Artistic Director Jen Ryle Says Goodbye to Olympia Family Theater

By Molly Gilmore

There’s change coming to Olympia Family Theater: Though she’s as passionate as ever about children’s theater, co-founder Jen Ryle is stepping down from her role as artistic director to create space for new leadership. She’s involved with the search for her successor and will stay on to work with the new hire as the theater prepares to reopen later this year.

For the past 15 years, Ryle has been leading the theater she co-founded with Samantha Chandler, shepherding it through 14 seasons, 64 mainstage shows, the launch of an education program and the 2014 move into the company’s own 100-seat downtown theater in the space that was once home to Capital Playhouse.

The Ryle Family at an OFT Fundraiser

“I’ve said often that Olympia Family Theater is a dream come true for me,” Ryle told OLY ARTS. “Samantha and I and a whole bunch of other people wanted to create a place where kids could experience stories, find their voices and their imaginations and a place that would inspire empathy — all of the things that Olympia Family Theater does.

“The dream isn’t about me running the theater,” she added. “The dream is for it to continue.” Her resignation was motivated by a desire to make room for both the dream and the theater to grow and transform. “I truly believe that what comes next for OFT will be even more powerful, hilarious, bold, engaging and surprising theater,” she wrote in a letter announcing her decision.

Ryle said she started thinking about making this move during the company’s 2018-2019 season — the last one it completed before the pandemic paused live theater in March 2020. “I was feeling like OFT had arrived,” she told OLY ARTS. “I started thinking that I would love to see the theater move to the next level. There is a moment of great potential that all kinds of nonprofits reach when the founders step down and the organization is ready for fresh perspectives and leadership.”

One of the many things that the pandemic paused was Ryle’s opportunity to place her dream into someone else’s hands. She stayed on, organizing educational programs on Zoom, applying for grants and helping the theater survive. And now that the timing looks right for reopening, she’s making her move.

Chandler and Ryle accepting the Achievement in the Arts Award from The Washington Center for the Performing Arts in 2018

The job posting for a new artistic director emphasizes the company’s aim to expand its commitment to diversity and inclusion, with people from marginalized populations encouraged to apply. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I think we can do more,” Ryle said. “The right artistic director could lead an even bigger charge in that direction. We want all the kids who are coming to see shows to see themselves on stage.”

She and theater’s board are looking both regionally and nationally for Olympia Family Theater’s next leader and are hoping to hire someone next month. “I would like to have the person involved in the planning and preparation for the reopening of the mainstage season,” she said. “The plan is to potentially do a show in December and then two shows in the spring to complete a mini-season.”

She’s handing off the theater the same way she ran it — thoughtfully and with appreciation for the gifts of others. Looking back at the years since the theater offered its first show, “Alice in Wonderland,” in October 2006 at The Midnight Sun, Ryle is focused not on her own accomplishments but on what everyone involved created together.

Her favorite productions were 2017’s “Starry Messenger,” about Galileo; 2018’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” based on Kate DiCamillo’s book about a beloved toy rabbit; and 2019’s “Flora & Ulysses,” adapted from DiCamillo’s story about a squirrel and the girl who loves him. Of the three, she directed only “Flora,” and what she loves about those shows isn’t only the wonderful stories but also the many people who worked together to create the shows, making multiple rabbits for “Edward” and putting an original twist on “Messenger” with original tunes by Daven Tillinghast.

Ryle directed “Flora and Ulysses” in 2019

Though she focuses her attention on the many people involved with theater — staff members, board members, volunteers, cast and crew — Ryle has been working hard to keep the dream alive. She led the theater creatively since the beginning, directed at least one play each season and took on an even bigger role after Chandler, now chair of the theater’s board, stepped down as managing director in 2014.

“Jen is leaving a wonderful legacy of entertainment, education, engagement and above all joy, and our community is better for it,” said Jill Barnes, executive director of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, which gave Olympia Family Theater its 2018 Achievement in the Arts Award. Ryle’s efforts were also recognized in 2019 by Masterworks Choral Ensemble, which spotlighted her in its annual Salute to the Arts.

“She can see possibilities that not everybody can see,” Chandler told OLY ARTS. “For the eight years that we worked together, it was a great collaboration.” Also collaborating on the theater’s success was Ryle’s family: Husband Ted not only acted and directed but also wrote the original musical “Cinder Edna,” one of seven locally written productions that the theater has produced over the years. And children Alexa, 29; Mandy, 28; and Lu, 26, have all been involved since the beginning. Both Alexa and Mandy are on the teaching staff — as is Chandler.

“Working at the theater been a great bonding experience for me and my family,” Ryle said. “My family will still be involved. I might even come back and direct something, and I’ll certainly volunteer and certainly see all the shows. I love that world of children’s literature and children’s theater.”

Jen Ryle, former OFT Artistic Director
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