Winners of the 2023 Washington Center Arts Awards

by Molly Gilmore

Comedian Gabriel Rutledge and Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia founders Greg and Krina Allison are the winners of The Washington Center for the Arts’ annual arts awards, chosen by the center’s board. Rutledge and the Allisons will be honored June 29 at the Center Stage Gala, which also includes a performance by internationally renowned Prince tribute band Marshall Charloff and Purple Xperience.

Gabriel Rutledge is the first comedian to receive the Washington Center’s Achievement in the Arts Award. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rutledge.

Rutledge, who’s lived in Olympia since childhood, is the first comedian to win the Achievement in the Arts Award. “We’re really excited to award this to a comedian,” said Jill Barnes, the center’s executive director. “Comedy is a very difficult genre to perform. It’s not like you have a score or a script. Comedians are beta-testing their material every night.”

The Allisons, receiving the Commitment to the Arts Award, started SOGO in 2000 and have been running it ever since. “They have touched so many lives in our community,” Barnes said. “Greg was a schoolteacher for a long time, and they have shepherded SOGO for so long. They have an energy and care for the music and for students. They meet students where they are and help them grow.”

“We’ve served about 2,000 kids over the last 23 years,” said Krina Allison, SOGO’s executive director. “I’m excited that the work we have done is making an impact on our community and especially our young people.”

Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia founders Krina and Greg Allison are receiving the center’s Commitment to the Arts Award. Photo courtesy of Greg Allison.

It feels particularly good to be recognized by the center, where SOGO’s three orchestras and its Brass Choir perform, said Greg Allison, the orchestra’s artistic director and one of its conductors. “The Washington Center has been our home for a good number of years,” said Allison, who taught at Washington Middle School for 40 years before retiring in 2020. “We couldn’t afford to be in that venue for the first four years or so, but we’ve been there for almost 20 years. That makes it really a sweet thing to be recognized by them.”

For Rutledge, too, the hometown honor means a lot, even though his talent has been recognized with wins at such big-name events as the Seattle International Comedy Competition and the Atlanta-based Laughing Skull Comedy Festival. “This is a very fun surprise,” he said. “And Mr. Allison was my fifth-grade band teacher (at Pioneer Elementary), so this is a very Olympia event.”

COVID was a turning point for both Rutledge and SOGO. The comedian stepped up his online presence during the pandemic, and that’s helped him find more work and draw bigger crowds. “When I started comedy, the idea that some of my videos would get millions of views online sounded like flying cars from the future,” he said.

In the fall, he was invited to audition at New York’s Comedy Cellar, known as the granddaddy of comedy clubs. His show was a success, and now he performs regularly at the Comedy Cellar in Las Vegas, doing two shows a night for a week at a time. “The night of that audition was great,” he said. “I felt sort of like a country mouse in the big city. In New York City, I was still working with my peers, but they were all people you’ve seen on TV shows.”

The changes and challenges that came during the pandemic led SOGO to new opportunities, too. Like just about everything, the program went online in 2020, with the usual concerts being replaced by one online concert made up of pieces assembled from student recordings.

Awards and Gala poster from Washington Center website

The need to work over Zoom — especially the difficulty of doing so with beginning musicians — inspired the Allisons to start a SOGO to Schools program that allowed younger students to work with teaching artists in small groups and one-on-one.

The program has expanded over the past two school years, with the small group sessions now held in person in public schools. “During the 2022-2023 season, we provided 231 sectionals and 325 private lessons,” Greg Allison said. “Managing the SOGO to Schools program has become a pretty significant part of my job.”

Center Stage Awards and Gala

Gala at 5 p.m. June 29 at the Olympia Ballroom, 116 Legion Way SW, Olympia

Concert by Prince tribute band Marshall Charloff and The Purple Xperience at 7:30 p.m. at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St SE, Olympia.

$25-$65 for the concert only; gala tickets are sold out.


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