In 1620, right around the time the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, invited writers, aristocrats and artists to assemble at her then newly restored Parisian mansion. She designated suites of small rooms as what we now call literary salons, establishing a tradition that inspired Gertrude Stein’s famous Saturday gatherings of luminaries including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound in the 1910s and ’20s. Olympia boasts a similar (though admittedly less name-brand) event every spring, the Center Salon organized by Bryan Willis.
OLY ARTS spoke with Willis, playwright-in-residence for Northwest Playwrights Alliance at Seattle Repertory Theatre, about this year’s event. He said, “We’re going back to cabaret style.” Last year’s salon, the first since the start of the pandemic, used auditorium-style rows of chairs, but Willis prefers the cabaret model of chairs around tables. “There’s something about the community feel,” he explains. “You’re talking with other people at your table. … There’s just more rapport (between) the actors and the audience.” Luz Gaxiola, known locally for her work with Shadow Puppet Theatre, will play accordion during the salon’s preshow and intermission. Gaxiola studied at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre, the San Francisco Clown Conservatory and the Flying Actor Studio, and is seen often in shows at Olympia Family Theater.
Washington Center executive director Jill Barnes will both host the event and open it with a song, accompanied on piano by Jennifer Hermann, executive director of Olympia Symphony Orchestra. “Jill reached out to me to organize this,” recalls Willis, “and she’s been very excited about this the whole time. She’s really been the driver. … The Washington Center, they bring in all this wonderful work, but in terms of producing local work, this is an unusual production for them and I’m deeply appreciative that we have an executive director who not only gets it but sought to do that.”
Next in the lineup is Robyn Chance, whom Willis describes as “an illustrator (who) also writes children’s books. You probably know it’s a little bit unusual for children’s authors to illustrate their own work. They usually use different artists. She does both exceedingly well, and she’s had some real success. Her artwork is exquisite. She’s gonna read a little bit from her work, but we’re also gonna be showing slides of her (illustrations).” Chance’s published works include ovine extravaganza Ewela’s Baaad Day! and rhyming travelogue C Is for China.
Christina Vega will return to read their exceptional poetry at this year’s salon. Vega is a Tacoma-based poet and publisher whose nonfiction articles appear often in OLY ARTS. Their first chapbook, Still Clutching Maps, debuted in 2017. “We really try to bring in new people each time, and Christina was featured in our second or third salon,” notes Willis, but “she was so great we really had to bring her back.”
Jack Tronsdal is a filmmaker who assisted Willis at the University of Portland. “He had to listen to me pontificate for 240 miles once a week for a semester, and he’s become a colleague,” says Willis. Mia Tierney was a filmmaker in Willis’s screenwriting class at University of Portland last year and has since interned with Northwest Playwrights Alliance. She, Tronsdal and Willis “came up with this idea for a short-film contest,” Willis continues. “We got submissions from all over the world — I mean many different continents. It was really exciting.” Center Salon will premiere the winner of that contest, a 10-minute short in the contest’s final selection process as of this writing. “It’s difficult,” says Willis, “because we got some really good films.”
Next will be a trio by Carolyn Fry, Daven Tillinghast and Jana Tyrrell. “They are singing a song,” Willis continues, “which is gonna be featured next fall in the Zonta (International) production of the Hotel Olympia play we’re doing at the hotel. Daven’s gonna be playing ukulele, and then we’re gonna have — I’m smiling because these two singers, they’re both great singers, but they sound so good together. … The song is a real treat. It’s one from the ’20s … called ‘Get Out and Get Under the Moon.’ … It was written during the start of Prohibition, so it’s like, ‘Hey, you can’t drink anymore, so go take your sweetie by the hand and go out and get under the moon.’ … It’s gonna be a total joy to hear that and hear them sing.”
Creole author, poet and community organizer Lennée Reid will perform verses while accompanying herself on singing bowls. “It’s going beyond the traditional poetry reading,” says Willis, “so we’re looking forward to seeing what she comes up with there. She’s been on our list for a couple of years, too, so we’re happy this is working out.”
Unlike a traditional cabaret project, this event has no dress rehearsal, so Willis gets to experience most of its material for the first time that night right alongside the audience. Based on past Center Salons, he is sure to be richly entertained.
Photo credits: the artists
The Center Salon 2023
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 19
Washington Center Black Box Theater
512 Washington St. SE