O-Town Artist of the Month: Terry Olson: Orange County is his stage


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Terry Olson (Photo courtesy of Brian Carlson)

Yes, you know him: that guy with the spiky hair, crazy, colorful ties and a huge smile. Yes, that is Terry Olson, the director of Orange County’s Arts & Cultural Affairs.

Olson’s roots are far from sunny Florida. Born in Minnesota, he attended school in Alaska and graduated from college back in Minnesota. It took courage and a novel approach to theater to bring him here. Olson’s college career began with a degree in math and science, but, “A 7:45 a.m. calculus class ended that,” Olson recalled.

When asked why he turned to theater, he casually replied, “I liked to show off.” It took a trip to Germany and his first exposure to professional theater there to hook him into a degree in theater and a life that became his passion.

Terry Olson posing at Epcot in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of SAK Comedy Lab)

For many years, he participated in Renaissance fairs with SAK Theater, a company he co-founded, and even traveled and performed with Orlando’s own Wayne Brady. In 1982, Olson brought that company’s unique style of scripted improv to Disney’s Epcot.

He first laid eyes on his future bride, Robin, when she came through town in a touring production. Years later at a Christians in Theater Arts Conference, he was so impressed by the intelligent questions Robin was asking that he had to get to know her better. Ten dates later, they married.

“We got married in two acts. First was Saturday in Houston, and Act 2 in Orlando the next day,” Olson said.

Two years later, in 1996, their daughter Molly was added to the cast.

After visiting the “Fringe Festival” in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1980s, Olson was even more inspired. He knew he wanted to bring a Fringe Festival to Orlando. After leaving Disney, they ventured downtown to the plaza area where the SAK Comedy Lab was born. In 1992, they started the Orlando Fringe.

From 1985 until 2017, a regional repertory theater was developed; it was known as the Orlando Theater Project, and Olson was one of the founders and produced the first five seasons.

“I liked creating events,” he said proudly.

Olson was also instrumental in the creation of the Central Florida Theater Alliance and served as its first executive director. He had taken a risk and left SAK to work there, but, after a couple of years, an Orange County taskforce recommended creating the Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs office, and, as Olson says, “I became a bureaucrat.”

As a performer, he knew almost all the players in Orange County. His credits included Play Fest at the Shakes, the Winter Park Playhouse, Opera Orlando, Central Florida Community Arts, the Rep, the Winter Garden Theater and even the Orlando Ballet. But, in his new role, he also had to embrace the visual arts.

A large part of his job is public-works projects, such as the sculptures surrounding Lake Eola or all kinds of art on display at the Orange County Convention Center. You will see him at almost every first-Thursday event at the Orlando Museum of Art. Olson has even shown his own photography at Snap.

“What I enjoy doing most is to bring the right people and resources together,” he said. “Something magical happens.”

And that is what Olson is doing this month with Orlando’s second-annual “Fusion Fest.” In 2015, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs wanted to celebrate all of the diversity of our great county. In 2016, a group from the African Leadership Council and the Caribbean Cultural Group met to share how to make it happen.

“Groups of 40 people would gather to brainstorm ideas. And, in the spring of 2018, the county finally said, ‘Go,’” Olson said.

Fusion Fest boasts diversity with groups from China, Russia, France, Mexico, Hawaii, Africa, Poland, Greece and every country you can think of. If you want to explore your roots, this is the event you are looking for. For fusion contests at the festival, the idea is to incorporate two or more diverse cultures into food, fashion, dance, music, film, poetry and any other art one could imagine.

It begins at noon on Nov. 30 with a parade of flags from city hall to the Dr. Phillips Center. Last year, there were Germans in Lederhosen doing the Mexican Hat dance on stage. One can only imagine what will be Downtown this year. Olson said his personal mission is, “To create dynamic events that enliven people.” SAK, Fringe, Fusion Fest and the many other projects Olson has taken on does just that.

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