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.
One of my favorite wild rides is a long-standing cold-reading series that first originated at the iDiOM, Brass Monkey Theater Club. The monthly fun allows playwrights to hear their new works read aloud by local actors before a live audience. You never know what will happen next and the best of these short plays make it to the annual December Best of Brass Monkey. This is usually a raucous good time and therefore a favorite among local actors.
Their annual New Year’s Eve Soiree has become the place to be on NYE. This year’s theme is Casino Royale and will include table games and a live murder-mystery. In true theater fashion, many attendees dress in character.
January and February include another iDiOM tradition, Serial Killers. I acted in one of these one year at the iDiOM. Five short serial plays begin, with the audience voting one off each week. The remaining plays continue on and share more of their story each week. Until late February when only two remain and then one reigns supreme. One past winner returned the following year as a full-length play that went on to other theaters in the Pacific Northwest.
Spring 2019 will bring two iDiOM productions to the Main Stage. Orlando, by Sarah Ruhl is an adaption of the Virginia Woolf novel and Unstable by Design, is a new play commission written by Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao.
48-Hour Theater Festivals
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.
I’ve since had the pleasure of performing in a 48 in the new Lucas Hicks Theatre space. The large green room was a wonderful added resource.
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.
I’ve done many 48’s over the years and no two are the same. My recent performances were extra special to me because they were the first in Sylvia Center’s new spaces.
Written and Directed by Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao for 48 #46.
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.
The plays are not always filmed, but thanks to a team of volunteers from Bellingham’s Public Access television class, Access Bellingham, below is my first play at Sylvia Center, including the accompanying music. I love the intensity of the experience because it tests you and builds confidence even when you have small (or large) failures. I’m always amazed what creative, talented people can produce in such a short time, over and over.
Plans are still in the works to remodel the spacious second story to become rehearsal and classroom spaces. It is occasionally used for weddings and special events.
In January 2018, the popular Bellingham Cider Company opened in the back of the building. They’re offering yummy craft cider and Pacific Northwest-inspired fare. Its a great option for a bite before or after a show. My gal pals and I have enjoyed their brunch that includes a make-your-own bloody mary/mimosa bar. Read more about downtown spots.
“Phase two will include additional classroom, rehearsal, and event space, sound-proof music practice space, non-profit office space, and video and photography studios upstairs,” adds Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao.
Sylvia Center for the Arts has an exciting road ahead of her. In-kind donations and smaller donations from local arts advocates and theater-goers has helped Sylvia get closer but the Hergenhahn-Zhao’s and the local arts community will be working hard this year and on into 2019 to continue to bring this incredible dream to fruition.
The original post dated Nov. 7, 2016 was updated on Oct. 2, 2017 and again on Nov. 5, 2018.