WICA: entertaining South Whidbey for 20 years

WICA board members and staff pose before beginning phase two of construction in 2007. Front row

Twenty years ago, the people behind the genesis of the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA) could never have imagined the organization’s success over the years. Yet two decades later, WICA remains the creative hub of the South Whidbey community and a place that performing artists of all kinds call home.

In celebration of WICA’s 20th birthday, the multi-use arts center is inviting the South Whidbey community to an open house at 6 p.m. on May 12, followed by a two-night variety show featuring acts from over the years. The shows will be hosted on May 13 and May 14.

The celebration is a walk down memory lane of sorts with photos, costumes, props and other memorabilia on display during the open house. The same can be said about the variety shows, which feature performers who have taken the stage in past years, including a reunion for the first ever performers at WICA, Sing!Chronicity. Performances of all art forms are slated to be part of the anniversary show, including Whidbey Island Dance Theatre, WOW! Stories, poet Judith Adams, Heggenes Valley Boys, Saratoga Chamber Players, Troy Chapman and a surprise theatre performance. Annual WICA performers, The Rural Characters, will MC for both nights of the variety show. Tickets cost $22 and shows begin at 7:30 p.m. on both nights.

WICA’s founding is a story of a community rallying to create a home for the performing arts community here on South Whidbey. Prior to WICA’s construction, performers relied on makeshift stages at locations such as Langley’s Clyde Theatre, where performances were held in front of the movie screen.

“My group felt a theatre was necessary because we were tired of constantly moving around to perform,” said Shelley Hartle, member of Sing!Chronicity. “We needed a permanent home, even though the Clyde Theatre was terrific to us.”

The initial plans to create a new performance center began as far back as 1987 when a 13-member Committee on Planning for the Arts Center (COPAC) formed, of which Hartle was a member. The Island Arts Council then became a sponsor for the project in the early days of development. Nearly 10 years of community fundraising followed, resulting in a staggering $1.2 million collected for the construction of the building that currently houses WICA.

“It was an incredible grassroots effort to create a home for the arts,” said Stacie Burgua, executive director of WICA. “Langley is and always has been so rich in artistic endeavors and strong theatre groups, but these groups didn’t have a permanent home.”

WICA’s foundation can largely be attributed to the volunteers and arts community who helped build it from the ground up, according to Burgua, who started as a volunteer in the summer of 1997. WICA remains volunteer-based today, and is a gift to the community that the community gave itself, she said.

“We wouldn’t be here without those who helped establish us, hands down,” Burgua said. “I’m talking about all volunteers, everyone who helped fundraise, everyone who volunteers and all who come in the door.”

WICA wasn’t done expanding their home, however. While the performing arts community had a permanent stage to perform on, it still lacked the necessary amenities of most theaters such as a room for props, a set room and black box theatre. They embarked on a mission to fundraise once again, and in 2007 they raised a whopping $2.4 million to nearly double the square footage of the arts center. WICA managed to raise these funds with the recession around the corner and their doors remained open throughout those tough years, while many other theaters weren’t able to stay afloat financially.

“The fundraising was incredibly important on many levels,” Burgua said. “We wouldn’t be here if the community didn’t come together twice to raise funds. That’s how supportive this community is of their arts center, and it’s something to be proud of.”

Twenty years after the genesis of WICA, things are looking brighter than ever. With large festivals such as PianoFest Northwest and DjangoFest Northwest, the arts center brings guests from far and wide to South Whidbey. The economics of it, according to Burgua, is only positive to the South End of the island. Visitors come into town from all over the country, Canada and even international countries. WICA sells 11,000-13,000 tickets a season, which is from September to June, and 90 percent of the income generated is put right back into the community, according to Burgua.

Pam Schell, an original WICA board member, always knew that creating a home in Langley where the performing arts community could come together and share their talent would be a success. Yet, she never thought it would evolve the way it did.

“This was a buy-in for the community and they loved it!” Schell said in a tribute video for WICA’s 20th anniversary. “There’s nothing more popular than saying, ‘I live in Langley and I can just walk to the theatre.’ Coming to WICA is a major part of my life.”