A native of North Carolina and graduate of the University of North Carolina, he studied law and went to Washington, DC as an early staff member of the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the outbreak of World War II, he went to the War Department and the Department of Justice, on loan from the SEC, serving as Director of the Anti-Subversion Division of the Justice Department and Executive Secretary of the Combined American and British Intelligence Organizations.
In 1943, he entered the armed services and served on General Eisenhower's staff until after V-E day when he transferred to the Judge Advocate General's Department to argue veterans' re-employment rights before the United States Supreme Court. He then entered the private practice of law in New York.
While he was head of his firm's corporate and international divisions, his work as attorney became increasingly involved with the theatre. His theatrical clientele began with Ruth Draper, growing to include Noel Coward, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Tallulah Bankhead, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, among others.
He became involved with theatrical presentation, on Broadway and in London, producing or co-producing A Thurber Carnival
, Noel Coward's Sail Away
, The Affair
, The Beast in Me
, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground
and dozens more Lunt/Fontanne hits and other shows in addition to television and motion picture productions.
He was first to bring the Royal Shakespeare Company to America. In 1962, he directed and presented the RSC production of The Hollow Crown
on Broadway and on tour and, in 1964, to celebrate Shakespeare's 400th Anniversary, he imported the RSC's King Lear
and The Comedy of Errors
which opened the New York State Theatre.
Helen G. Bonfils, principal owner of The Denver Post
, was his partner in many Broadway shows and other ventures. She asked him to become the attorney both for her and The Denver Post
. In 1966, Seawell became President and CEO of The Post
and it was not long before he became Chairman and Publisher of The Denver Post
and a full-time resident of Denver.
In 1982, he brought the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain to Denver to participate in a Festival of World Theatre sponsored by Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He sat on the boards of the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Symphony Orchestra and Central City Opera, was president of the Denver Opera Foundation and helped create the Mayor's Commission on the Arts (now the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs).
Finding himself at the crossroads of 14th & Curtis streets in downtown Denver one day, looking at the old Auditorium Theatre (built in 1908 — now the Ellie Culkins Opera House) and the surrounding four blocks, Seawell had an idea for a performing arts center that could utilize some of the existing buildings. Before the day was out, he had secured the approval of his fellow Trustees of the Bonfils Foundation to form the Denver Center for the Performing Arts as a public foundation and make the Bonfils Foundation a satellite of it, thus creating a permanent endowment for DCPA.
Ground was broken in December 1974. By 1978 the 2,700-seat Boettcher Concert Hall — the nation's only in–the–round concert hall — was completed, along with an eight-story, 1,700–space parking garage. By 1979 The Auditorium Theatre had been renovated, two cabaret spaces and four more theatres had been added: The Stage, Space, Source and Ricketson — comprising the Helen G. Bonfils Theatre Complex contained within the larger complex. The 2,830-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre was completed in 1991 and the Grand Ballroom atop The Space Theatre was added in 1998.
Donald Seawell is a Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was an early and vigorous proponent for the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, testifying before Congress on behalf of funding for the NEA and for its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and serving on the NEA's theatre panel.
As Chairman of the American National Theatre and Academy, he played a role in creating the American National Theatre in Washington, DC, and, as a member of New York's Broadway Alliance, contributed to launching the first performance of the Alliance. As Chairman of ANTA and DCPA, he was largely responsible for establishing the National Theatre Conservatory as a unit of the DCPA Theatre Company.