Local shows, education, partnerships fuel Mount Baker Theatre's success in Bellingham

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 24, 2014 

Mount Baker Theater, Bellingham

Bellingham's Mount Baker Theater, designed by architect R.C. Reamer with a Moorish-Spanish motif, is listed on the register of National Historic Places. It opened on the evening of April 29, 1927, by West Coast Theatres, which was controlled by William Fox of 20th Century Fox Studios.

DAMIAN VINES — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The performing arts industry is challenging. Across the nation many theaters are faced with declining audiences, aging audiences, audiences that have grown up with less performing arts training and therefore have less understanding of music, dance, theater or performing arts in general. These challenges, along with the difficulties of maintaining the aging infrastructure of complex performance spaces, have led a large number of these theaters to suffer financially. Many performing arts centers lack vision, either from their staff or from their boards, and they get stuck booking the same shows and marketing them the same way to an ever-shrinking audience. Fortunately for Bellingham and Whatcom County, the Mount Baker Theatre is no ordinary performing arts center. Its forward thinking board has developed and is implementing a plan to address the changing influences of this industry.

FOUR AREAS OF GROWTH

First, Mount Baker Theatre is expanding national and international touring productions, keeping the focus on bringing in the highest caliber performers, expanding diversity, utilizing additional facilities and developing new marketing strategies to tap a larger audience. In just the next three months Mount Baker Theatre will present greats Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, Pink Martini and John Legend, in addition to hosting two performances of the recent Broadway smash musical Memphis.

Second, Mount Baker Theatre is developing local professional productions that are proudly titled "MBT Rep." Since 2007, the MBT Rep Series has grown from a rotating three-play summer repertory series to include winter repertory (several performances of one play), both in our small Walton Theatre, and on the main stage with full-scale Broadway-style shows complete with full orchestras. These self-produced shows create opportunities for local actors, musicians and production crew to practice their craft and gain valuable professional experience.

Third, Mount Baker Theatre's education programs are expanding into additional venues and increasing outreach to schools with master classes, summer camps and workshops. Mount Baker Theatre provides a rich environment to support arts education. Last year, it welcomed more than 16,000 area students to a variety of stimulating programs. Now in its 18th season, we are continuing to grow the program.

Finally, we plan to continue to host and support other performing arts organizations by providing much needed space for their productions. This past year the board passed a resolution to allow other non-profit performance groups to utilize the Encore Room absolutely free. Since then the theatre has had a flood of organizations utilize the space and expand their reach into the community. Mount Baker Theatre annually hosts more than 50 community rentals on the main stage as well. Organizations such as the Whatcom Symphony, Northwest Ballet, Dancing for Joy, to name a few, all regularly perform on the main stage and attract a wide variety of patrons. Mount Baker Theatre provides this opportunity to help keep people coming in and to help other organizations fulfil their own performing arts mission.

This plan to pursue four key areas of growth has helped Mount Baker Theatre successfully thrive, and see steady growth, in spite of the challenges that face the performing arts industry around the country. Although the building turns 87 years old on April 29 it is in great shape and hosts well over 100,000 patrons attending more than 365 events annually. Since the city took ownership and with the creation of the Mount Baker Theatre board in 1983, the theater has seen steady growth in attendance, reach, impact and stability.

In the past 20 years Mount Baker Theatre has secured nearly $15 million in contributions beyond what the city has also contributed to keep its cultural jewel a thing to behold. The theater has already set a record for ticket sales to the shows it presents, eclipsing the old record by more than $200,000 or 16 percent, and it still has until the end of June to grow the record. Even though Mount Baker Theatre is now 87 years old, it is still a thriving, contributing member of our community. We're happily not a typical performing arts center.

Our community supports Mount Baker Theatre in a wide variety of ways, through advertising and show sponsorship, membership, grants and volunteering. In 2013, more than 250 volunteers tallied more than 14,000 service hours to Mount Baker Theatre, working in a wide variety of roles. All of these things combine to make the Mount Baker Theatre a premier regional performing arts center that is proud to be part of what makes Bellingham a great place to live.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brad Burdick has been executive director of Mount Baker Theatre since 1997. For more information online, go to mountbakertheatre.com.

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