Open again after more than a year, The Washington Center for the Performing Arts is embarking on an effort to make audiences and artists feel even more welcome. The not-for-profit theater is raising money to refresh and renew its public spaces. The project, set to be completed next summer, will include new seats, new carpet, new colors and a new layout for the concessions area. The center will also be installing an electronic marquee.
The renovation will be a visible sign of the return of live performance, said Center executive director Jill Barnes. “The full recovery of the arts might take years,” she told OLY ARTS. “The possibility to recover in a fully renovated, state-of-the-art venue made possible by the community fills me with hope and joy.”
The changes to the spaces that audiences see — and to the seats they sit on — make up the final phase in a years-long series of upgrades that have touched every part of the building’s interior and improved its functionality as a theater. The center officially announced the capital campaign at its July 8, 2021 virtual gala, but 89% of the fundraising and all of the backstage improvements are already complete.
This is the first total overhaul — and the first public capital campaign — for the center since it opened in 1985 on the site of the 1924 Liberty Theater. “We are proud to have the opportunity and support to preserve and care for The Washington Center for the Performing Arts like the cultural and community asset that it is,” Barnes said in a press release.
“We serve over 100,000 visitors to the theater and 10,000 appearances by local performers annually,” she told OLY ARTS “Everyone will feel the impact of the upgrades whether they are onstage or in the audience.” Supporting local artists’ opportunity to perform in a 1,000-seat theater is what inspired capital campaign co-chairs Alex and Tammy Bunn to get involved with the center. Their children — twins Allie and Abby, both 17 and seniors at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma, and Max, 13 and in eighth grade at Evergreen Christian School — have all performed at the center. Allie and Abby dance with Studio West Dance Theatre and all three play piano.
Of course, the impact of making the center more inviting and comfortable extends beyond the walls of the building. “The center really does have a symbiotic relationship with our community,” Tammy Bunn told OLY ARTS. “When the center is active, it supports local restaurants and other businesses. It is good for our downtown.”
The City of Olympia, which owns the center building, completed extensive renovations on the exterior in 2014, just a few months after Barnes started work as executive director. It didn’t take long for her and her staff to realize that interior work was the next step.
The center has already raised more than $7.6 million, including competitive grants from the state Department of Commerce’s Building for the Arts program, the Murdock Foundation and the Cheney Foundation, plus substantial funding from Olympia Federal Savings, Heritage Bank, TwinStar Credit Union and the cities of Olympia and Tumwater. The needed backstage improvements and updates, including a new film projector, a new rigging system, upgrades to the center’s 1924 Wurlitzer organ and new audio and lighting systems, are already in place.
The improvements to the sound and lighting systems have enhanced the theatrical experience significantly, Barnes said, adding that audiences will feel the improvements even if they don’t notice them consciously. “We felt it was important to do the backstage work first,” she said. “It affects everybody on stage and also affects what the audience experiences, so we wanted to focus on that first. Of course, we’re excited to update the public spaces as well.”
Now the focus turns to raising funds for what the audience will definitely see and feel. “We’re confident that the new interior will match our beautiful exterior and complement it,” Barnes said. “It will feel like a new space.” The colors, fabrics and seats have yet to be chosen, but she said the number of seats would change very little if it all.
The capital campaign is aiming to raise $946,000 in the coming year, with donations both large and small welcome. The center is offering an array of options for contributing, including a seat sponsorship campaign and throwing a house or garden party to benefit the center. “This is our last big push to get the funding completed so that we can get the projects started and completed next summer,” said Barnes.
Donations to the capital campaign can be made online directly at the center’s website.