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Difference Makers: Yvonne A.K. Johnson brings passion and crowds to Spokane Valley Summer Theatre

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 23, 2021

Yvonne A.K. Johnson has been chosen as one of this year’s “Difference Makers.” She is the founder and director of the Spokane Valley Summer Theatre, soon to be the Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center.  (COLIN MULVANY\THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Yvonne A.K. Johnson has been chosen as one of this year’s “Difference Makers.” She is the founder and director of the Spokane Valley Summer Theatre, soon to be the Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center. (COLIN MULVANY\THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Born with a mind fit for business just as much as art, founder and executive artistic director of the Spokane Valley Summer Theatre Yvonne A.K. Johnson knew early on that when it came to theater, she was happiest in the director’s chair.

“There are so few people in this world who can use both sides of their brain equally well,” said Dan Griffith, a fellow member of the building design committee for the planned Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center.

Growing up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Johnson had more opportunities to experiment with the arts than might be expected. She was able to take acting classes, sing in choirs and perform in plays and musicals throughout high school.

“We had a really strong arts program … especially for the ’80s,” she said, remembering how her theater teacher, Neil Gregerson, particularly encouraged his students to explore different facets of stage production, both on and off stage.

Getting to participate regularly in school productions was unusual enough. But Johnson got to direct.

The school had a mainstage theater, used for larger-scale musicals and plays, but a second, “black box” style theater, she explained, allowed for student-led productions.

“I took a directing class with (Gregerson),” she said. “He would let us self-produce, put together our own shows. And I loved that.”

She had similar experiences at Carthage College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in speech, communications and theater. After graduation, she stayed in Milwaukee for a few years, continuing to direct community theater as the idea of graduate school started forming on the horizon.

“I’d always wanted to study abroad, and I didn’t do it in college,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I’m going to study abroad for my master’s degree in England.’ I mean, what better place is there for theater?”

She eventually chose the University of Essex, in Colchester, just outside London. There, she earned a masters in Contemporary Theatre Practice.

“I think sometimes with the journey that I’ve had at SVST, I think some people think I’m pretty much a musical theater director,” she said. “But … I’ve had contemporary theatre practice and directed countless plays as well. And I love directing both mediums.”

With her first masters degree under her belt, Johnson decided to stay in London where she would co-found and serve as artistic director of Kassiopia Theatre Company from 1996 until 2001.

“She knows how to get things done,” Griffith said. “And she knows how to surround herself with people that that will accomplish those things along with her.”

Later in 2001, she moved back to the U.S. to pursue a masters in directing at Minnesota State University. And, after graduating from MSU, Johnson became the company director and producer at CLIMB Theatre (Creative Learning Ideas For Mind and Body) in the Twin Cities.

Johnson moved to New York to work in artist management but after some time she realized she missed working in a community.

So when a director position opened up at the Spokane Civic Theatre, she threw her name in the ring and made her way to the Inland Northwest.

“What she did with the Civic was remarkable,” Griffith said. “She took it from being basically on the edge of going under to being incredibly profitable … And not just that, but raise the level and quality of productions … every season.

“It was demanded and it happened … and that rubbed some people the wrong way because she wasn’t going to give on any of that. But that’s what she did. She really saved the Civic.”

While she guided the theater to financial health and popular success, her eight-year tenure at Civic caused division within the theater community, and it came to an abrupt and messy end when Johnson was fired in 2013.

Her ouster, weeks after she had received a positive performance review and a bonus, came amid ongoing controversy over the firing of the theater’s music director three years prior.

Johnson filed a wrongful termination suit against Civic, which was settled in 2015 for an undisclosed amount.

After leaving Civic, she formed a theatrical management company and returned to the East Coast. But after a few years, Johnson felt called to bring theater to the Spokane Valley. And soon after, the Spokane Valley Summer Theatre was born. SVST is a professional nonprofit arts organization, Spokane Valley Summer Theatre produces musical theater and education-focused summer camp programs for students in grades 2-12.

“Yvonne is definitely the heart and soul and driving force of all of it,” said Marnie Rorholm, director of development of SVST and soon-to-be managing director of SVPAC. “It was her vision originally to start a professional summer theater here … and as she made that happen, and then grew it.”

SVST’s budget has doubled in the six years since its opening.

“She never takes credit for herself and always gives it to the team, but the truth is the vision and the drive and pushing it forward … it’s always her,” Rorholm said.

Rorholm recalled a conversation she had with Johnson in February 2021, when virtual performances were starting to feel like the only option.

“And she says, ‘So are we not going to produce for another year? Or are we going to try to do something?’”

Johnson insisted that the best thing they could do was to try to bring the community back together in a safe setting.

“She said, ‘It won’t be a moneymaker. It’s gonna cost us like five times as much to produce outside, but whatever we can do to bring people back to live theater and live music and to get together … that’s the best thing we can do to help people stop feeling so isolated.’”

That summer, SVST produced a series of showcase-style shows including “Under the Stars” and “Rising Stars” at West Lawn Plaza at CenterPlace.

“We were the first theater in the entire region to return to in-person programming,” Rorholm said. “And she didn’t have to do that. She could have said let’s just save ourselves the money and not … open up until maybe 2022.”

But Johnson was adamant. And by the time their July 2021 production of “Little House on the Prairie – the Musical” was ready to start production, SVST was able to rehearse and eventually perform indoors on the University High School Theatre stage.

“It ended up becoming the best selling show in the company history,” Rorholm said.

The production won the governor’s Arts and Heritage Luminary Award for, Rorholm remembered, “keeping the light on during COVID for arts and humanities.”

“SVST and SVPAC is all her heart, her vision, her dream, and the rest of us are just blessed and lucky enough to be riding her coattails.’

From Waukesha, Wisconsin, to London, England, to Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to New York and finally to Spokane, Johnson has always chased after two things she says can never be taken away from someone, “education and experience.”

At every stage of her own education, Johnson made efforts to create opportunities for those after her. She founded two programs at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for young artists, grades K–12, and, more recently, the Spokane Civic Theatre Academy as well as SVST’s (soon to be the Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center) Conservatory.

Johnson’s devotion to bringing children into the arts is obvious, SVST marketing director Susanna Baylon said.

“In 2016, when (Johnson) started Spokane Valley Summer Theater, my daughter was part of that inaugural season,” Baylon said, explaining how she got to know Yvonne through her daughter’s eyes as well as her own experiences.

“I was so impressed at how she creates community. She’s such a strong leader, and such a good mentor to kids.”

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