For several years, playwright Steve Lyons and Western Washington University theater arts professor Mark Kuntz both worked diligently trying to establish the Commercial Street Theatre Project as an alternative performance space in downtown Bellingham.
After the project failed to reach its funding goals, they formed a roving theater company called Bellingham TheatreWorks. As Lyons said in a press release, "We don't have a physical theater space, but we do have enthusiasm."
Their first production is "Border Songs," a stage adaptation of Olympia author Jim Lynch's bestselling novel set in Whatcom County.
"Border Songs" plays Thursday through Sunday, June 19-22, and July 3 and 5 at Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven, and June 26-29 and July 10-12 at Claire vg Thomas Theatre in Lynden.
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In August, Lyons and Kuntz will work with the Wayne Morse Center at the University of Oregon, the Oregon Historical Society and the World Affairs Council of Oregon to tour a play written by Lyons, "The Ghosts of Tonkin," in time for the 50th anniversary of the incidents that preceded a larger U.S. role in the Vietnam War.
Here's more about Lyons.
Question: What brought you to Bellingham?
Answer: We moved to Bellingham from Berkeley in the summer of 2011 when my wife, Bree Johnston, got a job at PeaceHealth as director of their palliative care program.
Q: When we first moved to Bellingham, we rented a cottage next door to Phyllis and Charlie Self while we looked for a house to buy. After several weeks of living in the cottage, Phyllis invited us over to a small dinner party at their house.
At the dinner, she asked me what I do and I said I write plays. She asked me who I knew in theater in Bellingham. I replied that we had just moved here and I really did not know anyone.
Phyllis said, "Here's what you do. You have a party at your house and I will tell you who to invite and then you will know everyone in theater in Bellingham."
The thought of such a thing terrified my naturally shy, insecure, arty nature. "I can't just call up people I don't know and invite them to a party," I stated. Phyllis stared at me blankly, "Oh, yes you can." She assured me that people in Bellingham are very friendly and would welcome my invitation.
So, at the top of her list was Mark Kuntz. Well, I had just seen Mark's spectacular production of "Into the Woods" at Mount Baker Theatre. I was amazed that one person could put such an ambitious show together. I was particularly terrified of calling him out of the blue and asking him to come to a party at my house!
Luckily, my friend from childhood, jazz vocalist Cheryl Hodge, had also just moved to Bellingham and we decided to jointly host the party. Cheryl had been in town about two weeks but already seemed to know everybody in Bellingham.
With Cheryl's help, I mustered the courage and we ended up having a lovely party. I remember some of the people who attended were Christopher Key, David Post, Ann MacDonald, and yes, Mark Kuntz.
So, from that start, I stayed in contact with Mark, eventually meeting his wife, Pam Kuntz, and attending some the performances of her dance company. Mark and Pam and I became more entwined when we tried to create the Commercial Street Theatre to address the lack of performance space in Bellingham.
When Mark lost his job at the Mount Baker Theatre, he still had a deep need to create theater. So, Bellingham TheatreWorks grew organically out of a pile of lemons.
Q: What is your day job?
A: My degree from UC Berkeley is in electrical engineering. I got into electrical engineering by way of music; I was interested in designing and building music synthesizers.
I had been in the biomedical field. In 2001 that field collapsed and I lost my job. My wife and I had a 2-year-old boy. I was the primary caregiver, and the primary homemaker.
So, I came home and announced that I lost my job. She said, "You have never really liked engineering. Why don't you stay home and write and be my wife."
Frankly, I already was basically the wife of the family, but now I finally had the title. I accepted the position.
Q: What is Bellingham TheatreWorks up to?
A: First up is "Border Songs." We are co-producing the show with Village Books.
"Border Songs," the book, has won multiple honors, including the Washington State Book award. Adapted for the stage, "Border Songs" premiered at Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre in 2011.
A cast of 10 plays more than 20 colorful characters, including socially awkward border patrolmen, menacing drug smugglers, metaphysical massage therapists, illegal immigrants, helpful government regulators, surly Lynden farmers, obsessed bird-watchers and some of our other neighbors.
Then, in August, we present my play, "The Ghosts of Tonkin," about the genesis of the Vietnam War. August 2014 is the 50-year anniversary of the start of the war. We present that show Labor Day weekend at Bellingham High School.
Q: What's your impression of the arts community in Bellingham?
A: I have found the arts community here to be very welcoming. I had been here about a year when the iDiOM Theater produced my play "Mystery Spot."
In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is hard to get a theater to even read your play, let alone produce it. All in all, I have been overjoyed with the Bellingham community.
For details about Bellingham TheatreWorks, go to BellinghamTheatreWorks.org or call 360-933-1096.