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Building on Loyalty
Julie Wenzel and the Merc Playhouse

photoJulie Wenzel will wrap up four years as Artistic Director of the Merc Playhouse at the end of June.

Before she first ventured into Twisp’s Merc Playhouse, Julie Wenzel had performed on stages all around Puget Sound, from Everett to Olympia. Back then, it was easy to breeze from one theatre to the next with little sense of attachment, recalls Wenzel.

It’s been a different story at the Merc, where the blonde dynamo will wrap up four productive years as Artistic Director at the end of June. “There’s an incredible sense of loyalty here,” she says. “We work hard to create a sense of family.”

One of her favorite Merc memories: directing husband Mark in the outdoor production of The Music Man while daughter Ruby danced in the grass nearby. ‘’It doesn’t get much better than that,” smiles Wenzel. Besides growing her own family (the Wenzels have had two children, Ruby and Eli, since arriving in the valley), she has dramatically broadened the theatre’s reach during her tenure.

For starters, the Merc season now includes five productions (plus staged readings) per year—up from three shows per year in the past. Valley residents have stepped right up, says managing director Jane Hubrig, driving a double-digit increase in attendance. The audience space has expanded to 150 seats, the result of a successful capital campaign that also allowed the nonprofit theatre to buy the building last year.

Another key ingredient in the Merc’s secret sauce? Kids. Wenzel has capitalized on the valley’s “apparently insatiable appetite” to see the younger set on stage, says Hubrig. Each Merc season now features at least one children’s theatre production, and sometimes more. With 36 young actors treading the boards, the upcoming Alice in Wonderland will feature the theatre’s largest cast ever.

photoJulie Wenzel rehearses with Alice in Wonderland cast members (from left) Maisy Shaw, Kira Cramer and Julia Dietz.

Throw into the mix a weeklong summer drama camp for kids; technical training for youth (where kids learn stage management, lighting and sound operation); teen choreographers; collaboration with the high school construction and welding class; and, well, the theatrical family just keeps growing.

It hasn’t been all childsplay, though. As artistic director, Wenzel chooses each season’s offerings. She’s challenged some local sensibilities by adding edgier shows, such as the recent God of Carnage, to the mix. That play, with its acerbic dialogue and brutish behavior, reflects Wenzel’s commitment to theatre as a conversation-starter. “She has a great track record [in choosing seasons],” says Hubrig, who praises Wenzel’s ability to “understand the community and push it a little bit—but not too much.”

Wenzel laughs that it might take another 50 years for her to fully understand the Methow Valley community, but credits it for the Merc’s—and her own—success. “This is a place that loves to support their own,” she says, “to support each other and each other’s kids…[The Merc] really succeeds because it’s a vibrant arts scene.”

Building on a stellar track record at the Merc, Wenzel will continue her theatrical journey in Anacortes, where her reputation precedes her. “Theatres there have already reached out,” she says.


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Have a comment? >>

We're losing two great additions to the community at large as the Wenzels leave. They will be missed.

Bill Karro


That's what I say too, Bill.

David Sabold