This Saturday marks one year since the Warehouse Theatre Company last offered a live performance. On “leap night,” Feb. 29, 2020, the actors in “Becky’s New Car” took their final bow of that show’s run, and the audience hopped in their cars and headed home. They no doubt reviewed the show on that drive and talked about the upcoming production — the final show in the Warehouse 2019-2020 season — “Matilda the Musical.”
Of course, no one knew then that two weeks later everything would come to a screeching halt. That rehearsals for “Matilda” would be first postponed, then canceled altogether. That 12 months on, the theater would still be dark.
And it seems true that no one would have guessed how much they could miss live theater.
The Warehouse Theatre Company is one of an estimated 7,000 community theaters across the country. To borrow a phrase, it’s theater of the people, by the people and for the people. For over 73 years the Warehouse has been entertaining audiences and scratching the creative itch of countless Valley residents.
Community theater is a place where the lawyer and the businesswoman, the doctor and her patient, the homeowner and the Realtor, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker all come together and stand alongside each other to tell one story. And they’re telling it to you, their peers.
They make you laugh, make you cry, make you sing and tap your toes. They make you forget your troubles and transport you to another place. And when it really works, you carry the story out of the building and think about it for days, or even years.
That’s community theater, and the WTC is a community theater in every sense. So naturally when people can’t gather together, there’s an impact on that community. The vacuum in their lives is real.
Producing five shows per year with rehearsal periods of six to 10 weeks means that the WTC has seldom been “dark” for more than a month at a time. So, this pandemic pause — while definitely not embraced — has offered a unique opportunity to the company.
“We have been using this time to turn inward a bit more,” WTC board President Stephen Clark said. “When we’re producing our regular five shows per year, there doesn’t seem to be any time for reflection. We’re always focused on creation. Even though we hate being dark, it feels like we’re improving as a company.”
That improvement has come in places like the newly formed Warehouse Theatre Kids’ Company. WTC’s Ruth Veselka (last seen in “Becky’s New Car”), led this Zoom-based project, getting kids together to create digital material over the holiday season.
“It was so great to see the kids on the screen and see how excited they were to be together and to get to do something they love,” said Kathy Snow, a parent of three Kids’ Company members.
While the idea of offering theater for youngsters had circulated in the company for some time, it just seemed even more important now, Veselka said.
“Kids have been so isolated during the pandemic, they really need to be able to do joyful things,” she said.
Another area of focus is an inclusivity initiative launched last fall. To reflect the full community and diversity in the Valley, Warehouse is examining their theater-making practices.
“We’re looking at show selection, directing, casting, outreach and recruitment, board policies — everything we do,” says Clark. “If our mission is to ‘engage, enrich, and encourage’ this community, we need to make sure to include the whole community. We have a responsibility to make positive change.”
The pandemic closed the Warehouse Theatre and like many other small businesses, the company has been hit hard by revenue shortfalls. But overall, the theater remains strong. Support has come from two grants from the Washington State Arts Commission. Thanks to the generosity of patrons and donors, bills have been paid. In fact, in July an anonymous donor gave the Company the final $20,000 mortgage payment on its own facility.
While there are costs to maintain the building and to get it ready to bring audiences back, ownership of the theater means that the WTC has a stable home and a much more secure future.
In hopes that the region will soon be able to host live theater again, the WTC board has approved a tentative season of shows to be announced at a later date.
“Of course, we can’t tell yet just when we’ll be able to get back to performing,” Clark said. “We obviously hope it’s sooner rather than later. But above everything, we want to be sure it’s safe for everyone to come back.
“Honestly, just as soon as we get clearance, we will jump at the chance.”