For supporters of Centralia’s Evergreen Playhouse, reaching a milestone of 60 years as a theater is reason to throw a party. And they’re inviting the entire community to come help them celebrate.
“When you see so many theaters come and go, to have 60 years is quite a feat. Especially for a little town like this that you might wonder ‘can it support a theater for 60 years?’ Well, yes it can.” said Danielle Rivers, who is organizing the 60th anniversary event scheduled for Saturday. Rivers acted in her first play at Evergreen in 2000 and then returned in 2014. She’s been involved ever since.
The Evergreen Playhouse began as a dream for a handful of like-minded individuals. The first board of directors, founded in 1959, consisted of Marilyn Crosta, president; Joy Linder, vice president; Loid Nordquist, secretary; Carol Swenson, treasurer; Robin Koenniger; Lois Crampton; Richard Linder; Anne Caldwell; and Phillip Wickstrom.
According to longtime Evergreen Playhouse patron Audrey Kimball, the theater’s first play “Sabrina Fair” directed by Crosta, was performed in the ballroom of the Lewis & Clark Hotel. During their first days producing at the hotel, cast members had to completely strike the set after each performance because the ballroom was used by many other groups during the week. Later, the theater moved to an upstairs space above a hardware store across the street from the Centralia library.
The non-profit received funding in 1972 for its current building on Center Street in Centralia, which was paid off in 1989. The Center Street stage has been home to 178 of the 239 Evergreen productions over the last 60 years. Besides regular season productions, it has hosted children’s theater productions, a reader’s theater series called “One from the Shelf” and even once hosted a traveling cast from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Kris Garrett, president of the board, who with her husband, Rich, got involved in the playhouse first in the in the 1990s through Wickstrom. The Garretts, owners of Theatre of Arts Discipline (TOAD) spent several years in Nevada. In 2013 they became reacquainted with Evergreen and have been involved ever since. Garrett said it is the people involved with the community theater that make it such a special place.
“To come back to this community and see it was still going and it was still as charming as ever was something else,” Garrett said. “People do come and go but there’s a few of us who can’t seem to shake this place and I think for me, and for many, it’s the potential we see in it.”
One of the biggest changes Evergreen made was its decision several years ago to hold general auditions for its entire season once a year. Rivers said the change has attracted a larger pool of actors and actresses because they know very early in the traditional theater season whether or not they have been cast in a show and whether or not they can audition for shows at other theaters. This year, 84 people auditioned for the season and 51 were offered parts.
Along with this, the board took a different approach to choosing shows, including asking audiences for input. The 2019-2020 season shows “Next to Normal” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are examples of this process in action as audience members have asked for shows with a little more depth and a little less “fluff,” Garrett explained. “Scrooge the Musical” was also a request from audiences who have made it clear they want December shows to be Christmas themed.
New shows, new buzz and then the addition of online ticket sales, which include choosing your seat when you purchase, have led to larger crowds. Several shows, including the Christmas shows, sell out early.
“It’s been interested to see our mindset change over the years,” Rivers said. “I remember when we would celebrate when we had 40 in the audience (the theater has a capacity just above 140) and now we’re kind of disappointed when we have less than 60 people.”
The arts fund-raising group Community Auction for Theater Arts (CAFTA) once raised money to support the Evergreen Playhouse’s operations but now the non-profit is entirely funded through sales and donations. One thing that has not changed, though, is the commitment the original board made that the theatre should never operate at a loss. Rivers said to her knowledge, its annual budget has never run in the red and it is the generosity of theater goers, season sponsor businesses and donors that has made this possible.
“Everything we’re doing now is because we had the support from patrons and the community and businesses,” Rivers said. “Because of them, we are not in debt and we are making money that we can put back into things like our 60th season.”
To celebrate their 60th anniversary and thank the community for its support, the Evergreen Playhouse is hosting a day filled with fun. The 60th Anniversary party begins at 11 a.m. Saturday both inside and outside the Centralia theatre.
“We still, to this day get people say ‘I’ve lived here all my life and I never knew there was a theater here,’” Rivers said of the motivation. “We wanted to have something that can bring people in to the theater. So, we thought we’d do a great big block party.”
The Sept. 21 event will include a photo booth with a selection of costumes from the theater; tours of the theater and back stage; kids activities; live music by the Lewis County Pickers and Rattlin’ Bog; a showing of the movie “Mamma Mia!”; improv comedy and murder mystery as well as a review with scenes from all of this season’s upcoming shows; and a revue of the last 60 years of the Evergreen Playhouse with actors and actresses performing scenes from shows from every decade of the theater’s existence.
All events are free except for food and drinks that will be available for sale from local food trucks Hot Dog Adventure, Tacos El Ray, McNashton’s Shave Ice and NW Beerworks. There will also be cookie samples donated by Pacific Northwest Cookie Company.
A gala event begins at 6 p.m. inside the theater. Garrett explained that the event is meant to be black tie but attendees can come as they are. At around 6:30-7 p.m. open mic for sharing memories from the last 60 years of Evergreen will be offered. Like the afternoon portion of the event, the gala is also free and open to the public.
“This is about ‘we appreciate you. We’re thanking you,’” Garrett said of both events. “We’re really trying to make this a community event.”