The past couple of years have brought bouquets of recognition to Village Theatre, now celebrating its 30th anniversary in Issaquah.
“Next to Normal,” a musical co-authored by Issaquah native Brian Yorkey, won three 2009 Tony awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Another musical spawned at Village Theatre, “The Million Dollar Quartet,” was nominated for three 2010 Tony awards and brought home the prize for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical to Levi Kreis, who originated the role of Jerry Lee Lewis at the musical’s 2009 Issaquah premiere.
How did this stellar regional theater arise in a suburban town like Issaquah? According to Village Theatre’s Executive Producer, Robb Hunt, the theater’s roots run all the way to Montana, where actor and director Carl Darchuk ran a small theater.
When a member of that theater’s board of directors, Jon Wheeler, moved to Issaquah in the late 70s, he encouraged Darchuk to come out and take a look. Issaquah had an old movie house that was standing empty, and a burgeoning population of young families looking for entertainment.
According to a timeline published in the encore playbill, Village Theatre debuted “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” on April 20, 1979.
In that year Village also elected six members to the original board of directors, with Darchuk as the founding Artistic Director. Hunt served as the treasurer of the first board, and in 1980 was named Producing Director.
That empty movie house, originally called the Issaquah Theater and known as Village’s First Stage Theater, was built in 1913, according to an article posted to Washington State’s History-Link.org website by Phil Dougherty.
“In its early decades the theater had removable seats, which made room for other activities such as basketball games, school dances, and graduations,” Dougherty writes. “For at least some part of the theater’s history, movies were shown on its lower floor and the theater owners lived upstairs.”
At a cost of $6,000, the movie house was remodeled in 1930 to accommodate “talkies,” going on to serve Issaquah under several different owners for another four decades.
In 1967, real estate broker Bob Catterall bought the Issaquah Theater and turned management of the building over to the Pine Lake Presbyterian Church. A board of directors ran it until the late 70s, when the building was deemed unsafe by the local fire marshall, and closed.
Enter Village Theater, stage right.
The funky old theater became home to a fledgling troup of actors, directors and artists. After two seasons of successful shows under Darchuk’s direction, Village Theatre purchased the Issaquah Theater in January, 1981.
According to Hunt, the building posed many challenges.
“We had a small fire, and I believe it was 1982 when the fire marshal told us we had to re-wire the entire building before we could allow patrons to enter,” Hunt said in a recent interview. “That was kind of exciting.”
The narrow, 200-seat theater had many artistic challenges as well. The stage was excruciatingly small, dressing rooms were located underneath the stage, requiring the actors and others to navigate a rickety staircase. And there was no space to create sets or store costumes.
But logistical challenges produced a “can do” spirit. Hunt fondly recalls the camaraderie that developed between the actors, directors, artists and volunteers during those early years.
Together, they produced an annual haunted house at Crossroads Mall, Christmas specials featuring a five course meal with a goose and all the trimmings, and tours aboard an old school bus that went all the way to Ashland, Oregon, “just to get re-inspired,” Hunt said.
“We did lots of things like that in the early days. We were a group of people who just wanted to put on a show.”
By 1993, Village Theatre had grown enough to build the modern facility, the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, on Front Street near Rainier Boulevard.
Village continues to operate the older theater, and began reconstructing that historic building this month.
Village Theatre operates another theater in Everett, and sponsors a flourishing youth education program called Kidstage, with a wide range of drama and stagecraft offerings.
It was Kidstage that first attracted a young Brian Yorkey to Village.
“Brian is the prime example of how Kidstage is developing future generations of actors, directors and playwrights,” said Hunt. “But there are many other examples. Alex Berry continues to design sets and lights for us, but is also responsible for lighting the presentations of product rollouts for Microsoft. We continue to include many graduates of Kidstage in our productions.”
Reflecting on the astonishing success of the last 30 years, Hunt said “If there’s any secret, it’s slow and steady growth. The audiences continue to get what they expect, and then a little bit more. We continue to try to get just a little bit better, year after year.”