Monday, November 7th, 2016
Bellingham’s New Sylvia Center for the Arts
Lorraine Wilde


Bellingham is very fortunate to be the chosen home of many talented musicians and artists and that includes a variety of theatre and dance performers. A new performance space is recently up and running in Bellingham’s downtown arts district, Sylvia Center for the Arts. The need for the space was identified as long ago as 1992 but Sylvia Center has been in development in earnest since early 2016. Through a phased approach, the building is slated to become Whatcom County’s arts community hub. With spaces currently in use for classes, events, and stage performances, and state and local funding likely on the way, supporters will continue to fund raise throughout 2017 to build Sylvia Center into a cutting-edge mixed-use performance space that will serve the community and provide even more options for visitors to appreciate.

I was recently 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.


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

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. The new Sylvia Center for the Arts’ 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. But also Sylvia Center plans to serve Northwest Washington’s performing arts community with more resources including two theaters, a cafĂ©/bar, classroom and rehearsal spaces, and non-profit office space, all with accessibility and affordability in mind. They hope to include 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 iDiOM/Sylvia Center Artistic Director, Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao.


Built in 1966, the renovated Cascade Laundry building that has now become Sylvia Center will eventually include two theaters—a 75-seat Studio Theater and a 160-seat Main Stage Theater. 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. “The landlords, Sonja Max and her brother Oliver, will put over $400,000 into the building by the time we’re done. That includes the façade, heating, public restrooms, and a seismic upgrade. About $1.4 million will be needed to complete phase one on the main floor,” explains Hergenhahn-Zhao. Sylvia is also getting help, advice, and in-kind support from theater veterans in the Seattle area.


The second floor of the facility is currently a large open space that has been used for local events and weddings. It was also where I recently performed in the 48-Hour Theatre Festival, #46 for the iDiOM and #1 at Sylvia Center.


The main floor is under construction and will include a café and a new Main Stage Theater.

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.

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 nonprofitit organizations from a field of some 60 applicants 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 (almost 60% of the remaining goal of $560,000 to be raised).

The list of recommended recipients will be submitted for inclusion in the Governor’s 2017–19 Capital Budget, which will be released in December 2016. The Governor’s Capital Budget will be considered by the state Legislature and signed into law during late Spring or early Summer 2017.

Those funds would 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© and bar space that will include a live music venue. Sylvia Center’s Board of Directors will begin accepting proposals from business owners for that space in early 2017.


Local actors perform a play about what happens when a ghost-hunter TV show uses a real ghost as a consultant.

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 Hergenhahn-Zhao.

Sylvia Center for the Arts has a long, hard, exciting road ahead of her. In-kind donations and smaller donations from local arts advocates and theatre goers has helped Sylvia get closer but she still has a way to go in 2017 to reach her goal. A New Year’s Eve bash at The Majestic and other spring fundraisers will help Sylvia get there. Hergenhahn-Zhao will also direct monthly productions and work with members of the community that are eager to use the space for their creative theater, dance, and other performing arts projects.

Sylvia Center for the Arts

205 Prospect St

Bellingham, WA 98225

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:

Lorraine Wilde has immersed herself in so many of Whatcom County’s vibrant communities over the past 25 years. Owner and Marketing 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 on a sailboat, a trail, or exploring a new adventure.