In the art world, it can be hard to tell when a project is “finished.” A painter might obsess about the shading of an object on her canvas, a photographer will agonize over the perfect composition of an image, and there’s no limit to the amount of time a poet can spend on getting a rhyme just right.
And what about crafting a space that’s home to all types of artists and their work? From location to accessibility, through aesthetic design to technical concerns, a lot goes into creating the right habitat for the arts. One local venue has spent years working on these exact issues and, while there are still plans for growth in the future, it’s safe to say that Bellingham’s Sylvia Center for the Arts has hit a milestone. Since opening a small, simple theater space in the summer of 2016, they have blossomed into just such a home for all sorts of artistic projects.
The Sylvia Center has its roots in iDiOM Theater, which has been active in Bellingham since 2001. Artistic Director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao conceived of a new space for the theater as it started to outgrow its original location. They weren’t the only ones that needed more room. Marketing Director Wesley Davis says, “Bellingham and Whatcom County have always had a high concentration of small performing arts organizations, which create tons of new, original productions every year – theater, music, dance, comedy, circus arts and more. Unfortunately there is also a real lack of affordable venue space for the organizations to do their work, and that is what Sylvia Center is designed to help with.”
It seems to be working – they’ve already hosted classes and workshops on acting, directing and dance, and continue to offer a location to several “Resident Companies,” including Momentum Improvisation Lab, Bellingham Theatreworks and American Theater Northwest. And they welcome any other groups or individuals that might be interested in using the space to contact them for details.
The Arts Center is located on Prospect Street, a stone’s throw from one of downtown’s most recognizable landmarks: Whatcom Museum. The building is easy to identify by its warm and inviting orange facade, and its side is covered by a decades-old mural highlighting local history. Just inside the front door is a bright and spacious lobby that doubles as an art gallery. It also includes a bar for receptions and celebrations before and after shows.
But the heart of Sylvia are its two theaters. Off one side of the lobby and down a long hallway is the Studio Theater. The tiered seating, which accommodates an audience of 50, curves around the room, creating a special intimacy. It might be the smaller of the two venues, but the generous stage and open feel isn’t cramped or limiting. Theatergoers that attended the first shows at the Sylvia site will remember walking down the alley next to the building to enter this room from the outside, and it’s easy to see that the current layout is a great leap forward for iDiOM.
Off the other side of the lobby is the larger of the two theaters, which can seat 140 people. Locals will appreciate that it’s named after Lucas Hicks, a prolific and well-loved fixture on the Bellingham music and arts scene until he passed late in 2017. The big, square room is set up on the diagonal, which opens up plenty of room for the stage, and allows the seating to wrap halfway around. This 180-degree design means that no one in the audience is far from the action, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
For all of its amenities, the action is not confined to the Sylvia Center. iDiOM has spent the last two summers producing the Open Air Summer Rep, a free festival that takes place in Maritime Heritage Park, just behind the building, overlooking Bellingham Bay. According to Davis, it’s the nation’s only outdoor theater festival that focuses on original works, or those newly adapted or translated from their original languages. It’s an ambitious undertaking that fits well with their mission.
“Ultimately our goal is a thriving hub for locally created performing artists to teach, perform and collaborate, and for audiences to discover and enjoy the unique and magical entertainment created right here in Whatcom County,” he says.
And this goal includes even more growth. With the current operation running smoothly, they plan to enter a new round of fundraising that will allow them to open up the building’s second floor, and create even more opportunity for our regional artists.