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Originally published Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Traveler

The leading man of London arts tours

Next month, University of Washington professor John Webster once again will return to London, shepherding a flock of travelers to some of...

Seattle Times Travel staff

If you go

London tour

For details on the London Theatre and Concert Arts tour, see www.outreach.washington.edu/ext/travel/

Next month, University of Washington professor John Webster once again will return to London, shepherding a flock of travelers to some of the best theater and classical-music performances in the world.

It will be the 15th time that Webster, an English professor, has led the two-week cultural tour that features a play or concert almost every day. He'll take along some devoted followers. Since Webster began leading the tours to the British capital in 1981, some tour-goers, most of whom are from the Seattle area, have gone on almost every trip.

It's not a young crowd of travelers; many are in their 60s or older. "They've aged with me," says the 63-year-old Webster. Or far beyond him: Webster had one tour-goer in her 90s.

Firm friendships and romances have been kindled on what's called the London Theatre and Concert Arts tour, one of six study-travel tours offered this year to the general public through the University of Washington Extension program. One couple met on Webster's tour and returned, married, for another.

What the tour-goers of all ages share is a deep intellectual curiosity. The plays and concerts vary each year; the group might attend everything from a Shakespeare play to an experimental Anglo-African drama, with concerts ranging from Bach's beloved Mass in B Minor to a rarely performed Bela Bartók piece.

The morning after each performance, the tour-goers, who stay in a central London hotel, gather for a lecture and discussion on what they've seen and what they'll see next. Between the morning lecture and the evening performance, tour-goers are on their own, free to roam London's sights or take day trips.

"We give them a London Transport map. They leave the lecture at 10:30 in the morning, and I don't see them again until the performance," said Webster. "I talk to them (about sights), but people are pretty resourceful."

That level of independence lets Webster take a relatively large group, sometimes more than 30 people, but this spring's tour is a more comfortable 22 participants. Many are from the Seattle area, and are ardent supporters of local theater and music, although some participants come from Denmark and beyond.

All are drawn by the world-class cultural riches of London and the insights provided by Webster and his colleague Roderick Swanston, a well-known British music critic and lecturer who gives some of the morning talks.

Webster's love of theater got him into the London tours. A UW professor since 1972, he's a scholar of Renaissance literature and Shakespeare and the director of the UW's College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program. While words are his life, Webster said at times it's the classical concerts in London that have given him the most spine-tingling moments. With four world-class orchestras in London, and a bevy of recitals and chamber music, it's hard to go wrong.

Yet sometimes, as in all travel experiences, the things that go wrong can make the most memorable moments.

Webster took one group to a rare performance of George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman," a long, demanding play that includes an intense, 40-minute philosophical argument for two actors.

"It was riveting. People truly were on the edge of their seats," said Webster. Then one actor forgot his line. "It went flat. The actor asked the prompter for his line, we heard the prompter tell him it, then the actor went right back into it."

At the next pause, the audience burst into applause, said Webster. "The imperfection made us aware of how phenomenally difficult the drama was for the actors. ... If I was the director, I'd probably have told the actor to drop a line every night."

Such unexpected moments, and his loyal and enthusiastic tour-goers, are what keeps Webster returning to London. "As long as it stays fun, I'll keep going," he said. "I've made some lifelong friends on these trips."

"Northwest Traveler" is an occasional profile of Pacific Northwest travelers/travel companies by Kristin Jackson of The Seattle Times Travel staff: kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271.

or phone 206-897-8939 or 800-506-1325. It costs $3,450 per person and includes hotel, a dozen theater and concert tickets, airport transfers, morning lectures and a transit pass; it does not include airfare or lunch or dinners (breakfast is included). New tours offered this year through UW Extension include natural/cultural-history weekend excursions in Washington state and a landscape-painting tour in Arizona plus Spanish-language/cultural tours in Latin America.

More UW tours

The UW Alumni Association offers more than 40 tours a year worldwide, from South America to Africa, Europe and beyond, through a variety of tour operators. Like UW Extension tours, they're open to the general public. Some are accompanied by UW professors. 206-685-9276 or www.washington.edu/alumni/tours/.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Northwest Traveler
Kristin Jackson profiles local travelers and travel companies in -- Northwest Traveler. -- The column runs occasionally on Sunday.
kjackson@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2271

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