Wacky Acting

On the stage of experimentation

STORY BY REED STRONG | PHOTO BY GRACE SCHRATER 

(above) The iDiOM owner Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao and the cast of The Carrion Man take a moment out of bowing to the crowd to salute the writer and sound director of the play, Alex Malcolm Mills.

AHHHHH!” He bellows out and with his hands clasped in the air, Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao tosses an imaginary battle axe at the actors in front of him. They quickly react, catch, and throw the axe to its next target.

This is a warm-up for the actors to prepare them for the show they are about to do.

This is just another night at the iDiOM Theater in downtown Bellingham, a 96-seat black box theater.

It is a playwright’s theater, says Hergenhahn-Zhao, 46, the founder and artistic director of the theater. According to him, the iDiOM produces more new works than almost any other theater in the country.

A play has to be made before it is judged, and that is part of the idea behind the iDiOM’s work.

The iDiOM has open submissions for any new or suggested shows, which is unique compared to most of the other theaters in Bellingham.

Brian Toews, 24, is a graduate student at Western who has worked with the iDiOM on several occasions. He helped make the connection between the iDiOM and some of the theater students at Western.

“I see the iDiOM as a laboratory and a testing ground, to hopefully be able to bring in a more young adult audience from the Bellingham and Western communities,” Toews says. “But, to also have a launch pad for those who are interested in fostering their craft.”

The work at the iDiOM is outside the box. It has purpose. Recently the theater put on “The Carrion Man”, a horror-comedy involving mistaken identities and demonic possessions.

In the summer of 2014, the iDiOM worked with a few students from Western Washington University to put on two original defiant and experimental shows.

“They were super silly, they were super irreverent, they pushed things and they were smart,” Hergenhahn-Zhao recalled. “That was a refreshing energy, and that’s one of the reasons Brian and those other folks have been back. We try to open up the door as much as possible.”

RISE OF THE IDIOM

In 1996, Hergenhahn-Zhao and his friends rented out the building now known as the iDiOM Theater to put on a show. After the show they realized this was something they wanted to do again.

When the iDiOM was founded in 2002, it was viewed as the bad boy in town.

“They said, ‘It’s the theater you can swear at,’” Hergenhahn-Zhao laughed, remembering a different atmosphere. “Twelve years ago it wasn’t the norm to have plays where people swore on stage.”

Hergenhahn-Zhao remembers that a couple from the small town of Lynden arrived at the show “Hurlyburly” by David Rabe and left five minutes after out of shock.

The theater didn’t see itself as anything special back then. The iDiOM did the shows that it wanted to do. It did the shows that were uncommon in Bellingham.

Now, other theaters seem to be getting more tolerant of doing plays with themes that were previously viewed as risqué, Hergenhahn-Zhao says. Some examples are Spring Awakening at Bellingham High School, or Sweeney Todd at the Bellingham Theater Guild.

“Running this place is a tremendous amount of work, even more in the early days,” Hergenhahn-Zhao says. “Maybe because I was doing so much more of the stuff by myself. I felt like I gleaned everything I could in this room.”

LOCAL TALENT

Community is important to the iDiOM. It helps keep the theater’s shows going. The iDiOM has come to rely on returning artists in Bellingham, keeping in contact with those who have helped it put on successful productions in the past. Now, a new group is stepping up to the challenge.

“I really wanted to showcase the talent of young voices specifically from Western,” Toews says, referring to a play he cast. “I wanted to bridge the gap between community theater and the academic theater you learn at the university.”

According to data from Broadway’s trade association, the average age of a Broadway theater-goer in the 2013–2014 season was 44 years old. In the past few years, more college-aged students have been participating in and attending productions at the iDiOM.

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

The business side of the iDiOM is busy. The theater often produces over 40 shows a year. Wesley Davis is the marketing director at the iDiOM, a new position at the theater.

There’s a difficulty in figuring out how to promote a show that may only run for two weekends three weeks in advance, Davis remarks. Marketing for shows can overlap and things get complicated.

Previous shows would be advertised months before, but not put together until less than a month before the actual date, Hergenhahn-Zhao says. With a busy schedule, things are easy to forget.

For years the iDiOM ran on ticket sales, but it was converted to a nonprofit after struggling to always sustain itself, Hergenhahn-Zhao says. Since the switch the iDiOM still gets a majority of its revenue from ticket sales, but also gets around $15,000 to $20,000 a year from local businesses.

Being sponsored allows the theater to have mutual benefits with their sponsors — getting the names of the businesses out there and offering compensations, while getting financial support at the same time. Sponsors help keep awareness up, and ticket prices low.

JUST ANOTHER DAY

After the first warm-up of axe throwing, the night of the show hangs quietly. Actors wait in the dressing rooms, already in their costumes. They shoot the breeze, while the director does last checks around. The show tonight is “The Carrion Man.” The set is a black wall, decorated with a few pentagrams and gothic imagery.

It’s about half an hour before the audience is allowed to sit down. The cast stands ready after their first warm up, gathering around a circle chalked on the stage.

“Alright folks, how we all feeling?” Hergenhahn-Zhao says with a smile.

Toews, the director, brings everyone together. He tells them not to stress out, and to just have fun.

Everyone puts their hands in, they cheer, and that’s it. The show is ready to go, and so are they.

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