When you think of local community theater, you might picture the charming actors, the ethereal voices, and the beautiful sets showcased in the Performing Arts Center. But maybe you aren’t picturing the people behind the scenes, pulling the strings and making everything come together without a hitch like master puppeteers. One of those people is Daily Sitka Sentinel reporter Shannon Haugland. She’s being awarded a Governor’s Arts and Humanities Award for Arts Advocacy.
It’s Sunday afternoon in Sitka, and if there are any musical theater fans out there on Baranof Island, you can bet they’re listening…to “Anything Goes.”
Every Sunday, on her long-running show at KCAW, Daily Sitka Sentinel Reporter Shannon Haugland plays show tunes and big band music, and interviews artists, young and old, about their craft. But this isn’t Haugland’s only contribution to arts in Sitka. Far from it — she’s the woman behind the curtain for Broadway Night, the Sitka Film Society, Sitka Community Theater productions, and the Radio Adventure Hour. She helps with Young Performers Theater and Sitka Fine Arts Camp Productions — in large and small ways.
“Embarrassingly enough, sometimes I’m making tea or getting snacks for the actors,” Haugland said. “Being a support person or volunteer person for the arts sometimes is pretty un-glamorous, but has to do it.”
Haugland grew up in Bellevue, Washington, in a home where athletic skill was cultivated.
“We learned to swim at six months old and learned to play tennis at four years, and learned to ski at 3,” she said. “But even though my family was super sporty, my mom always gave us opportunities to be involved in the arts. She didn’t dismiss the arts because we were athletes.”
She came from a big family, so she didn’t get to see many plays, but when she did, they stuck with her. She remembers seeing Oliver when she was 5-years old.
“I remember being lost in the story. I also remember singing the songs afterwards. My mom got the cast album, and my older sister and I would sing the songs all day long,” she said.
She remembers a moment in middle school when she was in the audience at a play. The theater lights went up at the beginning of the performance, and her own light bulb lit up too.
“I was looking at a mansion, I was looking at the inside of a ballroom,” she said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Someone did that.’ To me that was the magic. That was it for me. I fell in love with, kind of, behind the scenes work in theater.”
So in high school, she enrolled in a technical theater class.
“We learned how to build sets. We learned how to fix the lamps, the theater lighting,” Haugland said. “We learned proper theater etiquette. We learned how to be safe. Sometimes we learned that the hard way, unfortunately.”
While many theater kids maintain passion for — but not necessarily involvement with — theater after graduation, Shannon found a way to stay involved and creating in Sitka. She moved here in the late ‘80s and right away began DJing a show.
“I started my first day in town. My roommate signed up for the radio volunteer class and she invited me to come. I got a classical music show right away. As soon as I could Ken, the program director Ken Fate, gave me a slot and said I could choose the music genre.
That show morphed into “Anything Goes.” Her longtime friend Rebecca Poulson remembers the moment when she realized how strongly she felt about the genre.
“I was helping her with the show, and I was really into murder ballads and sea shanties,” Poulson said. “I did have a little moment of realization that ‘Anything Goes’ did not include sea shanties or murder ballads. That’s when I realized that she was really serious about big band music.”
But it wasn’t until 2011 that Haugland became heavily involved with local theater behind the scenes. After Sheldon Jackson College closed, community theater in Sitka seemed to fizzle. Haugland joined a group that wanted to help revitalize it.
“I certainly wasn’t a driver at that point,” she said. “I remember my friend at that meeting, we were talking about why we were there, and my friend sitting next to me said, ‘I want to see something. I want to see a play. I live in a small town, I never travel, and I want to see something.’”
That’s when she realized a key philosophy of small-town, island living.
“You can’t just go to things,” Haugland said. “If you want something to happen you have to do it.”
She says it’s important to make sure there are creative outlets in the community, and not just for kids.
“We have a town that has so many great things for kids, and I think people forget that adults want to be expressive as an artist,” Haugland said. “They see it’s available here and something inside them says ‘I want to do that.’”
She’s brought over 100 films to Sitka with the Sitka Film Society. She’s produced six plays and two musicals and eight annual ‘Radio Adventure Hours.’ And this month will be the ninth annual production of ‘Broadway Night, a fundraiser for the Greater Sitka Arts Council and a chance for Sitkans to sing their favorite showtunes. Poulson nominated Haugland for the Arts Advocacy award so all of Haugland’s unsung work over the years could be acknowledged and celebrated.
“She is an amazing, amazing woman. She is brilliant. She loves people. She is so incredibly supportive of young people,” Poulson said. “She’s really open to people being who they are and art being what it is.”
Art being what it is — Haugland says that could mean different things for different people.
“It does the same thing for me that it does for all theater people. You get totally lost in the story. For non theater people, I totally get it. They go there and they’re watching people pretend to be other people,” she said. “I think it’s in our genetic makeup whether you watch the story and believe the story or whether you don’t, and you’re just sitting there embarrassed for the actors.”
So the next time you’re watching a community theater production, if you DO start to get embarrassed for the actors, think of the people backstage instead- the ones building the sets, steeping the tea, and making that, no matter how many “break a legs” are wished upon the performers, no legs are actually broken in the process.