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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Valley theater company plans shows, classes

Yvonne Johnson stands on the stage Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010 at the Civic Theatre. She’s returning to Spokane to start a new company, Spokane Valley Summer Theatre. JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

There’s a familiar face returning to the Inland Northwest theater scene, at least for the summer months.

Yvonne A.K. Johnson, who was executive director of Spokane Civic Theatre for eight years before she was fired in 2013, is coming back to town and teaming up with one of her former actors to open the Spokane Valley Summer Theatre.

The company will stage three musicals this summer at the Central Valley High School Performing Arts Center: “Buddy,” starring Brian Dalen Gunn; “Oliver!”; and “Bring it On.”

Johnson’s firing from Civic was controversial. No reason was ever specified, and it came weeks after she was awarded a bonus for “hard work” and after years of positive employment reviews. She filed a $2 million wrongful termination suit that summer. It was settled last year for an undisclosed amount.

Johnson, who since leaving Spokane has launched a theatrical management company, said that despite that history, the decision to come back to town was an easy one.

“There still was a lot of support for me to be able to come back to Spokane,” she said in a recent interview at Rockwood Bakery. “Over the past three years, I’ve had so many people ask me, ‘Can’t you come back? It would be wonderful if you came back and started something new. We’d like to support you.’ That comes from community partners, businesses, donors, season ticket holders, actors, technicians.”

The decision to base out of the Valley also seemed straightforward.

“Part of it was looking at the overall demographics and looking at where needs are for theater,” she said, adding that while she realized there is a lot of theater in the region, “there aren’t as many summer theaters that are active.”

She recognized the longtime success of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre and its recent resurgence after a brief hiatus in 2013. “I felt there was a need to have one more, that there was room for another summer theater.”

Because there are so many outdoor attractions to vie for people’s attention in the summer, it’s important to offer entertainment options that are lively, uplifting and of high quality, she said.

“People looking for an escape, a release. They want to have fun,” she said. “They want to laugh, enjoy the songs and go home feeling recharged.”

Johnson, who holds the title of executive artistic director, is teaming with Gunn, who is managing director, and Gunn’s wife, Ashley D’Lyn Gunn, a dancer and choreographer who will serve as education director. Brian Gunn played Buddy Holly in “Buddy” at Civic, and it was one of the theater’s most successful productions.

“I thought there was a need to do more summer programming, so we came up with the three-show season,” Johnson said. “Buddy” was enormously popular, and Gunn has since traveled the country playing the doomed rock star. “Oliver!” is one of those ultimate family shows, while “Bring It On: The Musical” is the Inland Northwest premiere. (Although West Coast Entertainment did bring the touring show to town for a one-night only performance in 2014.)

Another key component of her program in the Valley will be education. SVST also is a conservatory program, offering performance lessons for students in first grade through college. Johnson likes to say that talent needs to meet opportunity. She said she hopes through the SVST conservatory program to be able to guide and mentor young actors and technicians.

“There’s so much talent, wonderful kids, young adults, teens in this community that just need an opportunity, and they need someone who can help them hone their craft, (who) will be able to guide them toward those next steps,” she said.

Working with young people is something that Johnson has always enjoyed. Three of her clients in her management company, Johnson Theatrical Management, are young actors who worked with her at Civic. Sophia Anne Caruso, who starred as “Annie,” has appeared in “The Sound of Music Live” for NBC and the off-Broadway shows “Nether” and “Lazarus,” the David Bowie musical. Morgan Keene, who was in “Next to Normal” and “Grease” at Civic, is now on tour with “Newsies.” Joshua Spencer, Danny to Keene’s Sandy in “Grease,” is now enrolled at the Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York.

While mentoring has its appeal, she admits she missed stage work.

“I very much missed being able to work with the larger community, being able to produce with others, have that collaborative, ensemble environment. I missed that,” she said. “And directing as well. That’s an artistic outlet that I love.”