Bellingham is very fortunate to be the chosen home of many talented musicians and artists. That includes a variety of theater, music and dance performers. Sylvia Center for the Arts, an evolving performance space founded in 2016 in Bellingham’s Downtown Arts District, has recently completed its expansion to include the Lucas Hicks Theatre. As the downtown and waterfront continue to develop and change, Sylvia Center continues to be a major influence on the area as a center for culture and the arts.
I’ve worked and performed for several years with Sylvia Center’s Artistic Director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao and his talented wife, co-founder and Capital Cabinet Chair Shu-Ling Hergenhahn-Zhao. Both work full-time to support Sylvia Center’s mission to serve Northwest Washington’s performing arts community with more resources.
Through a phased approach, Sylvia Center is gradually becoming Whatcom County’s performing arts community hub. With spaces currently in use for classes, events, and stage and music performances, Sylvia Center is has become a cutting-edge mixed-use performance space serving the arts community and providing even more options for visitors to appreciate.
In Spring 2016, The iDioM announced that, after 14 years at its Cornwall Avenue location, it would relocate to a new space being rebuilt almost from scratch and with much broader reach. Sylvia Center’s goals transcend and include those of the iDiOM, to premier hundreds of original plays by accomplished artists who live in or have deep ties to the Bellingham area.
Sylvia Center now serves the performing arts community with two theaters, classroom and rehearsal spaces, and eventually non-profit office space, all with accessibility and affordability in mind. The shared spaces intend to foster connection and collaboration between and among members of the dance, theater, and music communities, as well as other forms of performance including storytelling, literary events, speakers, festivals, circus acts, and anything else the community might dream up.
The center is named for Sylvia Scholtz, a lifelong supporter of the arts and front-row-center patron of the iDiOM for almost every show of its early years while she was in her 80’s.
“She was a remarkably energetic person…. If you were going to pick someone as a symbol of personal support of the iDiOM, she’s a good choice…. The iDiOM, and Glenn, and Krissa [Woiwod] meant a ton to her. She was incredibly proud of it for Bellingham and interested in its progress,” remembers Sylvia’s grandson, Mallard Ice Cream owner, Ben Scholtz. “…It was refreshing that Sylvia was very, very encouraging of experimentation and taking risks in theater and the arts,” adds Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao.
Built in 1966, the renovated Cascade Laundry building has now become Sylvia Center for the Arts, a true arts community hub.
“The landlords, Sonja Max and her brother Oliver, put in over $400,000 into the building to improve the façade, heating, plumbing, public restrooms, and a seismic upgrade that is near completion. About $1.4 million was needed to complete phase one on the main floor,” explains Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao. Extensive seismic retrofitting has been completed.
Sylvia Center’s New Lucas Hicks Theatre
The largest 150-seat Main Stage theater is named for the very talented and late Bellingham composer, teacher, and multi-instrumentalist, Lucas Hicks. He was known for his dedication to community and according to Carey Ross, “his ability to forge meaningful connections to people was not limited to his music. He gave freely of himself, as much as he was able and often more, and the result is an astonishing number of people who now have a piece of Lucas to remember him by.”
Sylvia Center’s Studio Theatre
The smaller Studio Theater has been used for classes, rehearsals, and performance since fall 2016. Its seating is flexible to accommodate a range of theater, dance, music, and other special event performances and includes a dance floor and moveable sets.
A Variety of Performances
The multi-use space is just that. Local groups like the Whatcom Jazz Music Arts Center and Bellingham Folk School host a number of weeknight community concerts performances. The First Weekend Series coincides with Downtown Bellingham Art Walk on the first Friday of each month.
Sylvia Center also hosts two back-to-back 24-hour theater festivals (the 48!) at least twice a year. This is where new 10-minute plays are written overnight, rehearsed throughout the day and then presented that evening—a true test of an actors mettle. Sylvia Center’s goal is to provide opportunities to more artists to gain experience, experiment with their craft and connect with the arts community.
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to perform in Sylvia Center’s first 48-hour Theater Festival, a tradition that has migrated to Sylvia along with the wonderfully eclectic and original iDiOM Theatre. Founded by Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao and others in 2001, the iDiOM was known for its irreverent and creatively unique productions and it’s nurturing of up-and-coming talent, including writers, directors, and actors. The theater became a non-profit in 2009 and shortly afterward began considering a move. Space became a limiting factor in the existing Cornwall Avenue location as the theater grew its audience and productions. The second floor was also where I performed in the 48-Hour Theater Festival, #46 for the iDiOM and #1 at Sylvia Center.
The festival sounds a little nuts to non-theater junkies. On Friday night, six directors randomly draw names of their writers, and then the names of two to four cast are drawn literally from a hat. Everyone meets, often for the first time, the writers go home and write all night on the chosen theme, and everyone returns the next morning to read the brand new scripts. Each team spends all day working through their 10-minute play, and we put on two shows that night at 7:30 and 9:30. The craziest part is, that same night, the audience chooses a new theme, and we start all over again with new teams and plays on Sunday.
Themes are chosen from suggestions contributed by anyone willing to offer them via social media and in the room Friday night. By popularity in the form of audience applause the theme informs the six 10-minute plays, original songs, and poems, all written, rehearsed, and performed in 24 hours.