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Two artists give Islanders a peek into a new community venue

Janet McAlpin and David Godsey, with their son Kai McAlpin Godsey between them, are perched on some of the equipment they’re beginning to amass for the new theater and performing arts space they’re creating at the former Seattle’s Best Coffee warehouse.  The co-founders of UMO, McAlpin and Godsey are thrilled to be able to offer the building as a space for community theater and arts events. Aspects of the new venue, such as the circus space, is already operational. Other spaces, such as the “great hall,” pictured here, are many months away from being open to public use.   - Michelle Bates photo
Janet McAlpin and David Godsey, with their son Kai McAlpin Godsey between them, are perched on some of the equipment they’re beginning to amass for the new theater and performing arts space they’re creating at the former Seattle’s Best Coffee warehouse. The co-founders of UMO, McAlpin and Godsey are thrilled to be able to offer the building as a space for community theater and arts events. Aspects of the new venue, such as the circus space, is already operational. Other spaces, such as the “great hall,” pictured here, are many months away from being open to public use.
— image credit: Michelle Bates photo

Janet McAlpin and David Godsey had long dreamed of a space that could work for the circus arts — a large, wide-open room that could accommodate the trapezes, ropes and rigging that the breathtaking artistry of physical theater requires.

But the couple — artists who perform as acrobats and aerialists — also wanted a space big and flexible enough to accommodate community theater and other arts events, a space that could fulfill a range of artistic needs on Vashon.

Now, two years after purchasing the former Seattle’s Best Coffee warehouse and packaging plant, the couple is beginning to make their dream a reality.

Though not completely ready to unveil their plans, McAlpin and Godsey — aware that the community is grappling with a number of questions about Island buildings and how they should be used — decided to let the Island in on a space that still takes their breath away.

And in a letter to the community that ran as a paid ad in The Beachcomber last week and a subsequent interview at their studio behind their Burton Hill home, the couple — founding members of the nationally celebrated physical theater group UMO — said they plan to offer their building to the community as a “philanthropic initiative.” In other words, they’ll run it without turning a profit.

“The potential is what still strikes me every time I walk into it,” McAlpin said. “It’s so exciting.”

The 15,000-square-foot building on 103rd Ave. S.W. behind the former K2 manufacturing site is made up of three conjoined spaces. One portion, what they currently call the “big hall,” is large enough to offer a performing arts space that could be configured to meet a wide array of needs; seating could range from less than 100 to more than 300. Another offers office space.

A third part of the building, with a ceiling that arcs 28 feet above the floor, is an aerialist’s dream come true. Indeed, it is already the site for classes in the circus arts.

The various spaces could be wide-open or intimate, Godsey said. They could be used for a poetry reading, an auction, a sock-hop or a play.“All of that is possible,” he said. “I can’t anticipate all of the needs.”

Using money McAlpin received from a relative who had passed away, she and Godsey formed a limited liability corporation to purchase the building. As a result, the site won’t require any public funding or community-based fundraising.

The couple is offering it up, they wrote in their letter to the Island, in the spirit of “community service.”

“Our goal is to provide a performing arts, events and meeting facility that is well-equipped, flexible, affordable and available to Island arts groups and individual artists for the realization of their projects and dreams,” they wrote.

Islanders in the arts community say they’re thrilled by the news.

The Vashon arts community has been grappling with space problems for years, an issue that has been confounded by the fact that the Island has a lively arts scene but, some say, a population base too small to support the high costs of running a new venue.

Currently, Vashon Allied Arts has a theater at the Blue Heron Arts Center, which can accommodate around 90 people in a far-from-deluxe space. Vashon High School has a much larger theater — seating up to 270 people; but it’s a space that is often in demand and is also far from adequate, thespians say. It has a very limited backstage area, poor sight lines and no dressing rooms, backstage restrooms or sound and light booth.

What’s more, the two spaces are limited in their flexibility, particularly the high school theater, which has a fixed proscenium stage, users say.

Martin Koenig, who was the founder and artistic director of a nonprofit arts organization in New York City for nearly 30 years, has long been concerned that a not-for-profit effort to create a new theater on Vashon would drain money from other civic organizations and ultimately not prove financially viable. McAlpin and Godsey, who have not only the financial wherewithal to create a new arts venue but also the artistic savvy to understand what the Island needs, have made a significant gift to Vashon, he said.

“They have invested in the community without even being asked to,” Koenig said. “I just applaud them.”

Phil Dunn, who currently chairs Drama Dock, said the group’s recent showing of “Red Ranger Came Calling” at the Blue Heron sold out every show because the theater is so small and the high school theater wasn’t available. Sometimes, however, the high school theater is not right, he added. Last year, for instance, the community theater group performed “Talking With” at the high school, an intimate play that called out for a smaller space.

“We’d love to have something in the middle,” he said.

Molly Reed, executive director of Vashon Allied Arts, agreed. “It’s going to provide a space no one else can,” she said.

The couple, she added, “are not only wildly talented, but also generous of spirit.”

McAlpin and Godsey said they had planned to announce their vision for their building in April or May. But they’ve been fielding a growing number of questions from Islanders who had heard rumors about the building and their plans to develop it into a community arts space. And with all the talk about the proposed K2 redevelopment and the school district’s current discussions about its future building needs, they felt they needed to let the community know that another large, former warehouse would soon be added to the mix, they said.

The two sat on the oak floor in their bright, high-ceilinged studio as they talked; their 5-year-old son Kai played nearby, clambering over large, vinyl-covered blocks and transforming the arts studio into a kind of child’s playground. The couple spoke excitedly about their undertaking, interrupting each other on occasion and almost tripping over their words.

At one point, as McAlpin recalled her parents’ and grandparents’ spirit of philanthropy, she teared up.

“We want to do this because we see a need and want to help,” said McAlpin. “We see the need as artists. We feel it. And we really want to help.”

The couple will unveil more complete plans later this spring, when, with the help of a planning consultant and theater design consultant, they’ll have a much clearer picture of what they have in store. They also hope to bring in the arts community in the near future, holding design charettes that will bring the plans into even greater focus.

But they noted that some of their plans — as well as their fundamental approach to this former coffee bean warehouse — are already beginning to take shape. They’ve already made upgrades to the building; it has a new roof, new heating systems and all the required fire-safety upgrades. And the circus space is already being well used.

A year ago, after they realized they were tired of driving their son to Seattle to take classes from the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts, they invited the school to offer Vashon-based classes in their space — and it has since taken off.

“The facility is already serving the community,” Godsey said. “It’s not a dream we’re waiting to make happen. It’s already begun.”

They’re also beginning to pull together other pieces they’ll need to create a vibrant venue. Recently, for instance, they stumbled upon a great deal for footlights and bought 160 lighting instruments from Pacific Northwest Ballet — a purchase that McAlpin said delighted her because of the old-time, Vaudeville-like effect such lighting can create.

While UMO will likely use the space for its rehearsals and performances, McAlpin and Godsey stress that it’s not UMO’s space, as some in the community have termed it.

“We’re doing this as individuals and as members of the community,” Godsey said.

“And as people who care about the arts,” McAlpin added.

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