On Stage


Behind the scenes at the MBT

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

In a recent video on the Mount Baker Theatre’s website, John Purdie referred to the pandemic-related shutdown of the 93-year-old performing arts venue in downtown Bellingham as an “unplanned intermission,” but said he’s confident the show will eventually go on. As the new executive director of the MBT, Purdie is poised to help make that happen.

Cascadia Weekly: A few months after stepping in as the interim director at the Mount Baker Theatre, in early April you accepted the title of executive director on a full-time basis. Did the fact that the job offer came amid a global pandemic give you hesitation?

John Purdie: Not at all. My predecessor, Brad Burdick, assembled an amazing team of staff, volunteers and supporters, so privately I had been approaching the interim appointment as a six-month interview. Although the timing of the offer came as a total surprise, it was a relief to have at least one thing resolved amid all the other uncertainties.

CW: Since audiences can’t enter the theater right now, can you tell us what’s happening behind the scenes this summer?

JP: This summer our community will start seeing results from participating in our “Continuing the Legacy” capital campaign. We are preventing further water damage by replacing leaking gutters, and repairing and repainting the exterior. Inside, we’re repairing stair safety lights, adding handrails in the balcony and, if things go as planned, we will also reopen with a new sound system. We have almost received enough donations to replace the roof next summer before it fails.

Did you know our community has invested more than $14 million into restoring and improving MBT since we came together and saved it from destruction in 1983? Unlike other kinds of investments, past performance literally is an indication of future performance and the dividends our community receives are obvious for all to see.

CW: You served as MBT’s development director since 2016, so were already involved with the theater’s programming. As executive director, what are you hoping future seasons look like?

JP: We are so fortunate my predecessor hired Renee Gaumond as our programming director one-and-a-half years ago. She brought a national network of industry contacts and quickly became a leader among our regional booking partners. MBT has been steadily diversifying the shows and artists we bring to our community, and that will certainly continue.

CW: The lineup for the 2020/21 season is being kept under wraps until you know you can confidently open the doors safely and responsibly. Can you give us any thinly veiled hints?

JP: You realize this runs the risk of talking about “the one that got away?” Bad enough if you got to enjoy fighting the fish for a while, but when it’s hauling up a pot full of big crabs and you see them spilling out just when it breaks the surface… And instead of crabs you’re talking about Black Violin, Itzhak Perlman, Moscow Ballet, and Pioneering Women in Jazz? No, I can’t give you thinly veiled hints.

CW: Why do you think supporting the arts is still necessary during times of strife and uncertainty?

JP: Because the arts speak to our humanity. Music, dance, drama and other performances create the opportunity for self-reflection and insights into other people’s lived experiences, and they foster community through shared experiences and social interactions. These art forms also enable us to experience and release our most powerful emotions. Tears of joy and rage. Belly laugh of mirth and rueful chuckle of pain. The bliss of simply losing yourself in the performance and forgetting about everything else for a couple hours.

The performing arts especially are needed during times like these. And this community certainly agrees. People are renewing and sometimes increasing their annual membership and capital campaign gifts, and I’m thrilled to confirm Saturna Capital will continue as our season sponsor. We are so grateful and humbled by the generosity of this community.

CW: How else is the theater currently staying connected to the community?

JP: We are proud to have helped instigate the Whatcom Arts Project. You can link to it from MBT’s Facebook page or at http://www.bellingham.org/whatcom-art-project. Watching at home is not the same as in-person with other people, but it is way better than nothing.

We also recognize our community and our country have a renewed focus on amplifying the voices of people experiencing discrimination. In keeping with our mission of enriching the community, MBT will continue to critically examine our organization, expand our connections in the local community, and foster the voices and work of a wide range of artists.

CW: In the video referred to earlier, you say the “future of Mount Baker Theatre remains bright.” What gives you hope things will turn out OK?

JP: I am really excited about our future. As just one example, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust recently gave us an unsolicited gift of a three-month strategic planning consulting service from the DeVos Institute. It’s an incredible opportunity for us. We are already closed and creating new policies and procedures anyway, and now we can deeply engage in reexamining every aspect of our operation with the support of national experts. (Well, assuming we can raise enough money to pay a few more staff at least a few hours a week. Right now we are all on full or partial furlough.)

CW: What haven’t we asked that you want people to know about the MBT?

JP: I’d love to say something about how concerned I am for all those volunteers who used to be at MBT, sometimes multiple times a week. Overnight, that all got taken away from them, and us. I miss them and I hope they are doing OK.

To become a member and/or contribute to Mount Baker Theatre’s capital campaign, go to http://www.mountbakertheatre.com

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