theatergoers skittish about coming into downtown Washington for one of Source's plays, he would sometimes stand outside on the street corner and escort them in.
A former football player who was often described as "larger than life," Mr. Whiteman was a risk taker who often pushed the limits of his artistic abilities and his theater's range, from Tennessee Williams's "Glass Menagerie," which he directed, to "Equus," in which he played the psychiatrist. He took "The Glass Menagerie" on a six-month, 250-show tour to London and to 14 cities in what was then Yugoslavia.
In its first three years, the unpredictable, financially strapped Source put on 20 shows in theaters, churches, lofts and anywhere he could wrangle a space. Sometimes only a few people would show up. But some productions, such as "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," played to several full houses.
"We've done straight classical plays, foreign plays, black plays, gay plays, women's plays. We haven't done a lot of laser technology plays," he told New Times in 1985.
In 1987, under Mr. Whiteman, the Source produced several plays, including Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" and Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," without receiving permission from and paying royalties to the dramatic licensing agencies. Not long afterward, he was replaced as artistic director, but he continued to live in an apartment above the Source's Warehouse Rep theater.
In 1990, Mr. Whiteman fulfilled his dream of appearing onstage solo when he performed his autobiographical one-man show, "I Am a Washington Actor," a retrospective of his work including readings from plays and observations on theatrical life.
Mr. Whiteman once gave this reason for starting the Source: "I wanted to take control of my own artistic destiny. I thought I could do it myself."
Harold B. Whiteman II was born in Nashville and grew up in New Haven, Conn., where he excelled in sports. He kept family traditions alive by attending the Taft School, a boarding school in Connecticut, and Yale University, where he played offensive guard on the 1968 championship football team. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and the Circle in the Square in Manhattan.
He ventured into Washington in 1972 with plans to sing with a small band. But while in graduate school at American University, he mastered the role of Jacqueline, the wet nurse, in Moliere's "The Doctor in Spite of Himself," complete with a munificent fake bust and a partial mask that didn't conceal his Fu Manchu mustache. "He scored a big hit and was hooked for good on acting and the theater," according to a 1980 Washington Post article.
After nearly 20 years in the Washington theater scene, Mr. Whiteman left in 1992 to head the drama and speech department at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He was there for five years, helping to spur a student movement into the theater, before being asked to do the same thing at the Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga. He also wrote articles and reviews for Chattanooga.com.
Eight years ago, he changed careers and joined the Mortgage South financial services company in Chattanooga, where he was a top producer and regaled colleagues with tales of his theater days in Washington. "He was full of stories and full of enthusiasm," said Karen Sims, the corporate treasurer. "He kept us laughing."
Survivors include his wife of 14 years, Melinda Whiteman of Lookout Mountain; a daughter, Mary Bartlett Whiteman, and a stepdaughter, Elisabeth Moclin, both of Lookout Mountain; a sister; and a brother.