by Michael Bowen

Tim Behrens had a dream. But then he has a lot of dreams. He actually gets up in the middle of the night to write them down -- and then, after a lot of coffee and cell phone calls and meetings and discussing plans with subcontractors and more coffee and more phone calls, he brings them into reality.

"I call them 'precogniscient' dreams, and they are so full of details," says Behrens, CenterStage's artistic director and an actor who has played Pat McManus in stage versions of that Inland Northwest writer's stories.

What Behrens envisioned was the space (or rather, spaces) at 1017 W. First Ave., a complex of performance rooms that is in the process of becoming CenterStage, itself the centerpiece of an entire block of urban rehab being undertaken by a threesome of investors -- Wade Ballinger, Jill Smith and Ann Wyman -- who call themselves the Odd Girls.

The inaugural show at CenterStage (running through May 31) will be A... My Name Is Alice, a musical revue celebrating women that Behrens directed back in 1986 for an earlier dinner theater venture of his, Center Theater Group.

CenterStage itself, on the second of three levels, is the elaborate dinner theater, with wooden floors, stained glass, an ornate fireplace with matching balconies, and banks of tables ascending away from the playing area.

The vision document also foresees doing multicultural and nontraditional works, performed by local actors and musicians of every kind. And they're actually going to get paid.

But there are a lot of people who have such dreams. Actors, artists, musicians -- they're all such dreamy and impractical types. What makes Behrens any different? His answer: "multiple income streams."

"I believe in self-sufficiency," he declares. "It's fine for arts groups to seek grants. But in my opinion, an arts group in this time -- not before, but now -- needs to develop multiple income streams so that it can rely less on grants and individual contributions and more on actual income-producing activities that are done in-house."

Behrens has the background -- artistic, financial and practical -- to make this project work.

"I avoided acting entirely until I was 32 or 33," he says. "But before that I was an economic development professional. I went around and did community projects and stuff like that." So he's eager to maximize the money flow: "So we'll have rental income, performance income, a liquor license, which we'll use in our upstairs supper club," featuring cuisine prepared by Chef Kile Tansy (formerly of Quinn's -- and if the offerings at media night were any indication, the food should be great).

As artistic director, Behrens will eventually be able to run performances simultaneously in three (or even four) sections of the CenterStage complex.

So how did the dream take physical form? The Odd Girls investors "saw a chance for economies of scale," says Behrens. By buying eight buildings on a single block, they could make much more of a difference to the Spokane artistic community than, say, in the much more expensive and scattered community in Seattle. "We've been at it for about two and a half years," reports Behrens. "I'm betting their credibility and my own" -- not to mention $3 million in purchase prices and nearly $700,000 in renovations.

But then there are the little surprises that come with fund-raising. "On April 7," Behrens reveals, "I get a call from a person who will pledge $40,000 -- but it comes with conditions.

"If we can raise $60,000 by May 31 from local and regional business and individual donors - not private foundations -- and if they're not pledged, but received, so that we can show that deposits have been made -- this person will write a check that night for $40,000. I don't want to lose that."

Behrens is clearly feeling the pressure of logistics, of money, of the whole nascent vision thing. For one thing, work crews are hustling to finish remodeling the bathrooms before the tonight's April 24 opening of Alice. Isn't the show something like a comedic feminist musical?

"I don't think you should stress 'feminist,' because originally it was, but it was written in 1983, so it's hardly feminist anymore," Behrens asserts.

The musical variety wonderland that is Alice leaps from vignette to vignette, with no real connections in between except the intent to celebrate women. There are songs about overworked parents, bawdy blues singers and thankful daughters, Behrens explains. Then he grows serious. "All these songs are touching and affecting," he intones, "and about 80 percent of them are hilarious.

"I'm just enamoured, fascinated by this form known as the musical revue, or cabaret," he smiles. "But we're not doing any huge sets here -- we're not gonna build the Roman ruins or anything."

Dinner theater done cabaret-style may have the virtue of simplicity, but it also has a reputation for putting more emphasis on the food than on the quality of the performance. Yet Behrens denies any half-measures.

"We're providing an entire evening of entertainment," he asserts. "You come down to see the gallery, and maybe then you decide to go to the dinner theater, and after that you go to the supper club upstairs and you have a drink. And then you're on your way home."

He grows animated as he points out that the idea of an arts district doesn't have to catch on in Spokane, "because it's already happening."

"You see similar ideas in Santa Fe -- and have you been in downtown Portland lately? But here, it's already happening: you have the Met, the Big Easy -- you've seen the big hole in the ground? Well, the Big Hole is going to become the Big Easy -- and, in some manifestation, the Fox. And then you have Dempsey's, the Davenport Hotel. And we have two galleries up and running already."

Behrens wants his theater to mesh with the community. For starters, all auditions will be completely open: "They're all open to the public. This is very important to me. Nothing is pre-cast. It's all totally open."

There's another way that CenterStage will be central to downtown. That's because one of those recurrent Behrens dreams entails extensive training of at-risk youth from Spokane-area alternative schools, then putting those same hard-to-reach kids out into the community, performing social service projects.

It will be a community theater, in other words, that plans to reach out into the community. Along with some members of the CenterStage board of directors, Behrens plans "to take kids from Havermale, Crosswalk, Judge Murphy's court and give them six months of training in the dramatic and theatrical arts -- voice, body, language, senses, physicality, gesture, character development -- and then six months using what they've learned in social projects out in the community.

"We'll take the kid who can't balance her own checkbook and make her the treasurer," he says. "The kid who has the least leadership skills, you make him the leader. The kid who can't hammer a nail without hitting himself, make him the master carpenter."

Meanwhile, back at CenterStage's home base, patrons will be using rehearsal spaces, lounging in the supper club, laughing at the dinner theater's musical comedy.

Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his Kubla Khan, Behrens had his dream -- I'm not saying it was derived from an opiate, necessarily -- and "did... a stately pleasure dome decree." Then again, this is West First: Just a few doors down the street, there are malt liquor bottles lying broken in the gutter.

CenterStage's new home might be Xanadu -- or it might be a run-down block like those in many an urban core. But Tim Behrens had a dream. If he built it, went the vision, they would come -- and stroll through galleries, watch plays, sip aperitifs, snap their fingers to the jazz.

The Odd Girls have remodeled their house. Now they're ready for some visitors.

Publication date: 05/01/03

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

June 14-20
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.