The Return of the Celebratory Center Salon

By Christian Carvajal

In 2017, The Washington Center for the Performing Arts launched what was meant to be an annual tradition of Parisian-style salons in its black box theater. Such gatherings arose in 1500s Italy and spread to France over the following century. Female, educated, wealthy patrons used their bedrooms to host artsy, literary friends for highbrow conversation. In post-World War II Paris, Gertrude Stein famously entertained such intellectual luminaries as Hemingway and Picasso in her own Saturday-evening salons. Olympia’s “Center Salon” may not have reached that dizzying level of celebrity just yet, but give it time. After all, thanks to COVID, the Salon has been on forced hiatus since 2019. Despite that, however, every ticket for this May’s event was already sold by mid-April.

“This was actually Jim Lynch’s idea,” says Bryan Willis, area playwright, periodic OLY ARTS contributor and co-organizer of the event from its inception. Lynch is the Washingtonian author of such bestselling novels as The Highest Tide and Before the Wind. “I’ve been doing salons for about 20 years through the Northwest Playwrights Alliance,” Willis explains. “I really love the format.” Happily for Willis, executive director Jill Barnes was eager to host a salon in The Washington Center’s black box theater, a utilitarian space adjacent to its main auditorium.

Jim Lynch

“The intent the first time around,” Willis continues, “was to showcase local talent and to show the variety of it.” He notes that artists often categorize fellow creators into narrow niches while viewing their own work more broadly. “Horror novelist” Stephen King, for example, might note that his body of work includes a spectrum of material from comic essays to screenplays to literary criticism. “I think it’s really inspiring for other artists to see … the ideas and methodology and mediums of other people around them,” says Willis. To that end, he organized a program as rich in its stylistic and thematic diversity as Thurston County’s arts community itself. Willis’s work has been represented in the form of a short play each year of the salon. This year’s playlet stars Harlequin Productions regular Ann Flannigan, who appeared in that company’s dramatization of The Highest Tide in March 2020. “We always have drama and we always have music,” notes Willis.

Lynch himself is on this year’s docket, taking a quick break from revisions on a couple of upcoming novels. “He’s writing a short story (specifically) for this event,” says Willis. “I just don’t want to let it out of the bag. He’s talking about a topic that’s extremely popular to all people … on a theme that our audience will find fascinating and entertaining.” Poets have been well-represented at Center Salon, and this year continues that trend. “We really like to feature the Olympia poet in residence,” continues Willis. “Ashly McBunch is now that person. … I have some of these lineups planned years in advance. I really try to think about who’s in it and what the combination is. I try to get a nice mix of poetry and short stories. Oh, gosh, we’ve had animation and painters, and we’ve really had a wide variety of people working in different mediums.” This year’s roster includes Barnes, poet Gail Madden, musicians Eric Anderson, The Klein Party and Mark Lutwak, and writers and OLY ARTS contributors Jonah Barrett and Christina Vega. Post-COVID, says Willis, “I think this one will be special, not only in the lineup of talent but that we’ll be able to celebrate being in the same room together.”

Bryan Willis
Bryan Willis

Jill Barnes will be singing. “I generally get nervous performing,” she admits, “but this is an intimate event that draws an audience that is supportive and engaged. I aspire to have a good time and hopefully our patrons will also be surprised and entertained.” She’ll be accompanied by Jennifer Hermann on piano.

Barrett offered a sneak peek at their salon presentation as well. “I am going to be reading a bit from Moss Covered Claws,” they told us, referring to their 2021 collection, “which features stories that are about finding your feet in a world that makes zero sense — with supernatural elements sprinkled throughout, because why not have some fun with it? It’ll be fun to perform some short tales to Olympia that lean into the city’s own ‘weird’ element. So much of Olympia is already strange and wonderful, and these stories, some of which are set in the city itself, are a reflection of that.”

Vega read poetry at Center Salon in 2019, but was asked back this year thanks to what Willis describes as a “mesmerizing performance style.” OLY ARTS critic Alec Clayton agreed, noting three years ago that Vega “read four fiercely passionate poems including ‘My Grandpa Is Not a Drag Queen,’ which might be the funniest and most touching poem ever about a funeral.”

Christina Vega and Jonah Barrett
Vega and Barrett

Vega described her plans for the event thusly: “I am going to present narrative poems and micro essays about gender deconstruction and postpartum depression. I want to highlight how becoming a parent forced me to reconcile aspects of myself I had compartmentalized for so long, and which I hadn’t worked through for fear of facing trauma surrounding gender and sexuality. I want to highlight the weight of postpartum depression and depression of any type. I hope my work normalizes conversations about depression and parenting. You know,” Vega added with tongue in cheek, “mostly light, event-opening material to pep the crowd.”

“This event’s got a really wonderful vibe, a very celebratory vibe,” says Willis. “There’s so much strife and division and pain (in Olympia) right now, and this is gonna be great to have something to really celebrate. It’s very local.” Face masks are encouraged for salon guests, as no proof of vaccination will be required.

Photo credit for final image: Jonah Barrett.


The Center Salon


7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13


Washington Center Black Box Theater,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia


$30 (sold out)



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