by Kelli Samson for OLY ARTS
Meet Jen and Ted Ryle, the couple behind Olympia Family Theater. Theater is a touchstone for the Ryle family. Fittingly, the Ryles met each other at an audition at Shoreline College. “I nudged my friend when Ted walked in, and said ‘Who’s the straight guy? I want him!’” Jen recalls with a laugh.
Ted continues the story: “The next quarter we were cast as a 70- and 72-year-old husband and wife.”
Finishes Jen, “That quarter was when sparks flew.” Eight months later, they were married. That was nearly 27 years and three daughters ago.
At any given OFT production, one is sure to spot at least two members of the Ryles’ clan, as daughters Alexa, Lulu and Mandy often participate in some capacity. “When our girls were teenagers, this theater was the glue that held us together,” Ted confides.
“It helped us to keep communicating,” adds Jen, “and now we have these wonderful memories together. They have done everything, both onstage and backstage.”
Says OFT’s photographer and scenic engineer, David Nowitz, “The Ryles put the ‘Family’ into Olympia Family Theater. Not only do all five of them participate in all aspects of OFT, but Jen has created an organization that is open, welcoming and appreciative of the actors, volunteers and staff. They make us all feel like a part of the family.”
Jen, OFT’s artistic director, has always been part of an artistic family. She was raised in Tacoma by her church organist mother and her father, who sang and played trombone in a big band in the 1940s. “Theater is where I found my voice and felt the most at home,” she says. “It was my tribe in high school — I was one of those weird choir and drama kids.”
Ted, also from Tacoma, grew up wanting to be a singer. In his early 20s, he was part of a choir that traveled to the Soviet Union to perform a musical revue. When choir members returned, they created a show about their experience. He did the writing for some of its scenes. “It was while I was performing those scenes and getting feedback from the audience that I first got the buzz for theater,” he recalls. That jolt led Ted to that fateful audition at which he met Jen. The Ryles started their family and organized theater and talent shows at church. Ted went back to finish college during those early years, graduating from the University of Washington. When the youngest of their daughters was a toddler, they moved to Ohio so Ted could earn dual master’s degrees in social work and public administration from Ohio State.
The Ryles eventually made their way to Olympia. They sent their three daughters to Lincoln Elementary School, where Jen was very involved. She was the choir director and directed many productions with the students. “I am indebted to Lincoln and grateful for the opportunities I had there to perform, direct, adapt children’s short stories into plays, and to make music and work with children,” she explains. “Lincoln provided a place for me to grow as a parent, an artist, and a person.”
It was at Lincoln that Jen met fellow parent Karen Janowitz, who is perhaps OFT’s biggest fan. She’s only missed seeing one production, and has served as both OFT’s treasurer and a board member. “Jen’s and Ted’s impact on my family and on the world is one of love, kindness, integrity and a bunch of fun!” says Janowitz.
Jen studied at The Evergreen State College, where she focused on expressive arts, business and education. She realized she wanted to combine these passions and start a children’s theater. Looking back, the signs were there all along: her love of the stage, singing and reading, combined with her passion for children’s literature and her own family. She formed her degree around this idea and shared it with theater directors in Olympia as she interviewed them for her coursework. She interviewed the artistic directors of many children’s theaters throughout Portland and the Puget Sound region. These connections, along with a background that included working at the Creative Theater Experience with Kathy Dorgan and serving as the community specialist at the Olympia Regional Learning Academy, were as important as her coursework in producing what was to come next. Just before Jen graduated from Evergreen in 2006, a professor put her in touch with Samantha Chandler, a middle-school teacher who also had a desire to start a children’s theater. Together, the two co-founded OFT. Their first production graced the stage in October 2006, five months after Jen graduated from Evergreen. Things moved quickly.
Ted, the clinical director for juvenile rehabilitation at DSHS, is a true scene-stealer in every production in which he’s cast. He has a knack for milking a role for all it’s worth, usually leaving his audience in stitches. He’s been in every production of A Year With Frog and Toad at OFT and cites it as his favorite. “I worked so hard to learn those songs,” he says. “I love Toad and his big heart. I also have loved playing Snail.” Ted dabbles in theater when he can. He was a member of The Heartsparkle Players for a few years. He’s also worked with Theater of the Oppressed, an improvisational troupe that invites audience participation to discuss serious topics. He incorporates theater from time to time into his work with incarcerated youth. He’s acted with Animal Fire Theatre (Olympia’s own version of Shakespeare in the Park) and Capital Playhouse, the troupe that used to occupy OFT’s current space.
Jen is never one to rest on her laurels. In recent years, she completed a course called “Directing for the Stage and Screen” at the University of Washington. Although OFT has only been in its current space for three seasons, she’s hoping it’ll one day outgrow that space and need to hire more staff, an education director for example.
Playgoers can still catch the last production of OFT’s 11th season, Fishnapped!, before it wraps and OFT’s summer sessions of workshops and camps begin. Continuing the Ryle family tradition, daughter Mandy will teach at OFT this summer. Next season, OFT will revisit its hysterical production of the musical Cinder Edna, for which Ted wrote the original score.
Where: Olympia Family Theater,
612 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
When: 7 p.m. Fridays, May 26 and June 2;
2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, May 27 and 28, Jun. 3 and 4
How much: $13-$19
Learn more: 360-570-1638 | OFT