Kathy Dorgan, a member of the Washington State Thespians Teacher Hall of Fame, is celebrating 20 years of directing plays at Olympia High School. If not for a broken leg as a teen, however, this California native and former athlete might have taken a very different path. “I was kind of lost,” recalls Dorgan. “I was in a cast for a year and then a brace. My counselor, who was also my swim coach, suggested that I try taking drama. And that was that.” Dorgan never looked back. She attended Pacific Lutheran University, where she’d intended to hone her acting craft. “I got a summer-stock job in Idaho and realized that I liked the rehearsal process and story more than being on stage,” she says. After receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree in theater, she earned a master of fine arts degree in directing.
Dorgan’s two decades at OHS have been filled with “great groups of students and a supportive school and larger community,” she says. She also gives credit to her creative partners John Chernoff, Joe Dyvig, Scott Pierson, Colleen Powers, Chip Schooler and Dan Schwartz, stating, “The creative process is so rich with such gifted colleagues.”
Although it’s difficult to choose a favorite among her productions, Dorgan sites The Fantasticks, Letters to Sala, Our Town and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — all part of her work at OHS — as stand-outs. Her production of Guys and Dolls earned honors as the Outstanding Overall Musical and Outstanding Direction at the 5th Avenue Theatre Awards, while Bye Bye Birdie received the award for Outstanding Direction. Most recently, The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket won the State Thespian Festival trophy for Best of the Festival during the 2015-2016 school year.
Dorgan also teaches English at OHS. This informs her approach to directing. When preparing for a play, she reflects, “I like to track the arc of the story, kind of get it into my bones. Telling the story is always the most important thing for me.” Her zest for storytelling and talent for inspiring young actors in the Olympia community are second to none. In addition to her role as theater director at OHS, she’s spent much of each summer since 2003 guiding aspiring creators as the artistic director of the Creative Theatre Experience (CTE). “What I love about it is that it is not about putting on shows — It’s a full day of arts immersion for kids from first to 12th grade. They take classes in art, music, theater and dance. They take master classes, have recitals and, oh yeah, they also get to be in a show. It’s unlike any program I know of,” she continues, “and with the youth-mentoring-youth philosophy, it builds leadership and interpersonal skills, too. I’m so proud of CTE.”
“She is keenly aware of the important moments and how to get actors to play those moments,” local actor and teacher Jason Haws shares of his CTE colleague. “She has such a depth of knowledge and she is always challenging herself and those around her to gain more knowledge and understanding of the craft.”
Though she spends most of her energy directing three shows each school year at OHS, Dorgan still finds time to be active in the greater Olympia artistic community. “She’s incredibly fun to work with and she has a keen sense of humor and timing,” says Olympia Family Theater’s artistic director Jen Ryle, who at one time served as Dorgan’s assistant at CTE. “She cares deeply about each and every cast and crew member with whom she works.”
Nowhere does her caring nature shine more brightly than in her role as the adviser for OHS’s chapter of Pizza Klatch. “It’s important to me because of the supportive atmosphere it provides for our LGTBQ students and their allies,” she says. “I feel like the theater community as a whole provides a nurturing and safe environment for everyone, and this seemed like a good way to support that larger mission. Kids need more places where they feel safe and supported and can simply be themselves.”
Though many can learn from Dorgan, she herself has never stopped seeking ways to improve her craft. “It’s pretty nerdy,” she confesses, “but I just love studying, learning and knowing more about theater.” She’s been a Seattle Repertory Theatre teaching artist since 2013. There she worked with other artists to develop teaching strategies for arts education. “The program has a strong social-justice emphasis — the arts as a way to create habits of minds that change minds,” she continues. “We have worked on developing curricula for all ages in these various disciplines as a way of learning not only art, but the ways that the arts express our common humanity.”
In 2014, Dorgan was chosen as one of 20 national educators to participate in The Juilliard Directing Fellowship in New York City. Being selected was, she says, “a huge surprise and a real gift. It has enriched my work as a director in countless ways. I can’t tell you how many times I refer to the notes from that work. Being given the opportunity to work with teachers and directors whose names I’d read in papers and whose work I’d seen on Broadway has been indescribable.”
After all of her experience in the world of theater, Dorgan has wisdom to impart to young people who aspire for the same lifestyle: “Go to school. Learn. Experiment. Put yourself out there. Know what you want. I always ask kids if they want to be working actors or stars. Stars are much tougher to become and take a lot of luck. There are wonderful actors working and supporting themselves all over the country who will never be stars. The work is enough for them, I think,” she reflects. “It always has been enough for me.”
RETIREMENT – 2018
Kathy Dorgan retired from Olympia High School teaching at the conclusion of the 2018 school year. A group of students and alumni created a video to honor her work as an educator.