Olsen cues final bow

Merritt Olsen - Contributed photo
Merritt Olsen
— image credit: Contributed photo

Just how far is Merritt Olsen willing to go to promote a show?

The answer — evidently — is South Dakota.

After 12 years at the helm, Olsen last week announced that he will be stepping down as executive director of San Juan Community Theatre at the end of May. Olsen and his wife, Janet, who recently retired from her position as band director of Friday Harbor High, will be returning to Cedar Rapids, South Dakota, the city where the couple packed up their bags a dozen years ago and then headed out to forge a new life on San Juan Island.

The announcement comes on the eve of yet another theatre production, the Sound of Music, in which Olsen takes on the role of director. The Sound of Music opens May 10 and runs through… drum roll… May 30. Coincidence...? You be the judge.

“I’ll do anything to promote a show,” Olsen said, a mischievous chuckle in his voice. “Actually, it seems kind of obvious at this point, I’m 66. But the biggest driver of this is family issues.”

That issue, more specifically, is about distance.

Olsen said that he and his wife — a powerful combination in the island’s performing arts arena for more than a decade — will be leaving the island largely to live closer to their four grandchildren. The couple have a daughter and son-in-law, and two grandchildren in Iowa, and a son and two grandchildren in New York city. All four grandchilden are between two and six year of age.

Pat Nieman, president of the theatre’s board of directors, said that Olsen will be hard to replace. As an actor, director and the theatre’s top administrator, Olsen played many roles during a dozen years at San Juan’s leading performing center.

“I’m still reeling from the whole thing,” Nieman said. “It’s kind of hard to accept it. But Merritt recognizes that family comes first and I understand and truly honor him for that.”

Theatre insiders credit Olsen with helping put the San Juan Community Theatre on solid ground. During his tenure, Olsen led fund-raising for and development of the Performing Arts Resource Center, or PARC, at the Beaverton Valley Business Park, used for rehearsal, set construction and storage. The Gubelman Theater began being used as a regular venue. The theater booked major names like Maria Muldaur, the Wailin’ Jennys, Leon Redbone and Grammy winners, like Asleep at the Wheel.

Olsen oversees a staff of eight full- and part-time employees.

Back in South Dakota, Olsen will be starting over fresh, an aspect of the arts which he enjoys and cherishes. He has agreed to be the half-time executive director of the Rapid City Performing Arts Center, a venue that is a work in progress and expects to open in 2013.

“I’ll be taking them from the beginning,” he said. “I think it’ll be the fifth theater that I’ve help to start.”


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