Monday, October 2nd, 2017
Bellingham’s Sylvia Center for the Arts
Lorraine Wilde

This is an update to the orginal post dated Nov. 7, 2016


Bellingham is very fortunate to be the chosen home of many talented musicians and artists and that includes a variety of theatre, music and dance performers. Sylvia Center for the Arts, a evolving performance space has been up and running for about a year now in Bellingham’s Downtown Arts District. As the downtown and waterfront continue to develop and change, Sylvia Center is poised to become a major influence on the area as a center for culture and the arts.

I recently spoke with Sylvia Center’s Chair of the Capital Cabinet, Shu-Ling Hergenhahn-Zhao. She and her husband and Sylvia Center Artistic Director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao work full-time to support Sylvia Center’s mission to serve Northwest Washington’s performing arts community with more resources.


iDiOM/Sylvia Center Artistic Director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao (L) is leading the charge to make Sylvia Center Bellingham’s community arts hub.

The need for performance space was identified as long ago as 1992, but Sylvia Center has been in development in earnest since early 2016. 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 performances, and state and local funding likely on the way, Sylvia Center is transforming into a cutting-edge mixed-use performance space serving the arts community and providing even more options for visitors to appreciate.

Making History

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 for the Arts Bellingham Whatcom Tourism Performing


Sylvia Center will serve the performing arts community with two theaters, a café/restaurant/bar, classroom and rehearsal spaces, and non-profit office space, all with accessibility and affordability in mind. The best part is, the shared space will 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 need.

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 that has now become Sylvia Center will eventually include two theaters—the existing 75-seat Studio Theater and a 170-seat Main Stage Theater.

“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 will be needed to complete phase one on the main floor,” explains Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao. Extensive seismic retrofitting is nearing completion on the first floor and the roof. Structural changes are complete to make room for the new 170-seat Mainstage Theatre that will accommodate a grand piano. Sylvia Center hopes to celebrate the grand opening of the Mainstage Theatre in March 2018. They are also getting help, advice, and in-kind support from theater veterans in the Seattle area.


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.

Sylvia Center for the Arts Bellingham Whatcom Tourism Performing

Sylvia Center’s 75-seat Studio Theatre has been in use since Fall 2016.

The space has become home to weekly adult classes by Oona Sherman Cava’s Momentum Improvisation Lab, that combines improvisational acting, mindfulness, and storytelling. The space will also host weekly Whatcom Jazz Music Art Center with live jazz that includes a baby grand piano on Wednesday nights.


Sylvia Center for the Arts Bellingham Whatcom Tourism Performing Improvisation


Thursday through Saturdays in the space will include a variety of new performances including the new First Weekend Series which coincides with Downtown Bellingham Art Walk on the first Friday of each month. A three-person production of Macbeth is slated for in mid-October 2017.  A new curated storytelling series called Breaking Bread will present works based on a theme. October’s is ‘Aliens.’ A long-standing cold-reading series that first originated at the IDiOM, Brass Monkey, will be revived to allow playwrights to hear their new works read aloud by local actors before an audience.

They’ll also host a 24-hour theater festival, half of the 48-Hour process described below, where new 10-minute plays will be 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.


48-Hour Theatre Festival

The second floor of the facility is currently a large open space that has been used for local events and weddings. Late last year, I was fortunate enough to perform in Sylvia Center’s first 48-hour Theatre Festival, a tradition that has migrated to Sylvia along with the wonderfully eclectic and original iDiOM Theatre. Founded by Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao 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 theatre 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 Theatre 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.


Sylvia Center’s temporary stage reminded us of what it might have been like at the time of Vaudeville.

I’ve done many 48’s over the years and no two are the same. This one was extra special to me because it was the first at Sylvia Center. The stage was primitive with portable lighting and sound, folding chairs on plywood risers were used for the audience, and hand made room dividers created a back stage area. The historic building, with its original wood floors, high ceilings, and tall windows that face downtown, brought to mind the “show must go on” days of Vaudeville. And go on it did.

Our theme was 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, “You Dare to Presume” informed the six 10-minute plays, two original songs, and a poem, all written, rehearsed, and performed in 24 hours.

The plays are not usually filmed, but thanks to a team of volunteers from Bellingham’s Public Access television class, Access Bellingham, below is our play, 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.

Written and Directed by Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao for 48 #46.

What’s Ahead?

The future is looking bright for Sylvia Center but they still have a lot of funds to raise in support of their vision. In September 2016, the Washington State Building for the Arts advisory committee selected Sylvia Center as one of 16 nonprofit organizations to be recommended to receive a Building for the Arts award in 2017. If funded, the award would provide $334,000 toward achieving the overall vision. Sylvia Center is waiting patiently for Governor’s 2017–19 Capital Budget to be finalized in light of the Hirst Water Decision. It has been an interesting challenge for Sylvia Center but they are confident they will persevere.

Once settled, those funds will be used for a number of improvements. Soundproofing is planned so that productions can run simultaneously with the Main Stage Theater, without mutual disturbance from the planned cafĂ©/restaurant/bar space that will include a live music venue. Sylvia Center’s Board of Directors is accepting proposals from business owners for that space. They are searching for just the right fit while also building relationships with adjacent businesses including a new micro-cidery and pub that will open in January.

Sylvia Center for the Arts Bellingham Whatcom Tourism Performing

The new space will also feature an art gallery and a large green room for actors and performers. Both theaters will eventually be equipped with state-of-the-art lighting. “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.

The Hergenhahn-Zhaos will also be reaching out to parents and supporters of youth in the Pacific Northwest to identify funding for a youth script-writing program that is currently in development.

Sylvia Center for the Arts has a long, hard, exciting road ahead of her. In the next six months Sylvia Center’s 16,000 square feet of space will include a completed Mainstage Theatre, a cafe or restaurant for the main entrance, and hopefully several commitments from resident performing arts companies. 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 2018 to bring this incredible dream to fruition.

Sylvia Center for the Arts

205 Prospect St

Bellingham, WA 98225

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About the Author:

Lorraine Wilde has immersed herself in so many of Whatcom County’s vibrant communities over the past 25 years. Owner and Publicity Strategist for Wilde World Communications, Lorraine has connected with locals as a writer, actor, scientist, teacher, filmmaker, singer, and mom. Lorraine has performed improv and staged works in several of Whatcom County’s theatres and she is active in the Bellingham Film community. She is also a big supporter of the local music community. When she has a spare second, its spent with her children outside exploring a new adventure.