Think you need to hit Seattle or Portland for top-notch Western Washington theater and arts events? Think again. Take a closer look at the Olympia Theater District, which offers a tremendous variety of local and national productions, films, and live music.
Then pencil in an arts-filled weekend getaway, complete with convenient downtown digs and delicious dining.
The Olympia Theater District
“Just like we say we’re going to the Farmers Market or the boardwalk, the Olympia Theater District is a distinct, creative place,” says Dan Weiss, president of The Arts Alliance of Downtown Olympia.
Four theaters make up the Olympia Theater District: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, the State Theater (owned and operated by Harlequin Productions), Capital Playhouse, and the Capitol Theater (owned and operated by the Olympia Film Society).
“This community really supports many facets of the arts and they especially support the theater district,” continues Weiss. “And together, as a core, it’s quite an exceptional cultural resource for a community our size.”
Weiss suggests planning a theater-themed getaway weekend, taking in two shows on a Friday and Saturday night. “Book a hotel room downtown” – more on that later – “and plan your evening with some great restaurants and performances. Just package it up.”
The Washington Center for the Performing Arts
The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, with its 983-seat theater and smaller black box space, is considered by Weiss to be the anchor of the Olympia Theater District.
Harlequin Productions Artistic Director Linda Whitney agrees.
“Everyone who participates in theater in Olympia owes a debt of gratitude that goes back over 35 years to the folks who worked to raise the money to build the Washington Center for the Performing Arts on Washington Street,” she says.
The facility provides new and well-equipped spaces where community groups can perform, such as the Olympia Symphony, which plays five times a year in the concert hall.
But the Washington Center also presents world-class touring events that, Whitney believes, “have broadened local taste and made the performing arts a central feature of cultural life in Olympia.”
“They work very hard to build a repertoire of distinct shows to bring in to the community and give the community a terrific variety of performances,” says Weiss.
“How many of us would be here had the Center not opened its doors in 1985? Who knows?” Whitney asks rhetorically. “I tend to think that that cornerstone facility was the springboard for much of what has happened since.”
Upcoming events at the Washington Center include Monty Python’s Spamalot, Olympia Symphony Orchestra presenting “Big First Steps,” and Ballet Northwest’s “The Nutcracker.” A calendar of all upcoming performances can be found here.
Harlequin Productions State Theater
Harlequin Productions, founded in 1991 and operating out of the State Theater’s historic 212-seat Grecian amphitheater, spent its first seven seasons in Stage 2 at the Washington Center.
“Because of that, we could build enough momentum to buy and renovate the State Theater in 1997-98, run our own house, and produce a seven-show season,” says Whitney.
Harlequin explores an eclectic variety of programming to produce a wide range of materials: new, old, big, small, comedies, and dramas. They’ve put on 17 full-scale Shakespeare productions since setting up shop.
The nonprofit theater has always had a serious commitment to creating high-quality production values on a shoestring budget – and to give performers and designers the best possible support and resources.
“Our motto from the beginning has been ‘Imagination is more important than money,’” says Whitney. “You have to learn the art of fiscal management if you want to survive, but we’ve always been really good at stretching a buck.”
Weiss concurs. “Harlequin does a terrific job with very varied performances and terrific production values. It’s just a terrific little theater.”
After a successful run of The Love List, which was held over, Harlequin next brings Stardust Serenade. The new year will see The Seafarer on its stage. A full list of productions slated through October 2012 can be found at the Harlequin website.
Founded in 1986 with a 125-seat black box theater, Capital Playhouse has entertained more than 240,000 audience members with its musicals and plays.
It also offers a comprehensive musical theatre and performance program for youth, following a summer stock model. To that end, more than 3,000 Thurston County kids have performed in nearly 100 musicals over the past 25 years at Capital Playhouse.
“They have a very good reputation in that regard,” says Weiss. “That is one of their strengths. They’re probably one of the best regionally.”
“But they do a lot of adult and sometimes quite edgy productions, too,” Weiss continues. “They focus on Broadway-type shows, although they are now starting to do plays.”
The organization has had some financial difficulties over the past year, but Weiss believes they’re doing a terrific job of overcoming that.
“Their production values are very much improved and I think the community is going to support them and they will thrive,” he says.
Upcoming performances include A Musical Telling of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Story, Hair, and Hello, Dolly!
The Olympia Film Society at the Capitol Theater
The historic 750-seat Capitol Theater, built in 1924, has been home to first- and second-run independent film, shown seven days a week, since 1980.
“The Olympia Film Society at the Capitol Theater is a mostly volunteer run organization,” says Audrey Henley, Theater Manager and Live Events Director.
Volunteers are vital to the success of OFS. Most roles in the organization rely on unpaid helpers – from ticket takers to projectionists.
“Whether you’re here for the night or a long vacation, you can volunteer and earn movie passes,” says Henley.
OFS also produces the popular annual Olympia Film Festival, and welcomes national, regional, and local concerts to its 750-seat 1924 theater.
“They do quite a bit of live music,” says Weiss. “Mostly young adult-type music.”
What most impresses Weiss about OFS is what they’ve done to assure that the organization will be around for a long, long time.
“They bought the theater,” he says. “And for any nonprofit organization to make that bold move – Harlequin did it a number of years ago when they bought the State Theater – that is quite an accomplishment.”
Weiss sees this as yet another indication of how strongly the theater district is supported by this community.
A calendar of films and events is available at the OFS website.
More Than Just An Artistic Impact
Banded together, the four theaters that make up the Olympia Theater District have a significant economic impact, as well as an artistic one.
“When all four theaters are operating, there’s close to two thousand people down there on a Friday or Saturday night,” Weiss points out.
In fact, in 2009, the Olympia Theater District welcomed 167,000 patrons for over 500 shows. That year saw 27 full-time staff positions related to the district, 1001 part-time jobs, and 670 volunteers. The combined budgets of all four theaters were $3.8 million, with $1.7 million of that allocated to employee wages and benefits.
For Whitney, the Olympia Theater District vision gives all local performing arts activities a unified front.
“In this challenging economy, everyone is struggling to keep their own programs moving forward,” she says, “”but Olympia has an impressive and amazing level of participation in the performing arts. We each fill specific niches. There is a lot of exciting work going on that deserves more attention.”
So you’re sold on the fantastic variety of quality theater and arts programming available in Olympia. Now it’s time to book a weekend getaway, complete with convenient downtown digs and delicious dining.
The Governor Hotel is the ideal spot to stay when traveling from out of town to take in a show.
“We’re the closest hotel to the Harlequin Theater and central Olympia business district,” says Thomas Kratsch, Director Sales and Marketing at the Governor Hotel. “We’re within walking distance to over 60 restaurants, shops, and the Olympic Puget Sound waterfront.
The hotel offers complimentary on-site parking for guests, internet access, and a full, hot breakfast from 6:30 a.m to 10:30 a.m.
Pre- or Post-Performance Eats
Pre- or post-show dining options abound in downtown Olympia. What are you in the mood for? All of these restaurants – and so many more, nearly any cuisine you’re curious about – are within walking distance of the Governor Hotel and the Olympia Theater District.
Situated above Capitol Lake in a charming red house, Swing Wine Bar offers a lot more than simply lovely views. Northwest cuisine such as blueberry- and fennel-stuffed duck and cedar plank salmon is served alongside Washington’s best wines.
Cicada also focuses on fresh Northwest cuisine but adds a Southern flair. Chile-dusted salmon salad, housemade meatloaf, or braised lamb hash – you’ll find something delicious and unique. Enjoy your meal with one of Cicada’s inspired cocktails or a selection from its award-winning wine list.
The Spar Café, originally a blue-collar hangout for loggers and dockworkers, is now a popular downtown hangout for all, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Handcrafted ales are brewed right on the premise, and are seamlessly suited to be enjoyed alongside the Northwest-style pub fare on The Spar’s menu.
Pulling together an arts-filled Thurston County weekend is a breeze in the Olympia Theater District. Everything is within easy walking distance. During the day, you can shop, walk the boardwalk, and enjoy the Farmers Market. In the evening you can enjoy a pre-performance meal, and then take in a play or live performance.
Weiss’s most important piece of advice? “Book early! A lot of times, shows sell out on Friday and Saturday nights.”