On Stage

Crowd Control

An audience alert

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

What a difference a day makes.

When Cascadia Weekly prepared to go to press on Tues., March 10 it was business as (almost) usual. An array of entertainment options had been collected, catalogued and set in print, and although concerns about COVID-19 had caused a few events to be canceled, the fact that no cases of the coronavirus had yet been discovered in Whatcom or Skagit counties meant the gigs of most theater and dance companies, bands and assorted performers were still intact.

But about an hour before our final edit, we got news there was a case detected in Whatcom County, which was soon followed by one in Skagit County, and also on Whidbey Island. By the time I got to the office the following morning, the event cancellations had started to pile up. And up, and up, and so on.

I don’t think I’ve ever taken for granted the wealth of talent that flourishes in this corner of the world, but watching the work of so many hardworking people be erased in one fell swoop was chilling to behold. In more than 20 years of making a living reporting on the area’s arts scene, I’d never seen such a divisive decline of events in such a short amount of time.

With no clear date in sight on when life might return to a new kind of normal, theaters can’t yet reschedule their shows, and those who depend on live audiences to fill their creative coffers are left with the knowledge that their livelihoods are in jeopardy. (Mine is, too, so I empathize.)

Without help, these entities may soon be forced to make decisions about their future that will no doubt be detrimental to the cultural landscape of our region. With support, they may still survive and flourish.

“Like many other local businesses and nonprofits, the COVID-19 pandemic is having an absolutely devastating effect on our work, and it is going to take a lot of hard work and creative thinking for us to find a way to stay in business, pay staff and survive to keep serving our community, who have given so much to support us over the last couple years,” read a press release from the Sylvia Center for the Arts early last week.

The downtown Bellingham arts hub had just had to put one of its most ambitious undertakings ever on the back burner—The Saga of the Volsungs, a trilogy of plays with a cast of 22 actors who had spent months honing their roles.

The tips they gave for ways to support them were numerous. Audiences can buy tickets anyway, with all ticket purchases being honored when the performances are rescheduled. Securing a $250 pass now for the following season was also an option, as was making an annual tax-deductible giving donation.

“Most of our larger donations typically come at the end of the year, but if ever we were in need of a hand, it is now,” they say. “Whether it is a $20 ticket or a $1,000 ‘Friend of the Theater’ donation, Sylvia Center is asking for your support to help us see through these gray days.”

At the Mount Baker Theatre, a number of upcoming shows have either been canceled (the Pat Travers Band, Finding Neverland, Nuages and Friends, Wild & Scenic Film Festival) or postponed (An Evening with Steep Canyon Rangers, Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, Amy Grant, Pink Martini), but staff are staying positive.

Advice they’re giving about supporting local arts organizations includes staying connected and informed, and checking online or on social media pages before reaching out with questions, as many organizations have limited staff available during this perilous time. They also recommend donating tickets back in support rather than asking for a refund.

“These contributions are essential in helping arts organizations maintain balance during uncertain times,” they say. “Donating even a portion of your ticket can make a big difference.” And like the Sylvia Center recommendations, they also point to purchasing memberships and making donations as helpful options.

At the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, a Theater Arts Guild run of The Music Man was also abruptly canceled, and a wide number of additional stage and music events have either been scrapped or postponed. They parrot many of the aforementioned tips for helping keep them in business, while acknowledging that keeping people healthy is their first priority.

“Our mission, being a community connected by culture, cannot happen in a vacuum,” Lincoln Theatre Center Foundation Executive Director Roger Gietzen says. “We’re incredibly proud of the place the Lincoln Theatre holds within this community and our first priority will always be the health and safety of our staff, customers, artists and volunteers.”

Other arts organizations can also use the assistance of prospective audience members to help them survive and thrive—including the Bellingham Theatre Guild, McIntyre Hall, the Bellingham Circus Guild, Anacortes Community Theatre, Whidbey Playhouse, Northwest Ballet Theater, the Firehouse Arts and Events Center, and the Upfront Theatre.

For almost 15 years, the Upfront has been hosting live improv comedy at its bayside locale, and as a former mainstage player who was there at the theater’s inception, I believe it would be a shame to see it disappear.

But rather than wallowing in despair, the Upfront recently called for former and current performers, volunteers, students and patrons to chime in on their Facebook page by sharing their favorite memories at the space founded by Whose Line is it Anyway? alum Ryan Stiles.

“These are strange times we’re in,” they say. “Although we can’t offer improv to you right now, we thought it might be fun to remember some good times.”

I’ll start. Once, during a 27-hour “Improvathon” that I participated in, I fell asleep while waiting on the side stage to jump into a show that took place at approximately 3am. I woke up, recovered, and ended up making it to the end of the herculean entertainment effort 14 hours later. The love and energy I felt from the audience that night was unlike anything I’d experienced before, or since. We were in it together, just like all of us are right now.

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