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Community responses to Firehouse Arts Center closing

Matt Christman opened the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven with his wife, Alona, and has been trying to sell since April 2014.
Matt Christman opened the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven with his wife, Alona, and has been trying to sell since April 2014. The Bellingham Herald

Here are more responses in reaction to the potential closing of Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven.

Matt Christman opened the center with his wife, Alona, in 2005 and has been trying to sell it since April 2014. He’s now seeking bookings for the venue through December.

See more comments at http://www.bellinghamherald.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/behind-the-scenes/article29704714.html.

Susan Witter, dancer with Dance Gallery

“The Firehouse came about because Bellingham resident and dancer Matt Christman wanted to create an appealing community venue for dance and other performing arts. His vision was to make it a hybrid space — include a cafe, an office or two and a park with an enormous, climbable tree in it.

Matt did all of this and more. He sank radiant heat underneath the sprung maple floor. He retained many key features of the original firehouse, among them the floor-to-ceiling fire route map and the well-serving fireplace. He salvaged close to 100 auditorium seats from Auburn High School and mounted them on a counterweight system —a product of his own imagination — that, via some robust cranking, pulls the seats up into the ceiling for a very large classroom space or drops them down onto the floor for an intimate audience space. It’s a stellar, visionary example of adaptive re-use. The Firehouse won a Mayor’s Arts Award for its contribution to the performing arts.

The cafe drew people in just to savor and hang out, and it also became a favorite meeting place for events like poet-and-writer groups, neighborhood movie nights, nonprofit board of director meetings, and the French Circle. A grand piano graces the dressing room, whose north wall swings out to allow the piano to be onstage for musical performances. Many shows — dance, music, theater, improv — have taken place here.

Dance Gallery have been searching for replacements for our annual concert, in case the Firehouse does get sold. If a sale takes place, there is no guarantee that the new owners will continue its performing-arts mission. We are not the only group to conclude that there is no acceptable substitute for a venue of this size and production quality. The Firehouse is a community treasure, lovingly created, and it deserves an enduring mission as a fixture in the Bellingham performing arts world.”

Jennifer Deshaies, director of Compass School

“For the past nine years, I have put on a play with my middle school students. These plays have included “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Outsiders” and several melodramas. Each year we have utilized the Firehouse as the venue for our public performance.

Working with Matt and Alona has always been a pleasure; they are warm and welcoming. To those of us unfamiliar with staging and lighting, they offer a lot of help and advice on how best to use their many resources. Thanks to their help and the fabulous facility, our plays are elevated to another level and help the students take pride in their performances.

The FPAC provides a necessary community resource that allows my students the opportunity to find out what it is like to act in a properly staged performance. Recently, when we heard the Firehouse might be closing, we tried to find another similar venue to use. We couldn’t find one that would meet our needs in same way or for the same cost.”

John Bishop, artistic director of Northwest Ballet

“I have known the Christmans since I arrived in Bellingham 10 years ago and have been both a renter for NBT events, an audience member and a friend. When I heard the news that Matt and Alona had to put it up for sale I was quite sad because of all the amazing things that I witnessed in that space.

My deepest hope is that more folks in this town will realize the absolute treasure we have with the Firehouse and its founders that perhaps might lead to a buyer who would be willing to maintain it as a performing arts venue that is so needed in this community.”

Donald Drummond, artistic director of Stone Town Theater Works

“The Firehouse PAC has been a huge part of my creative life since returning to Bellingham in 2007. Upon our return, my wife, Heather Dyer, and I were anxious to self-produce theatrical productions with an emphasis on classic plays.

Stone Town Theater Works’ first production, “King Lear,” was fortunate to find a home at the Firehouse. Since the production was funded by Heather and me, budget was a huge consideration. Not only did we find an affordable venue, but we found a warm and welcoming environment that cheered us on and went above and beyond to help us realize our vision. The nature of the venue as a multipurpose space for varied performing art forms encourages creativity, collaboration, and community.

Our first Firehouse experience was amazing. Stone Town has been back four times since and each experience has been just as good. Bellingham needs the Firehouse PAC as a place where independent performing artists can affordably realize their vision and show their work.

It’s more than a building; it’s a community of like-minded independent artists. It’s essential that it continue as the well-loved cornerstone it is to the Bellingham performing arts scene. I’m hopeful that the right buyer is out there to keep it alive.”

Barbara Christensen, dancer and student

“I’ve been involved with the Firehouse a great deal for at least six years. I take classes weekly and perform there every year with Dance Gallery. I’m the regular stage manager for Bellingham Repertory Dance for the last few years and “12 Minutes Max” since its inception last year. I’ve also performed there with Kuntz & Company and as part of Mandy Pidgeon’s Firehouse Residency in 2013. I volunteer for most of the Firehouse’s fundraisers and events.

Most importantly, I’m also a happy member of what has become an amazing community of artists, neighbors, fans and supporters.

This town has nothing like it for small performing arts organizations: affordable, professional performance and practice space that embraces the making, not the selling, of art. So many artistic endeavors have grown in the Firehouse.

Bellingham City Council has said in the past that small theater space and supporting local art is an important investment. This seems a ready-made opportunity for the city to directly fund local art by partnering financially with the business people, nonprofits, and artists that support and want to save the Firehouse. The investment is already demonstrably beneficial — there’s a decade of great art made in Bellingham to prove it.”

Allan Redstone, owner of Opus Performing Arts:

“My family and I have seen many wonderful performances at the Firehouse and we knew it would be the ideal place for our dance school’s spring performance last June. We did two shows to full houses and many people in the audience told me how much they loved the space.

Unbelievably, many were not aware that the Firehouse existed. Matt and Alona where a pleasure to work with every step of the way.”

Karl Meyer, outreach coordinator for the Community Food Co-op

“I have worked with the Firehouse on several events in the past and I have had a great experience. The space is superb and without doubt one of Bellingham’s best venue’s for performing artists to make use of. The design of the space from firehouse to performing arts center was done with a pride of ownership and creativity that deserves a lot of credit.

If you ever have seen the theater seats get reeled up into the ceiling so you don’t even notice them to make room for a dance floor, you know what I mean.

The Co-op’s Farm Fund Hootenanny event was a great success in the space, as was the show I produced years ago with award-winning German clown Hacki Ginda. I filled every seat in the whole place, including the piano bench and a few milk crates for that one. May this great place continue to be a valuable asset to the Bellingham artistic community.”

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com.

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