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A PASSION PIECE

A night out at the theater can be magical.

There’s the privilege of a ticket in hand; the lobby with its promise of refreshment; the fresh program offered by a welcoming usher.

Upon entering the theater, the sinking down into a comfy chair designated solely for your singular body and then the darkness; the lights; the set; the costumes; the actor projecting the very essence of a playwright’s soul strung on the vision of the director.

All of it, to the end, of making even one audience member note a new thought for their consciousness, or a slight movement in their heart.

Even if the experience is less than illuminating, the theater has its multiple charms and saving graces. Just applauding a thespian friend or a daring child can bring satisfaction even after an unpolished production.

One afternoon at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, the busy staff welcomed an exploration of how a small community theater works, and the ways in which the show must go on. For WICA, it’s a personal story of a cherished venue that almost had to close its doors in its early days, but is now working in the black.

Passion seems to be the quality that this staff mentions most.

As WICA’s executive director, Stacie Burgua said the sheer will of the community through a long series of challenges and experiences has paid off and the little theater is bursting at the seams today.

WICA offers much more than just theater to its patrons. Even so, the theater season seems to be a kind of glue that keeps everyone in place.

“Watching the growth of this theater has been exhilarating,” said Burgua.

Her job goes beyond the benefits of an expanding audience, a year-round schedule of a variety of events and the financial success of the venue.

“It just makes it so worthwhile any time there are kids on the stage and I start crying,” which, Burgua added, happens quite often.

Production Director Deana Duncan is equally passionate about the rewards of a job that mean much more to her than a paycheck.

“It’s awe-inspiring to see someone take an opportunity, challenge themselves and succeed,” she said.

“Season after season, there is always someone I see who is the most changed after working in a show. Seeing a person be so filled up, so needed to make a show work, is one of the most rewarding things for me. It’s very satisfying,” Duncan said.

Jason Dittmer is the marketing director of the group. He said the pride the community shows for WICA is what makes him smile.

“It’s satisfying when I see patrons, volunteers, visitors walk through the door and have that sense of pride and ownership about the theater,” said Dittmer. “Locals will come by and say, ‘I just have to show my friends here the theater!’”

“You get to see the fruits of your labor every two months,” added Tyler Raymond, the technical director at WICA.

But it’s a fruit-bearing tree with many branches to maintain.

The collaborative aspect of the art form seems to give theater a generosity of attractions. It is no

small feat, however, to create and maintain a working theater whether it be a large professional one or a small community operation.

The staff at WICA seems to have found the magic recipe for making it work.

WICA opened in May 1996, following a 10-year-long grassroots effort to build a community performing arts center on south Whidbey Island. It has 246 seats and a thrust style stage, which means the stage extends out toward the audience.

The theater season begins with general auditions in August; performances begin in October and end in June.

There is a staff of four full-time and three part-time employees, with input and assistance from more than 200 volunteers and an active

10-member board of directors.

WICA produces five theatrical shows per year with one youth production during the summer conservatory. The theater shows are within the ongoing schedule of about

42 events that the arts center produces throughout the year.

In order to produce good theater, it’s necessary to give an audience something lasting; something that resonates.

To fulfill this, its technicians, artists and front-of-house staff need not only inspiration and imagination, but also integrity and skill.

With such a strong collaboration of talent in this community, Duncan said the theater has hit its stride and is performing at the top its game.

The players are a busy team.

The production director, she explained, is the person who is ultimately responsible for the show. She helps to choose the shows, employs the directors, the stage managers, the costume, lighting and set designers, assists with casting and creates all the schedules on which all of the shows depend.

It is Duncan’s job to work through every rehearsal process to make sure the show is moving forward toward opening night. She runs all the technical rehearsals — which happen the week before a show opens — in conjunction with Raymond, the tech director.

After being in the position for six years, having produced more than 30 plays in a row and having read 50 plays per year to help choose each season, Duncan said the team has sharpened their abilities.

“We used to look at a play and say, ‘What’s the easiest way to do this?’” Duncan said. “Now we ask, ‘What is the best way we can do this?’ We want to push ourselves,” she said.

Burgua doesn’t back down from that challenge.

This is Burgua’s 10th year as executive director of WICA, an amazing tenure considering the theater went through four executive directors in the first four years of its existence.

Since she doesn’t have a performing arts background, Burgua surrounds herself with people who do. She said what is important to her is creativity, expertise and passion.

As executive director, Burgua’s job entails the budgeting of finances to support operations while balancing everything with grants and fundraising.

There is also the challenge of balancing the programs so they support each other and satisfy a wide range of tastes in the community.

And it is Burgua who has the final say on what will be produced each season.

“The challenge is to bring things in that the community might not ever get a chance to see otherwise,” she said.

A chance to see a show means having to sell tickets. The box office is the crucial link that keeps the audience flowing in.

Amy Walker, who recently left the island to pursue a career as an actor, was part of the box office staff for eight years.

The box office is usually the first contact with the patron, so it’s all about inviting people “home” to WICA, Walker said.

Guiding people to shows they’d like and seats that would best serve them, plus giving advice to out-of-towners about ferries and places to eat and stay, is as much a part of selling tickets as the rest.

Walker said it’s very satisfying to see people of all ages coming to a concert or a show to support their artistic community. She is especially satisfied when she sees parents bring their children to the theater to share the importance of a performing arts community.

The house manager is also a big part of keeping a theater running in top form.

Karen McInerney has been working at WICA for about five years. She began as a volunteer at Django Fest the first year the gypsy jazz festival was held, and was then hired as a house manager.

Her duties include setting up a concession area and providing refreshments for the cast and crew backstage. She then checks in with the stage manager to figure out how they will communicate when the house is in so the show can begin.

She directs about six volunteers per show who work as ticket takers, ushers, concession helpers and will-call clerks. She is also in charge of timing the intermission and signaling the audience to know when to return to the theater.

During the second part of the show, the front-of-house volunteers clean up the concession area and do the accounting of the cash.

“I really enjoy working with people,” McInerney said.

“From volunteers to musicians, actors, etc., since I am not one of those, I enjoy facilitating others in their craft,” she said.

Burgua counts creativity as a must-have quality for her team and technically speaking, creativity is a technician’s right hand.

As technical director, Raymond can usually be found in the darkened places of the theater, or underneath some large piece of set that he has recently built or deconstructed. Anything that happens behind the stage, on the set, in the sound or light booth, is his territory.

The stage and backstage areas can be treacherous with overhangs, sharp objects and dark corners. Operating a safe theater is every technical director’s first priority and they are often called upon to make logistical changes to a set during the last-minute push of “tech week.”

Raymond, who has been with the WICA team for two years, has become famous for his ability with gadgetry and for making set pieces work after they failed to cooperate the first time.

Audiences will never know why the moon in “Seduced” moved so easily, or about a clever latch for a door in “A Murder is Announced,” or how he got the safe to work in “Seven Keys to Baldpate.”

There is often no glory for the technical director, no curtain calls, no bouquet of opening-night flowers.

But that’s the way most of them like it. They are behind-the-scenes magicians, conjuring up computer-rendered set dimensions and lighting plans.

Raymond uses skills in carpentry, electricity, computers and the principles of sound and signal flow. He not only provides technical support to the set designer, lighting designer, producer and director, but at WICA he offers his humble support to the office staff as well.

Raymond said the most satisfying aspect for him is seeing a production come together finally on opening night.

“But you can’t always anticipate everything,” said Raymond. “Every show contains surprises.”

As marketing director, it is no surprise to Dittmer that each show relies on his getting the word out.

Besides being responsible for press releases, programs, posters, e-mails, brochures, letters and all manner of correspondence to the local and regional media, Dittmer said its talking with people that is key to his job.

“I work at developing partnerships with staff, volunteers, local businesses and other artists,” he said.

“Every time you see one of our posters it means we’ve developed a relationship with that business owner. My relationships with people are very important,” he said.

To young people who want to work in a theater Dittmer says you have to be able to relate to people, if not you’ll have to find another line of work.

Creatively keeping up with the rest of the team, Dittmer is also an actor, director, set designer and poster designer in his spare time.

Duncan, too, plays a “Jaquees-of-all-trades” by acting, directing and designing shows in addition to producing.

She thanks her lucky stars every day for the work she does. It plays a role in the message she is able to give to the young people who take her theater classes and perform at WICA; the same message she personally heeded seven years ago.

“If you know in your gut that this is what feeds your soul and lights your fire then you find a way to do it,” she said. “And I can’t thank this community enough for allowing us to make theater; it’s pretty cool work.”

The staff at WICA are particularly lucky to be keepers of the flame that was started by a passionate community. It is a fire which is continually stoked by a community that embraces the theater and allows the creativity and passion of these artists, technicians and administrators to maintain it.

At the end of the day, after much was said about passion and creativity on this particular afternoon, there was still the practical life of the theater to contend with.

“Seussical the Musical,” which WICA presented in conjunction with Whidbey Children’s Theater for its summer conservatory production, was in rehearsal while other staff was in the throws of preparing for Djangofest Northwest, its five-day gypsy jazz extravaganza in September.

On top of all that, the company celebrated its 11th anniversary this year with its biggest fundraiser of the year, the benefit auction, also in September.

The mountains of hard work that are born of passion has paid off for WICA as the little theater that could certainly has.

Now the company looks toward the future with “Stage Two” — a new vision for an expansion project. Fundraising for an expanded theater is expected to kick off next year.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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