A couple reveals their effort to build a community theater in Coupeville

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff, Theater and Dance

Duff ’n Stuff, April 22, 2013

Well, I for one would like to see a theater arts building in Coupeville.

Coupeville business owner William Bell co-founded Penn Cove Productions with theater director Elizabeth Herbert. Together the couple has produced 14 theatrical programs for stage and radio, mainly in a tiny studio at the Pacific Northwest Arts School in Coupeville, among other locations. For the past year, the couple has been trying to get a theater built in Coupeville, an effort met with enthusiasm by the community right out of the gate in the form of a substantial amount of donations. But the project was not as easily-imagined by the city planners of Coupeville. Bell tells the whole story for the first time on Whidbey Life Magazine:

The cast of "Alice in Wonderland," a Penn Cove Players Production, fools around for the camera. (Photo courtesy of Penn Cove Productions.)

The cast of “Alice in Wonderland,” a Penn Cove Players Production, fools around for the camera. (Photo courtesy of Penn Cove Productions.)

Elizabeth Herbert and I have been working to create a community theatre in Coupeville. It has been a full year since we first sought to establish a small dedicated space in Coupeville specifically for a community-based theatre, one that would include live performances, plays and radio broadcasts, a movie night and events for everyone from kids to seniors. We determined early in our mission that we could keep the facility busy and solvent by opening the space to any and all groups and performances.

In the brief period in which we looked for people willing to donate to the idea of a community theatre, we raised almost $10,000 without much effort. We did not go “public” with our effort until now.

We talked to people who had supported Penn Cove Productions over our 14-program history who were eager, and shared the idea of a community theatre in Coupeville.

Our first effort was a storefront on Front Street in downtown Coupeville across from the Wharf. It was 2,200 square feet and was wide open, no walls and only two ceiling support posts. It featured windows that open onto Front Street, ideally located in the heart of the restaurant and tourist center of town. Once we secured an agreement to lease the space we met with the Town of Coupeville planning people who basically determined that over $50,000 in improvements would be required to allow up to 200 audience members to use the facility. Panic doors, fire suppression system and auxiliary bathrooms would be required. Since the building was in the historic preserve, punching doors into the building would be difficult. The building owners were not interested in investing the money for improvements and it was difficult to pay the costs of the improvements when we would only be renters. The idea ultimately failed because we were unable to determine how we would pay for improvements necessary, while affording the interior stage, seating and lighting demands of the theatre. 

Penn Cove Players' artistic director, Elizabeth Herbert, at rehearsal in the PNWA studio. A longtime theater and film artist, Herbert most recently directed "The Full Monty" at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.

Penn Cove Players’ artistic director, Elizabeth Herbert, at rehearsal in the PNWA studio. A longtime theater and film artist, Herbert most recently directed “The Full Monty” at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.

Our second attempt was one that came to us. A well-respected local commercial and residential builder came to Elizabeth and I and offered to build us a community theatre on a lot across from the public library on Alexander Street, only two blocks from our original site. The lot was zoned as commercial, and public parking was available across the street where the farmers market is held each Saturday. The builder felt a working budget of approximately $400,000 would provide adequate funding for the cost of construction. Our agreement would include a long-term lease and we would provide funding through donations for the interior improvements, including stage and lighting, seats and multi-media project booth, refreshment and ticketing desks and general accommodations for back stage work and actors.

When the proposal went to Coupeville Planning we again were hit with unexpected surprises. The costs the town had determined were for the use of the public parking lot, and improvements that required installation of sidewalks, lighting and other elements, and were estimated to cost an additional $100,000 above the construction costs. The builder would have to pay these costs to the Town of Coupeville. It basically made the cost of the project too high and the developer had no choice but to decline the opportunity.

During this period Elizabeth and I had hired an architect to provide site plans and preliminary drawings to demonstrate the quality and usefulness of the facility. Those fees were lost when the project rose above affordable reach.

Our third attempt was late last year when we met with a local land owner whose property is located in the center of town. He had offered a plot of land to a local non-profit if they would develop the property and build within a reasonable period of time. The time had almost lapsed and he was under the belief that they would be unable to raise the funds necessary to start their project. He was very interested in our project, but learned that the non-profit was indeed trying to raise funds and thus we were unable to reach an agreement until such time as he was sure the land would not be used by the non-profit.

Elizabeth and I are committed to this effort. Having a dedicated space with regularly scheduled events and entertainment would bring Coupeville the type of evening entertainment and activities we think it would enjoy and benefit from having. Coupeville has proven its support for the arts and yet has nothing of its own. Elizabeth successfully produced 14 entertainment programs here with Penn Cove Productions and “Postcards from Whidbey Island” radio broadcasts. All were supported by people who care about community theatre.

Well, that’s our story as it stands today. There are many more details, but fundamentally we are unclear about where to turn now. With Elizabeth’s recent success at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley where she directed the “The Full Monty,” we again are strengthened in our belief that a dedicated theatre in Coupeville can work.

This is our first attempt to go public and to let as many people know as possible what we hope to create.  We believe that other people will share our interest and offer creative and financial support to this effort.

This is not an impossible dream. There are ways to help make the “Penn Cove Playhouse” a reality in Coupeville. Anyone who is interested in volunteering or in providing a donation to make this dream come true, can contact William Bell at wmbell2522@gmail.com.  Or pay a visit to Local Grown café at 26 Front St. at the end of the wharf in Coupeville and ask for William.

From my theater-lovin’ heart,
Patricia Duff


Patricia Duff is a journalist, freelance writer and the editor of this magazine.


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