A Space to Call Home

by Stevie Zvereva

From music and theater to disaster relief and beyond, Five Points Washington opens its doors to those seeking community.

The audience applauds, rising to their feet… but it’s not over yet. All eyes on the conductor, the orchestra lifts their instruments for a final encore: Johann Strauss Sr.’s “Radetzky March.” With the start of the triumphant melody, balloons drop from the ceiling, kept afloat like beach balls rolling over fingertips. The jubilant march, a traditional staple at the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert, holds within its chorus an Austrian tradition of spontaneous clapping and feet stamping, and Conductor David Commanday would have it no other way. He smiles and prompts the theater to clap along, the sporadic pops of balloon a percussive bonus.

With a conductor young at heart, musicians eager to please and a mission to infuse its music with meaning, the Heartland Festival Orchestra (HFO) gives a versatile edge to classical music performance in central Illinois. With this, its first concert of 2016, the orchestra again proves its mission true, challenging the genre’s stereotypes and inviting the audience to participate in an informal, interactive experience.

“The distinctive approach of the Heartland Festival Orchestra creates a sense… that the orchestra and the community belong to each other,” declares HFO board member Mercè Baldwin. And much of that sense of belonging, she adds, is owed to the venue itself.

“Five Points Washington has wonderful acoustics… the sound is big, the room intimate,” she explains. And there are other perks—like the vast screen over the stage that circulates pre-show trivia and close-ups of players during concerts. But it’s more than that, she suggests. Since its first performance in 2009, the HFO has used its power to draw audiences to Five Points for the benefit of local nonprofit organizations, who gain not only exposure, but a portion of the proceeds. It’s a unique approach that is garnering attention statewide. Last year, for its commitment to nonprofits and the community at large, the HFO was recognized with the Illinois Council of Orchestras’ Community Relations Award.

“It’s been a great relationship,” affirms Brian Garnant, Five Points’ special events coordinator. “They do an outstanding job, and we’re very pleased to have the partnership.”

Points of Community
Five Points’ five points are actually ten. In addition to its primary uses—as an aquatics center, library, banquet facility, fitness center and performing arts center—the venue was named for the five groups that partnered to establish the site in 2007: the City of Washington, Washington Park District, Washington Community High School, Washington Public Library and Washington Area Community Center. Despite the challenges of erecting such a massive, multifaceted facility in a relatively small town, success sprang forth from a shared community vision.

“A lot of people weren’t sure if something of this magnitude could get off the ground in a smaller community,” says Shae Harris, sales and marketing representative. “There’s nothing in the area, other than the Civic Center, that’s close to housing this many people.”

Among its amenities, Five Points includes a fitness center with an indoor track, an eight-lane competitive pool and leisure pool, a two-court gymnasium, four banquet meeting rooms, a senior room, a juice bar, and the Washington District Library, as well as the Caterpillar Performing Arts Center, which filled a niche in the region for a midsized theater. Where a crowd of 600 or 700 might leave a larger theater feeling empty, the 1,000-seat theater at Five Points feels quite full. Paired with a competitive price, ease of access and free on-site parking, the location has been a great fit for a range of groups that share this community vision, including the Heartland Festival Orchestra, Peoria Area Civic Chorale, Peoria Ballet and Washington High School.

“The theater was built with [Washington High School] in mind,” Harris explains, “so they bring in their band concerts, plays and chorus. But we knew the school wouldn’t need it 24/7, which allowed us to open it to the community… The whole idea was to move forward as almost being like a community center. There’s no denying the facilities have served as such—especially in times of trouble.”

The Show Must Go On
“We were all just devastated,” says Mary Simon, owner of Conklin’s Barn II Dinner Theatre, describing the extensive damage to the barn—site of her 40-years-running dinner theater company—after severe winds swept through the property last August. Repeatedly denied its insurance claim, she was forced to close the business at the end of September. But the company’s reputation remained quite alive, and Simon began receiving calls—13 in total, from Princeton to Pontiac to Peoria—suggesting she bring its shows to life elsewhere. “[But] all the offers were contingent on the fact that I continue to produce, and I just didn’t have the ability to put out that kind of money,” Simon explains. Buried amongst these calls were several messages from Five Points Washington.

Offering to split the ticket and serve as host, Garnant and his team proposed three open dates in December for the group to put on its already-scheduled annual holiday revue, A Christmas to Remember. “We said we’d take care of everything—all the ticket sales, production, sound and lights,” he recalls. “All they had to do was show up and do the show.”

“They took a tremendous risk that our audience would follow us over,” Simon notes. But follow they did. With faithful patrons streaming in from all over, including Decatur, Springfield and Bloomington, the holiday shows were a win-win, selling nearly 2,800 tickets when it was all said and done. “It’s a great way to showcase our venue to people who have never been here before,” Garnant explains. “These are people who have never been to Washington, so it’s great for the city, too.”

With the partnership’s promises fulfilled, Five Points extended an offer to host Conklin’s entire 2016 season. “They really gave me an opportunity to continue to do what I know how to do, which is put shows together,” says Simon. And that’s not the first time Five Points has humbly served as a shelter from the storm.

A Safe Haven
When the EF4 tornado hit Washington on Sunday, November 17, 2013, it missed Five Points by less than 600 yards, Garnant recalls. The facility itself came out unscathed, minus a few prefab walls that were put in place for a new addition the week before. That good fortune, paired with a few hours of electricity before finally losing power, allowed the center to open its doors to those in need that very day. Bethany Community Church was on-site at the time, Garnant recalls, and it immediately set up a station in the Five Points gym, working with staff to coordinate food and assistance.

And then residents started trickling in. “They were coming out of their houses with no place to go,” Garnant explains. “Those with major injuries were sent to the fire station, but minor scrapes, they could take care of here.”

After a few days without electricity, Five Points opened its doors again—“and we had showers!” he adds. “There were a lot of people in here: construction workers, Ameren workers, volunteers… and we said, ‘Anybody who needs a warm shower, just come on in.’”

In the days that followed, use of the facility expanded to suit the needs of the community. Five Points became a drop-off site for donations, its hallways lined with everything from diapers and clothes to soap, bandages and containers of personal belongings salvaged from the wreckage. It was a rallying spot for volunteer groups, a temporary Red Cross recovery center, and a staging area for outside vendors to cook food for residents and volunteers—a true center of community, in all regards.

While Five Points worked to honor its obligations to those who had booked the venue in advance of the tragedy, group after group came to offer assistance, including more than 100 members of the Chicago Bears organization, as well as the Chicago Blackhawks, who sponsored a Thanksgiving luncheon. “People just wanted to help in any way they could,” Garnant recalls. “Any opening we had, we tried to offer our facilities for use.”

Balance and Coordination
It’s not an easy job to coordinate all these different venues, Simon suggests, “and Brian Garnant is masterful at it… It is so well-coordinated, it’s unbelievable… I’ve never seen a venue that is that busy.”

But Garnant remains a humble servant. For a nonprofit facility to function on so many levels—and for the betterment of an entire community—requires a unique balance, Harris says, and a staff committed to a level of customer service above and beyond. That involves making the venue take the shape of whatever it needs to be, for any occasion. In the process, it’s proven an invaluable resource to a range of community groups.

“They’re really saving us, as far as keeping us together as a company,” Simon stresses. “We’ve been in the ‘Ds’—and by that, I mean we’ve been depressed, we’ve been displaced, we’ve been deposed, we’re demented!” she says, laughing. “They’ve really given us something to look forward to—and something to continue to work on. They’ve saved us in more ways than one.” a&s