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Bellingham Theatre Guild long-lived, citizen-run

This illustration depicts Bellingham Theatre Guild after its $900,000 remodel is completed.
This illustration depicts Bellingham Theatre Guild after its $900,000 remodel is completed. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Doug Starcher likes to eavesdrop at Bellingham Theatre Guild performances. When he does, his favorite thing to overhear from new audience members is, “I had no idea this theater did things this well!”

Starcher first came to the volunteer-run community theater as a high-schooler in 1973.

“Everything that happens, from keeping the building going, to putting on shows, to cleaning up, is performed by a corps of dedicated individuals,” he says. “We are a group of amateurs who come together to produce plays, but we are not amateurish. We do well-produced shows.”

The guild mounts five shows every season, which runs through June, and also produces the Bellingham One-Act Theatre Festival, Feb. 29 through March 12.

The theater is the oldest continuously running community theater west of the Mississippi River. Founded in 1929, the theater has thrived through 87 years and five locations. It has been in its current location, a former church at 1600 H St., since 1944.

“Staying in business this long is remarkable,” Starcher says. “Most theaters this size, with this number of shows, would have a paid director.”

Remodel will replace foundation, install elevator, create new main entrance, add exit from reception room.

The guild is currently well along in its fundraising campaign to upgrade its 194-seat playhouse. Members and supporters have raised $530,000 of their $900,000 goal to install an elevator, replace the foundation, and construct a new main entrance and a second exit from the reception room.

The Rotary Club of Bellingham has contributed $100,000, and a charitable trust in Vancouver, Wash., will add another $100,000, says Starcher, the guild’s building chairman.

“We’re gaining momentum,” he says.

The church was constructed in 1903 and rests on fill. The project will lift the building, drive pilings into bedrock, pour new footings, and repair damage from the lifting. Adding an elevator will make the playhouse easily accessible for people with physical disabilities.

“Something this important to our town needs to be accessible to all,” Starcher says.

You see people blossoming here.

Marion Heath, longtime volunteer, Bellingham Theatre Guild

For $14, audience members can see a show equal to a professional production, Starcher says. Parking spots are plentiful, as are the community connections.

“You’ll see your friends and neighbors on stage here, and sooner or later, yourself,” Starcher says. “It’s a wonderful creative outlet. See a show, be an usher, work in the box office. First-timers come to try out, and wind up getting cast.”

Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank started her road to success at the guild as a middle-schooler. Other alumni have become professional actors and theater managers, or simply enhanced their lives.

“You see people blossoming here,” says Marion Heath, the guild’s ticket coordinator and a volunteer for more than 50 years.

Starcher met his wife at the guild when he was in the auditorium during rehearsals for the 1984 production of “Tintypes.”

“I was watching to see if I was interested in doing the sets and lights for the show,” he says. “ Turns out I was more interested in one of the actresses.”

Coming to Bellingham Theatre Guild

Bellingham One-Act Theatre Festival: Feb. 29-March 12. Tickets: $4 per show or $10 for all, available at the door. Be at the theater 30 minutes early.

“August: Osage County”: April 22-May 8. Tragicomedy exposes the dark side of a Midwestern family.

“Anything Goes”: June 10-26. Amusing story wrapped around Cole Porter’s delightful score.

Tickets for regular season shows are $14 adults, $12 seniors, $8 children. Walk-in and phone sales start 10 days before show opens.

Schedule, membership, other details: bellinghamtheatreguild.com, 360-733-1811.

Capital campaign details, donations: btg4thefuture.com.