In the spotlight: Sylvia Center takes the stage

By Kia Vieira da Rosa

The Sylvia Center for the Arts in downtown Bellingham provides space for artists of all levels to practice and present the performing arts.

The Sylvia Center for the Arts is a nonprofit theater made to “provide affordable space for Whatcom County’s artists to rehearse, teach and perform, while also creating a central hub for arts audiences to discover and enjoy locally created music, theater, and dance” according to the Sylvia Center for the Arts website.

In 2017, a fundraising and Kickstarter campaign was launched to gather funds to create the Sylvia Center.

A former Whatcom Community College student, Shu-Ling Hergenhahn-Zhao, took on role of the Sylvia Center capital cabinet chair. She talked with the local and state legislature about funding, along with networking and working with the community.

According to Hergenhahn-Zhao, her job was to be in charge of raising the 2.5 million dollars for the creation of the Sylvia Center.

Sylvia Center

Shu-Ling Hergenhahn-Zhao is heavily involved in all aspects of the Sylvia Center for the Arts

“I helped connect the center to people and help find funds and the means to continue doing what we’re doing,” she said.

Beth Tyne, learning contracts coordinator at Whatcom, was a member of the capital campaign committee that helped with the fundraising of the Sylvia Center.

“One thing that was exciting about the capital campaign and Kickstarter was we were inviting people in on this vision of having an accessible art space,” Tyne said. “It’s not ‘give us the money so we can create’, but ‘let’s create this art center together.’”

“Sylvia Center for the Arts is the next chapter in iDiOM Theater’s 18-year history in downtown Bellingham.” Hergenhahn-Zhao said. “A couple years ago we had the opportunity to move into the Cascade Laundry building and we jumped at that opportunity. The last two years we’ve been building our facility downtown.”

The iDiOM Theater, a production company founded in 2001 in the Allied Arts and Pickford Limelight building, was used as a space to “cultivate new talent by giving up-and-comers a place to hone their skills,” according to the iDiOM Theater website.

Since the 2015-16 season, the iDiOM Theater production company has been one of the many resident companies of the Sylvia Center.

According to Hergenhahn-Zhao, after moving into the new space, the iDiOM Theater changed its name to the Sylvia Center for the Arts and expanded their goal to provide an affordable space for performing arts companies to use downtown.

Tyne, who also performed in iDiOM Theater productions in both the Pickford location and the Sylvia Center, said despite the change of location, their beliefs are still the same.

“The vision that started at the iDiOM is being carried over to the Sylvia center,” Tyne said. “The idea of making sure the arts are accessible for both the audience and giving artists the chance to do their own creative work.”

Located in the arts district of downtown Bellingham, the Sylvia Center consists of two stages, a rehearsal space and two galleries.

The main theater, named after the late Bellingham musician Lucas Hicks, seats approximately 150.  A 68-seat studio theater is used for smaller shows.

Open to the public, the Sylvia Center is a space that casual or serious actors can come to use.

According to Hergenhahn-Zhao, the Sylvia Center wants to provide college students with opportunities to network and collaborate with people on projects outside of classes.

Hergenhahn-Zhao said students from Whatcom have written attended, acted, and helped with the stage management in addition to attending shows.

“We’re just creating an opportunity for people to take what they’re learning as Whatcom students and apply it outside of Whatcom,” Hergenhahn-Zhao said.

Hergenhahn-Zhao said having a space like the Sylvia Center is important because it lets people connect with each other.

“There are so many things that can keep people separate, but there are still so many things that can bring people together,” Hergenhahn-Zhao said. “Art provides people an opportunity to connect on those levels.”

Hergenhahn-Zhao said she believes that the convenience of connectivity through social media limits person-to-person connection.

“People younger than I am have less opportunity to connect with people on a personal level,” Hergenhahn-Zhao said.  “Sharing something like theater provides a way to have a reasonable conversations on the things they don’t agree with and hopefully find a middle ground.”

Hergenhahn-Zhao said theater helps people understand diversity and one another.

“Without exposing people to diverse stories or giving people an opportunity to face their social norms and confront those things, it’s really hard to inspire empathy,” Hergenhahn-Zhao said. “If we don’t give people the opportunity to experience diverse narratives by meeting each other and sharing their stories then we wind up with a less empathetic society.”

“We’ve had a motto since pretty much as long as I’ve been with involved with iDiOM: ‘always be training,’” Hergenhahn-Zhao said. “Never be complacent and always be relentless.”

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