by Molly Gilmore
As it ramps up for the opening of its 2023-24 season, Olympia Family Theater has lost one leader and gained another. Artistic Director Lily Raabe, who took the helm in 2021, has resigned to spend more time writing and traveling, and while her successor hasn’t yet been chosen, the company has hired its first executive director, Olympia actor Mark Alford.
“As a grown-up theater kid, I am truly bursting with excitement,” said Alford, who began work Sept. 18. “Olympia Family Theater is a beloved space, and it is an honor to be entrusted with ensuring it the bright future it deserves.”
Alford is best known as an actor, with notable roles including the Bunny in OFT’s Goodnight Moon and The Prince in OFT’s Cinder Edna and Lucas — Neil Simon’s alter ego — in Harlequin Productions’ Laughter on the 23rd Floor. But he also has years of experience in theater administration, which he studied at The Evergreen State College. As a student, he formed and managed the student theater group Riot to Follow, which performed both on campus and off. He served on the board of directors of Theater Artists Olympia in 2011 and 2012. He was development director at Harlequin — and founded and ran the in-house improv troupe Something Wicked — from 2013 to 2016.
The theater, opening its season with The Lightning Thief (Oct. 6-29), is still in the process of hiring its next artistic director. “We got a bunch of good applicants, and now we are going to go from there,” Alford said.
Raabe, meanwhile, is wrapping up her two-year tenure at the end of September. “I’ve loved my time at OFT, and it’s a really busy job,” she said. “It takes a lot of energy and a lot of love.” Steering the company through the pandemic, she realized she wanted more time for her own creative work. She’ll continue to consult with nonprofits, work she did before and during her time at OFT.
“The last couple of years made me hyper-aware of how important it is not to take your time for granted,” she said. “In some ways we all lost a couple of years. There are things I really want to do, and I don’t want to try to balance that with OFT. I feel like I’d let someone down. I’d rather have people there who can give 120 percent.”
Raabe is particularly proud of the theater’s Access For All program, which provides tickets and programs on a sliding scale that includes free access, supported by other patrons paying more when they can afford to.
“Lily has helped us move our values toward accessibility,” said Samantha Chandler, chair of the theater’s board and the company’s co-founder. “She has championed the Access for All program. Her mentoring of the partnership between String and Shadow (puppet troupe) and the theater has been awesome.”
String and Shadow Puppet Theater was an integral part of The Secret Garden, Raabe’s favorite production during her time as artistic director. The play, adapted by Mabelle Reynoso, updated Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, turning protagonist Mary into a punk-rock-loving tween trying to cope with life in the Pacific Northwest. “That production is the one that has stayed in my heart,” Raabe said.
“It’s been an honor to be part of it all,” she wrote in an open letter to the community (https://olyft.org/seeking-ofts-new-artistic-director/). “I am filled with gratitude that I have been able to form relationships in this community that I believe will last a lifetime.”
There’s often a big transition when founders leave an organization, both Chandler and Raabe said. Though the continuing transition is a challenge, Chandler pointed out that the theater is in a good place. “We have a lot of different folks coming in, hungry for things to do for their kids,” she said. “The house has been 80 percent full for most of our shows, which is pretty uncommon these days.”
Following Raabe’s resignation, the board realized that hiring an executive director was a critical piece for the growing organization. More new staff is on the way, Alford said. “The development manager is the next one we’re going to hire. There’s lots of other positions we are looking into filling soon, including a technical director.
“In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to finalize the core staff,” he said. “It really is a whole new day for us, staff-wise. We’re building out positions that we haven’t had for years or have never had.” The theater is also moving into new office space above the Olympia Youth Art Alliance, the space next to the theater.