Olympia High School’s Kathy Dorgan is at the helm of her final production at the school where’s she taught for 21 years.
Dorgan, who retires next month, will take her final Olympia High School curtain call at “Legally Blonde,” with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
She’s directed three plays a year at the school — plus the annual Olympia School District Players’ musical.
So central are school plays to her life that she marks time not by years but by spring musicals.
“With anything you ask me about, any time at school, I have to think what was our show that year, and then I can figure it out from there,” she said. “I could probably just rattle them all off right now.
“It’s the thing I love the most to do — and not just musicals, but all plays.”
It’s no surprise, then, that she plans to continue her theatrical run after retiring as a teacher. She’ll direct three or four plays next year, including two at Saint Martin’s University and the school district musical, which she’ll do with longtime co-worker, friend and collaborator Colleen Powers.
Dorgan, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, fell in love with theater in high school after a broken leg sidelined her from the swimming team.
“I was in a cast for a year and then wore a brace for another year,” she said. “I was pretty devastated because my life was organized around sports, and my counselor at school said, ‘You should take drama. I think you’d really like it,’ and that was it.
“My life reminds me of that Robert Frost poem (‘The Road Not Taken’),” she added. “ ‘Knowing how way leads on to way.’ ”
She studied theater and English at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where she dove into directing. After college, it was more than a decade until her professional path wound its way to teaching and theater. She began teaching in Elma in 1988, earned a master’s degree in directing at the University of Portland in 1990, and got a second master’s in educational administration at PLU in 1994.
In 1997, she began working at Olympia High School, teaching English and theater classes and directing three plays a year. Among her favorites were 2005’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” 2016’s “Letters to Sala,” based on the experiences of a woman who lived through the Holocaust as a teen, and February’s “The Miracle Worker,” about Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Other highlights included 2004’s “Guys and Dolls” and 2009’s “Bye Bye Birdie,” both winners of 5th Avenue Theatre Awards for outstanding overall musical. Those awards honors outstanding achievement in high school musical theater in Washington state.
In 2014, she was one of 20 teachers chosen for a Directing Fellowship at The Juilliard School in New York, and in 2011, she was inducted into the Washington State Thespians Teacher Hall of Fame.
Dorgan has shared her love of theater with countless students — not only at the high school, but also through Creative Theatre Experience, the summer children’s theater program for which she’s served as artistic director since 2002. She’ll continue with CTE for at least another year, she said.
She serves students in other ways, too, including sponsoring Olympia High’s chapter of Pizza Klatch, a support group for LGBTQ students.
She has influenced Olympia’s larger theater community as well, said Jen Ryle, artistic director of Olympia Family Theater. Ryle worked at CTE, starting as an intern while she was studying theater at The Evergreen State College.
“I was following Kathy Dorgan around, and she was my mentor that summer,” Ryle said. “I learned a lot from her and from everyone at CTE.”
Ryle worked at CTE for a couple of years, and the connection has continued. “She has directed several shows for us,” Ryle said. “It’s a lovely thing when one of my mentors can come back and work with me at the theater.”
Dorgan is looking forward to learning more about her community after she retires.
“It’s surprising to me that I don’t really know what all there is to do in Olympia,” she said. “I work a lot. I’m hoping to find out what kind of opportunities there are for learning and growing and volunteering. And I want to take some yoga.”
All that, of course, will have to fit in around directing. She’s already thinking about the school district musical, set for January.
“The creative process is my deal,” she said. “When I know I’m going to direct a play, I start making a journal, and I make collages. I do all kinds of weird and crazy stuff to get myself in that space.
“I’m never going to be able to step away from the theater,” she added. “It really is the thing I love.”
Olympia High School’s “Legally Blonde” is the last show drama teacher Kathy Dorgan will direct before she retires in June.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Where: Olympia High School Performing Arts Center, 302 North St. SE, Olympia
More information: 360-596-7036, wa-olympia.intouchreceipting.com