Dramatists and theatres have a symbiotic relationship. We provide the beating heart, theatres give us a body to hold that heart so we can share it. I reached out to one Washington State theatre to see how they’re faring and to explore how we might help each other survive.
The Bellingham Theatre Guild, founded in 1929, has run for 91 seasons as a volunteer non-profit. Board President Lynn Starcher and her husband Doug Starcher have been involved for decades and recently spearheaded a successful million-dollar capital campaign to rebuild the existing theatre into a new state-of-the-art facility.
In addition to plays and musicals, BTG’s Bellingham One Act Theater (BOAT) Festival, run by longtime member SEAN WALBECK, brings the work of local writers to the stage and sends it up the chain to Nationals, giving many writers their start. As a high school Freshman, I composed my first incidental music for their production of The Miracle Worker and Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank, Julie Reiber (Wicked, Come from Away), and Craig Johnson (co-writer and director of The Skeleton Twins) have all shared the BTG stage.
I asked the Starchers what BTG is facing right now.
“In many respects, it’s very easy,” said Lynn. “We don’t get to do anything. We can’t do any shows and we can’t open until Phase 4. If we were going to set up the theatre for social distancing, we’d have about 20% of the seats, if we could even sell that.”
Doug credits Lynn for fighting to save the “big chunk of cash” remaining after the build. That decision, along with a recent pledge drive that raised $20,000, will sustain the organization for another two years.
Volunteers have been busy tackling projects set aside for later. After six weeks of isolation, the set crew said, “We can mask up and get to work.” They (safely) hit the ground running. Doug, who handles operations is busy installing new dimmer packs on the hanging lights, cleaning up conduit, and adding a new foot-tall LED Edison bulb to the ghost light.
“We’ll come out of this with a lot of things much better than they were,” he told me. At BTG, later has become now.
They also have shows on deck. MICHELE LOWE’s The Smell of the Kill was just one week away from opening when the shutdown came, but the cast has been meeting every other week to rehearse, albeit six to ten feet away from each other. Lynn says that when BTG gets the green light from Washington for Phase 4, “The four-week clock will start, and we will start selling tickets.”
Still, planning a season is “virtually impossible.”
I asked Lynn what would be possible if they were to move online.
“Probably no more than five cast members… a simple set, not too complicated from a backstage standpoint… around ten people total, cast and crew, so they can socially distance… the light operator and director in their own spaces...”
Opportunity! I asked, “What if writers worked directly with local theatres to write something exactly for the specific parameters of the organization, like a commission?”
I could hear Lynn’s brain working. “When we do shows, we pay about $150/performance for royalties... being able to work directly with the writers… it sounds like a really interesting idea. We need to talk.”
We set up a meeting for the following week to talk about how to set this in motion, and I began calculating how I might match every single interested Washington State DG member with a theatre in their local region to do the same.
New work. Writers and theatres in symbiotic partnership to survive, to grow, to maintain community, to earn much needed money, and to inspire audience members hungry for connection with their treasured institutions. Our beating hearts. Their bodies. Shared lifeblood.