Remembering John Aylward (1942-2022)

 “A theater is just a building.  It's what goes on inside of it that creates the art.”
— John Aylward


Seattle Rep lost a beloved member of our family earlier this week, with the passing of long-time company member John Aylward. An accomplished and widely respected actor, John left an indelible mark on the Seattle theater community and on everyone he collaborated with over his long career. We are grateful to have been part of John’s story, to have shared in his artistry and joy for life, and we will miss him dearly. 
   

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John Aylward in Glengarry Glen Ross (2010). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Starting in 1970, John appeared in over 60 productions at Seattle Rep. Some of his favorite productions included The Miser (1970/71 season), The Understanding (1985/86 season), Curse of the Starving Class (1986-87 season), House of Blue Leaves (1990-91 season), Inspecting Carol (1991-92 season), and Psychopathia Sexualis (1995/96 season). John last appeared on the Seattle Rep stage in 2010, as Shelley Levene in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, alongside one of his closest collaborators, R. Hamilton “Bob” Wright.

Seattle Rep Artistic Director Braden Abraham remembers, "He and Bob were magnificent in that production. They just lived on stage in a way that great actors do—completely comfortable, effortlessly commanding, always present and playing in the moment." 

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R. Hamilton Wright and John Aylward in Glengarry Glen Ross (2010). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Born and raised on Capitol Hill, John attended St. Joseph’s Grade School, where he landed his first role as Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh. As John recalled in an interview commemorating Seattle Rep’s 50th anniversary in 2011, he decided to become an actor thanks to a production of Man and Superman he saw at Seattle Rep in 1963. “When the curtain went up, I mean it took my breath away,” he remembered. “This was just sort of a landmark moment for me because I remember saying to myself, ‘I want to do that.  I want to be up there,’ and it worked out that I spent many years up there.”  

After graduating from Garfield High School, John pursued his dreams of acting as part of the first class of the Professional Actors’ Training Program (PATP) at the University of Washington.  

In 1970, John graduated from UW and began working at Seattle Rep, where the former head of the PATP, W. Duncan “Bill” Ross, was serving as Artistic Director. Three years later, John and a group of young actors started the Empty Space Acting Company, bringing new and exciting theater experiences to Seattle audiences.  

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John Aylward in The Miser (1970/71). Photo by Chris Bennion.

John quickly became a fixture of the Seattle theater scene, and at Seattle Rep he found a community of like-minded artists to grow and play with, guided by the leadership of Artistic Director Daniel Sullivan and Associate Artistic Director Doug Hughes. These were exciting and formative times. As John remembered in a 2011 interview: “There was just such a genuine family feeling….And it was a joy to go to work [at Seattle Rep] because everyone was learning, and everyone was having fun.”  

Doug Hughes, who John often collaborated with, highlighted some of what made him so exciting and compelling on stage: “Physical grace and physical courage, unerring comic instincts, a steadfast hatred of cliché, an inspiring gift for collaboration, an endless wellspring of imagination, and a contagious joy taken in the odd, ancient business of putting on a show.” 

Hughes remembered: “I am still haunted when staging a scene, by the indelible memory of Aylward training his eyebeams with Zeus-like intensity upon a vacant spot on stage which always turned out to be the sweet spot. It didn't take long for me to start taking his not-so-subtle hints; pretend the idea was mine and reposition him or his partner to the prime real estate.” 

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John Aylward and the cast of Curse of the Starving Class (1986/87) at Seattle Rep. Photo by Chris Bennion.

John was part of the acting company at Seattle Rep for 15 seasons, and during that time also worked at some of the leading regional and repertory theaters around the U.S. and Canada, including the Charles Playhouse in Boston, The Old Globe in San Diego, the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., Indiana Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (as Richard III), the Manitoba Theatre Centre (Born Yesterday), the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park  (Hedda Gabler), Dallas Theatre Center (Loot), Berkley Rep, and on Broadway (The Kentucky Cycle).   

In addition to a rich career on the stage, John also had an extensive list of film and television credits to his name. The producers of “ER” created the role of Dr. Anspaugh especially for him, and John went on to portray other memorable characters in TV shows like “The West Wing” “Boston Legal,” and “Mad Men,” and in films like North Country, Instinct, and Finding Graceland. 

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John Aylward in Inspecting Carol (1990/91). Photo by Chris Bennion.

“You knew you were in good hands with John onstage,” Seattle Rep Artistic Director Braden Abraham remembers, “because he had the combination of talent and craft that comes from thousands of stage hours in every kind of production from the smallest, scrappiest theater company to Broadway. There was something impish about him, too, something unpredictable, that made him very watchable. He came up through Seattle theater and influenced a generation of actors, playwrights, and directors.”  

On the occasion of Seattle Rep’s 50th Anniversary, John had this to say about the theater: “A theater is just a building.  It's what goes on inside of it that creates the art.”  

How lucky we were, to have John Aylward share himself—his talents and his joys—with us, to create entertaining and life-changing art at Seattle Rep and around the world.