We spoke with Steve Lyons, Producing Director at Bellingham Theatre Works, about their emergence onto the local theatre scene.
Bellingham seems like an unlikely spot for a no-mad theatre company. What drew you to make this your home base?
While I have a degree in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley, at this point I am mostly a stay-at-home dad and home maker. We had lived in Berkeley for decades. We were tired of the traffic and we were ready for a change. My wife got a job as director of palliative care for Peace Health. She is basically my employer, so where she goes, I follow!!
Actually, because there is a profound lack of affordable performance space in Bellingham, there are many no-mad performing arts companies here. Neighborhood Playhouse, Stone Town Theatre, Kuntz and Company, Northwest Ballet, The Provocateurs, Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, the list goes on. They all wander around to different performing spaces around Bellingham and beyond because there is no affordable community performing arts space in Bellingham.
The Herald did a great piece on my Bellingham arts journey.
In your first two production you took on war and race. Seems like you have a larger agenda than just entertainment. Is that accurate?
Founded in 2014, Bellingham TheatreWorks is a collaboration between local director Mark Kuntz and producing director Steve Lyons. Our mission is to present stories of significance to the Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on local actors and local playwrights.
Our first season featured Border Songs, a lyrical tale about a quirky Peace Arch border patrolman based on a best selling novel by Olympia writer Jim Lynch. We also premiered my drama The Ghosts of Tonkin about Oregon Senator Wayne Morse. We presented The Ghosts of Tonkin in Bellingham and toured the play to Portland and Eugene.
Our second season featured Marina at the Mount Baker Theatre main stage. Written by local playwright Sandy Wolf, Marina is inspired by the history of the fishing industry in Blaine. This ambitious world premier musical with full orchestra was attended by over 1600 patrons. Also, 1300 students enjoyed our educational matinees. We also re-mounted The Ghosts of Tonkin as part of the ACTLab series at ACT Theatre in Seattle.
Mark and I have different tastes in theatre. He likes intense, heavy drama and I lean towards comedies and lighter fare. Even though my play Ghosts of Tonkin is about the genesis of the Vietnam War, is has a fair amount of humor in it.
To me, there is nothing wrong with purely entertaining theatre, but you are correct that our plays to date have had larger themes.
Some of the themes of your latest production—Marina—were very timely. Was that something you did consciously, were you aiming for a topics that you thought might be in the news, or was it more coincidental?
Local playwright Sandy Wolf discovered parallels between the history of the Blaine area fishing and canning industry of the early 1900s, and our world today. Those parallels include racism and class division and the plight of the disenfranchised. But all that was couched inside a Broadway-musical-style love story. Sometimes it is easier to investigate the present by looking at the past.
Marina got great reviews. The only complaints I heard were that it was only around for 3 shows! Any plans to bring it back?
Thank you! Sandy is actively pursuing getting it produced elsewhere, but we also think about producing it again here. That musical would do well in Alaska or Seattle.
Musicals are very expensive and demanding. Putting on that musical involved twenty five actors, twenty five musicians in the orchestra, and twenty five crew. I am actually looking forward to doing something a little easier next year! But because of the popularity of Marina, we may bring it back to Bellingham.
What’s next for you guys? Are you writing something new?
Next summer, Bellingham TheatreWorks will continue its commitment to celebrating stories of significance to the Pacific Northwest by premiering my comedy Mrs. Bave Presents the San Juan Saga.
At the center of this play is the Pig War of 1859, which was a border dispute between the United States and Britain over the San Juan Islands. This war is significant because ultimately there was no war! Peace was chosen over war.
Subtitled “The almost true story of a play that nearly happened about a war that never occurred,” this is the wacky tale of Emilia Bave and her San Juan Saga. Mrs. Bave’s “pageant” was originally presented in 1959 on San Juan Island in celebration of the centennial of the Pig War. The premier of the play featured local acting talent. However, when she wanted to re-mount the play the following year, she found the locals had not been bitten by the acting bug. No one wanted to be in her play! Undaunted, she re-wrote the script to be a narration with the reluctant actors replaced by mannequins.
She presented her pageant to unsuspecting visitors for nearly 20 years. When she became too old to continue her pageant, the plucky Mrs. Bave re-invented the play as “The Pig War Museum,” with her beloved mannequins posed in dioramas depicting events from the 1859 “war.”
In my comedy, Mrs. Bave’s Pig War mannequins spring to life, but with Mrs. Bave still firmly in control as ring master.
I am having great fun writing it! We plan to have a few post-play discussions that will feature Mike Vouri, who wrote the engaging book called “The Pig War” and Emelia Bave’s daughter, Marsha Bave, will also join the discussion. Should be fun!
The play is slated to premiere next summer in Friday Harbor and Bainbridge Island. We would like to present it in Bellingham, but we continue to be hampered by this lack of performance space. We may instead present it at the Claire vg Thomas Theatre in Lynden.