Washington Center for the Performing Arts reopens

The first half of this five-minute video tells the history of the Washington Center; the second half offers a tour of the newly remodeled facility in Olympia.
Courtesy of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, which has gone through a major refurbishing and updating of all theatrical equipment, has finally opened its curtains to the public.

Washington Center's executive director Jill Barnes gave tours to donors and other members of the public on Saturday, November 12, and then appeared at the Olympia City Council meeting on Tuesday, November 15, to update the council members on the center. 

"With tremendous support from Olympia, we were able to complete this $8.8 million campaign this summer," Barnes told the councilmembers.

The city renovated the exterior of the building in 2014.

The 2014 work "… brought to light that the interior and the backstage equipment needed a bit of updating,” Barnes remarked, “so we began to work on a capital campaign to update all areas of the Washington Center."

The Washington Center embarked on the interior renovation in the middle of the pandemic – working on the backstage first and completing work in the theatrical space, lobby, and other areas.

During Barnes’ tours of the building, she showed all the upgraded equipment and changes in the structure.


The Washington Center has upgraded the rigging system, lighting equipment, and audio system and put on new ink-blue curtains that can appear to change color depending on the lighting.

They replaced the audio system and the speakers to get the sound to every location in the theater.

"You notice in this space that we do not have parallel walls. It was designed so that there would not be reverberation. It is a beautiful acoustic theater," Barnes noted.

Barnes added that the lighting technology in the Washington Center has also made significant progress.

"This $750,000 lighting project puts the Washington Center at the front of the theatrical lighting technology in our state," she said.

"In the past 35 years, lighting technology has changed substantially. [The new lighting system] is labor efficient and energy efficient," Barnes said, adding, "anything is possible with our lighting equipment, and the only limitation is our dreams."

The Washington Center also has a new “HD” video projector, which she described as the "crème of the crop."


Barnes said they still have wheelchair seats and companion seats in the last row of the main floor, but they also added them on both sides of the theater.

The seats' armrests can be lifted to accommodate those with mobility issues.

One notable upgrade is the additional ALD or assisted listening device system. The Washington Center now has 50 ALD devices.

"You can sit almost anywhere in the house, and it works with different types of hearing loss or with hearing aids or cochlear implants," Barnes said. The Center worked with an audiologist, who helped pick up the right equipment and install it.

At the city council meeting, Barnes reported that the theater had replaced the old seats, which had been there since 1985, with brand-new high-quality seats.

They donated some old seats to Harlequin Productions and Lakewood Playhouse.

She assured the public that they did not compromise comfort in the theater. "We did not take your legroom. We were able to add a few extra seats on the sides." The theater now has over 1,000 seats, according to Barnes.

They installed digital screens in the concessions area and the lobby that they can use to promote upcoming performances or acknowledge their sponsors.

The lobby has new carpeting and wall coverings.

Barnes said they contracted with BCRA in Tacoma for interior design. "We did not tell them what color they had to use. We let them know how we want people to feel when they come in."

She said the wallpaper design, a replica of Andy Warhol's Rorschach ink blot series, makes the room look dramatic.

The other significant improvement includes building a trench in the ground for the cables.

As for the infrastructure, she said they installed:

  • HVAC and emergency chiller
  • Sprinklers and water heater
  • House lighting/dimmers
  • Elevator refurbish
  • Concrete resurfacing
  • Generator
  • Black box lobby skylight

"The timing of the HVAC upgrade was fortuitous. We had the proper filtration system in place before the COVID pandemic, which allowed us to reopen with other proper protections in place," she said.

 "We could not have done this project without the help of our community. We're appreciative of all of our donors – several local and regional foundations and businesses. We're grateful to have received funding commitments from our local municipalities. We could not have done this project without their support. We're fortunate to live in a community that values the arts," Barnes said as she enumerated and expressed appreciation to the Washington Center's supporters.

Tickets were sold out to the first performance to take the Washington Center's stage when it reopened on November 4, Barnes said. It was “Chris Perondi's Stunt Dog Experience.”

The Washington Center also featured another sold-out stage play, The Aunties, on November 17. It featured stories by Native American matriarchs.

Other events coming up include:

  • Blind Boys of Alabama with Charlie Musselwhite as a special guest performer – January 28, 2023
  • Legally Blonde the Musical – February 2, 2023
  • Postmodern Jukebox – June 8, 2023

Click here to see upcoming events at The Center.

“Originally built as the Liberty Theater in 1924, it reopened in 1985 after an extensive renovation,” according to the Olympia Historical Society’s website. Since then, it has hosted thousands of events, with almost 2 million people entering the center.

Barnes said the theater serves over 100,000 people annually. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts is a charitable nonprofit organization. It leases its building from the City of Olympia under a long-term agreement.

One last thing

If you missed the chance to contribute to The Center’s capital campaign, there’s still an opportunity to Sponsor a Seat in the theatre. For $300, your name or the name of someone you want to honor will be engraved on a brass plaque and installed on a right armrest.               

Click here to learn more.


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