Pandemic's past but local theaters are (cautiously) optimistic - Salish Current
August 11, 2023
Pandemic’s past but local theaters are (cautiously) optimistic
Matt Benoit

Improv performers interact with the audience at a recent Upfront Theatre show. The improv theater will begin its third season on Prospect Street next month, after reforming as a nonprofit during the pandemic. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

August 11, 2023
Pandemic’s past but local theaters are (cautiously) optimistic
Matt Benoit

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In recent weeks, national and local news has included dire-sounding articles regarding the state of American theater.

In the wake of a global pandemic that brought a curtain down on live performances in 2020 and much of 2021, the return to normalcy for theaters big and small has been a struggle. As many as 25 to 30% of theater audiences have not returned to their seats. 

Regionally, Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre announced its closure in June after 33 years of shows, while the city’s ACT Theatre has reduced show runs by a full week. 

So, how are things in our neck of the woods? The answer isn’t great, but it also isn’t yet as worrisome as some national headlines. 

Re-opening with ‘a whirlwind’

As Salish Current reported last July, the closing of Bellingham’s Sylvia Center for the Arts cast an uncertain pall over the local performing arts scene. 

Fortunately, the Lucas Hicks Theater — where Sylvia Center productions took place — is alive and well thanks to a six-year lease between New Prospect Theatre and the landlord of the space at 207 Prospect Street in downtown Bellingham. 

New Prospect, an offshoot of nonprofit Firefly Productions, has been hosting the space since last December. Suzanne Mackay, its program director, describes the time since then as a “whirlwind.”

“It’s been really busy,” she said. “We’re actually booked all the way through January.”

Thirty-seven different groups — including other theater groups like the Bellingham Theatre Guild — have performed in the Lucas Hicks space since Dec. 3, Mackay says, encompassing a wide range of mediums: music, dance, film, theatre, burlesque and even pole dancing. 

Rentals have been so plentiful, in fact, that the Firefly hasn’t produced its own show in the space yet, which is rentable at hourly, daily and sponsored rates. The latter is set up for newer groups or those lacking funds, with a 50/50 split of the house to reduce the advance cash required for a rental. Mackay says the arrangement has been popular and helpful for all involved. 

Changing faces

Overall, Mackay said she believes the formation of new performance groups and the collaborations between them have made the current local performance landscape feel like a more tightknit community. 

“Everybody’s looking to help each other out,” she said. “Part of the reason that we’re doing such a variety of groups and types of performances is to keep a diverse audience coming through the door.”

The 1923 building on Prospect Street also hosts the Upfront Theatre — the improv comedy theater on Bay Street owned by comedian Ryan Stiles from 2004 to 2020. Stiles liquidated his interest in the business in 2020, and the theater re-formed as a non-profit. 

In September 2021, it re-opened in the black box theater space it continues to occupy. Since moving into the space, the Upfront has enjoyed a good relationship with it landlord, says executive director Samantha Jolly. 

“To have an affordable space of this size in a town like Bellingham, where it’s really hard to find an affordable space, (is great),” she said. “We have grown the revenue of the theater pretty significantly since our first year reopening.”

In addition to space enhancements like lights, sound and seating, Jolly said the Upfront is working to bring its improv classes and private events back to health, and is also applying for a liquor license to get concessions back. 

Among the biggest challenges the theater has faced since reopening is just letting people know they’re still around, albeit in a different form, Jolly said. The change in business model, she added, allowed them to re-evaluate the theater’s direction and make it as welcoming as possible to both improvisers and those who love to watch them. 

“It is just a more communal space,” she said. “The purpose of the theater in the community (is) to involve the community in what we love about improv.”

Slowly but avidly

A few blocks away at the Mount Baker Theatre, executive director John Purdie and staff are continuing to prepare for their upcoming 2023-24 season of shows. 

Audiences, Purdie said, have come back slowly, not reaching pre-pandemic numbers until late last year. But those who’ve come back have done so enthusiastically, and initial ticket sales for their latest shows leave them confident heading into the fall. 

While the historic venue continued receiving funds directly from the City of Bellingham while closed for an entire year in 2020, it did so at a reduced rate. Local support and grants like the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant, Purdie said, made a massive difference in how the theater handled the pandemic.  

Saturna Capital, the primary sponsor of MBT’s seasonal slates, maintained their support in 2020-21 despite the venue not being open. In addition, MBT received one of eight arts and culture grants from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust, an organization with a coverage area of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and parts of Montana and Utah. 

A subsequent consultation with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management allowed MBT to have a “clarified vision for the future,” Purdie says, giving them a chance to strengthen community relationships and emerge re-charged from the pandemic. 

As a result, the theater is expanding arts education programming and programming in general, attempting to serve even more of the community in Whatcom County and beyond. 

Still, Purdie noted that inflation has cut into profit margins, hiking things like utilities and employee health insurance about 20% compared to a year ago.

 “Our labor costs and our utility bills, all those things just keep going up faster than we can make ground on with the ticket sales and the donations,” he said. 

Not yet out of the weeds

Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao, the former Sylvia Center artistic director, is still working on the 20-year-old iDiOM Theatergroup’s new season and future space, the latter of which should be announced in a few weeks.

“We’re running classes and taking submissions and working on building a stronger, more sustainable mode of local theater to weather the storms,” he said in a recent Facebook message. 

Despite all the upcoming reasons to be optimistic, Hergenhahn-Zhao still says the overall environment for live theater is still perilous. 

“It’s good to see new companies, but we are far from out of the weeds,” he said. “Attendance is down drastically from pre-pandemic levels. Local productions that do not normally run with understudies face restructuring or gambling with a shutdown with every production.”

The Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth, better known as BAAY, is one arts organization soon to be losing its home along State Street in downtown Bellingham, said Mackay. 

After having provided a home for young community performers in dance, theater, choir and music for 17 years, the building that has served as a home to BAAY is being sold. Although the organization has performed at both the MBT’s Walton Theatre and at New Prospect, it’s unclear where they will relocate. 

Funds for fun

Both Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham award annual tourism promotion grants that provide seed money for new events and marketing funds for established ones.  

These disbursements are awarded to organizations that put on events likely to increase economic activity through tourism, and the money for the grants is sourced from the county and city lodging tax. 

In 2022 and 2023, the City of Bellingham awarded more than $300,000 with these grants, with Whatcom County awarding an additional $170,750 in event and festival requests, according to the Whatcom County Executive’s Office.

Some of the Bellingham grants did go toward theater events. Sylvia Center received $15,000 in American Rescue Protection Act funds, while American Theater Northwest received a $5,000 startup grant for a production. Bellingham Theatre Works’ Summer Repertory Theatre also benefitted from such a grant, while Firefly Productions received the same grant earlier this year for its Bellingham Puppetry Festival. 

MBT does not apply for or receive any of these grants, as it receives lodging tax revenue directly from the city each year as the nonprofit that operates a historic venue.  

While next year’s distributions will not be announced until October, pending August submission deadlines, Jolly says it is the Upfront’s intention to finally apply for them. The theater did not officially receive their 501(c)3 status until December of last year, meaning their capacity for grant writing was limited, Jolly said. 

Smaller nonprofits, she added, can find grant opportunities challenging, as some grants are tailored to those of specific sizes, number of programs or employees. The Upfront relies on a very small staff, Jolly said, and even her position as executive director is mostly volunteer-based. 

These particular tourism grants be additionally challenging for theaters, Mackay said, as they typically require a large amount of dollars to be used for advertising. 

Still, Jolly said that the Upfront offers a unique addition to local arts she hopes will be recognized by those offering funds, which could go towards things like scholarships for helping low-income improvisers afford classes.

“I think there’s a very compelling case to be made that we do bring people here, that we are an opportunity to see something different in a town like Bellingham,” she said. 

Back on track

In general, Purdie said that although the last several years have been challenging for the local arts community, he believes thinks are headed in the right direction. 

“This whole region, if you look at some of the arts stuff that goes in Skagit County as well, I think it’s a place that (really) does enjoy live art,” he said. Anacortes Community Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon survived the challenges of the COVID-19 shutdown and have busy seasons booked going forward.

Mackay is also optimistic about New Prospect and what it offers to the community at large, continuing to build off the legacy of Sylvia Center. 

“We’re just trying to create an energy around the space, and a community aspect of it that will just keep going,” she said.

— Reported by Matt Benoit

Also read: “Showtime in Mount Vernon: Lincoln Theatre is a star in downtown renewal,” Salish Current, June 30, 2023

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