by Kelli Samson for OLY ARTS
Actress Carolyn Willems Van Dijk was born for the stage. She’s all doe eyes and smile, voice and confidence. In short, she is something to behold. And behold her you can—if you haven’t already been lucky enough to do so. She’s performing in Harlequin Productions’s upcoming contemporary musical, First Date. Willems Van Dijk also appears frequently in productions at The 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. It’s all thanks to local Harrison Fry that we get to enjoy her stage presence here in Olympia. The two met while performing summer stock in South Dakota after her freshman year of college and later married. (Olympians may recognize her by her married surname, “Fry.”)
“I love Olympia, and I love being so close to Seattle,” Willems Van Dijk shares. The theater life called to her at the tender age of two, when her mother took her to see The Nutcracker. “I was spellbound,” she says. “I loved how it felt to sit in the audience, and I wanted to give that experience to others.” Her Wisconsin childhood became one of ballet, community theater and voice lessons. Together, these pursuits laid the foundation for her career in musical theater. “I took it very seriously,” says Willems Van Dijk, smiling. “My younger sister was in The Nutcracker with me one year when I was six or seven. During her first performance, she ran off stage crying. On the drive home, I told her she couldn’t do that because it would ruin the holiday magic.”
Willems Van Dijk attended the University of Oklahoma, where she was part of an intimate theater program limited to 50 students. While there, she performed as “Hunyak” in Chicago. “I could have performed that role forever,” she recalls. “It was just the right cast and the right creative team, but there’s something special about every show that I’m in. They’re each my favorite while I’m performing in them.”
Willems Van Dijk is often cast beside Broadway performers and up-and-coming musical theater stars in new and classic musicals at The 5th Avenue Theater. The 5th Avenue has become the west-coast “launch platform” for new musical productions that go on to Broadway and national tours. In recent years, The 5th Avenue has premiered 17 new musicals, nine of which subsequently opened on Broadway. Notable examples include Catch Me If You Can, Jekyll & Hyde, Memphis, Shrek the Musical and The Wedding Singer—all of which were Tony award winners on Broadway. Other notable projects at The 5th Avenue included Disney’s Aladdin musical, A Christmas Story, First Date and Hairspray. In fact, the film of Hairspray premiered there, in an acknowledgment of The 5th Avenue’s role in developing the project.
In the past five years, Willems Van Dijk has been cast in six mainstage productions at The 5th Avenue, including Cinderella, Elf the Musical, Oklahoma, Paint Your Wagon and The Sound of Music. Most recently, she wrapped a production of the hilarious and heartfelt show The Pajama Game. She was not cast in The 5th Avenue’s original premiere of First Date, but she has a chance to bring this hilarious romantic comedy to life in Olympia at Harlequin Productions this summer.
Willems Van Dijk is often cast as the “swing” performer in these productions, which means she’s able to take on nearly any required role in the production at a moment’s notice—a clear sign of her “triple threat” capabilities as an actor, dancer and singer. Although she works as a featured performer alongside Oscar, Emmy and Tony-award winning actors who work on Broadway, Willems Van Dijk seems to care more about the camaraderie than any awards or adulation.
“My theater career has been full of adventure, friendship, and laughter,” Willems Van Dijk says. “I know it’s easy for people to only see the glamorous side of it. We also work extremely hard. It’s very difficult, physically and emotionally—literally blood, sweat and tears. It has been worth every moment for me. I’d hate for people to reduce it to just singing and dancing. It’s so much more than that,” says Willems Van Dijk.
When she isn’t acting, Fry can also be found behind the scenes. She contributed choreography to Olympia School District’s recent production of Annie. She’ll also return to the Creative Theater Experience backstage team for the second year here in Olympia, working with youth to communicate her love of theater.
It’s in such teaching that Willems Van Dijk perhaps sees her future most. “I love teaching how to tell a story with your body or through song,” she says. Two years ago, she and her husband traveled to India with the New York nonprofit group Artists Striving to End Poverty. While there, they taught classroom subjects and social and emotional skills to children of the lowest caste by using the arts. It was there that Willems Van Dijk realized the importance of arts integration in education. She reflects, “Art is an incredible learning tool. Rather than teaching kids to be artists, it is more important that they learn to think like artists. The majority of the kids I teach will never pursue a career in the arts, but thinking like an artist can serve them throughout their life. I want to open their minds to a new way of thinking. It’s about being able to see the potential in everything.”
See this performer next in the following shows:
What: Let’s Play Daytime Shows: The Emperor’s New Clothes
Where: Olympia Family Theater,
612 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
When: 10:30 a.m. Thursday – Saturday, March 9-11
How much: $5
Learn more: 360-570-1638 | OFT on Facebook
What: First Date
Where: Harlequin Productions,
202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
When: June 22 – July 23
How much: $20 – $41
Learn more: 360-786-0151 | Harlequin Productions