Before it closes its 1923 building for a yearlong, $25 million renovation, Town Hall Seattle will host an elaborate series of readings, music and parties. It’s keeping executive director Wier Harman full of purpose as he battles lung cancer.
“Not too hard,” Wier Harman said when I started to give him a hug.
I stepped back and took him in. He wore a hoodie over a dress shirt and a weak smile. I let out a sigh.
In May — just weeks ago, really — the tireless, inspired theater geek-turned-executive director of Town Hall was diagnosed with lung cancer.
IF YOU GO
‘Groundbreak’ at Town Hall
June 25-30; Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. For details, visit townhallseattle.org/groundbreak
Harman, 50, had suffered for five months with what he thought was back pain. He had blood work done, “And that told us what it was,” he said.
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The response has been overwhelming.
“People shouldn’t have to get cancer to know how much people love them,” Harman said, his voice quivering, his eyes suddenly wet with tears. We had only been talking for a few moments.
“I have felt so supported, lifted up by colleagues and people in the cultural community,” he said. “I haven’t had time to get scared because of the outpouring of support.”
His champion in all this has been his wife, Barbara Sauermann and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10. (Harman and Sauermann have been married for almost 12 years.)
“How hard this would be if I didn’t have Barbara,” Harman said. “And what a generous and loving community we have here.”
He is tolerating the medications well, and works as much as he can.
“I don’t want to be defined by my cancer,” Harman said. “What I need, what I want is to deepen my commitment to my family and to this place.”
In response, the Town Hall community has deepened its commitment to the place — and to Harman — as well.
As it prepares to close its 1923 building for a yearlong, $25 million renovation, Town Hall announced “Dig Deep,” its spring capital campaign, with a goal of raising $100,000 by the end of June.
The goal was met in just over a week, and has since been doubled to $200,000.
It will likely get a significant boost starting June 25, when Town Hall gives its Eighth Avenue building a proper send-off with “Groundbreak.” It’s a series of readings, music and parties that will end with the midnight recitation of “The Hall” — the poem that then-U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky wrote just for the occasion when founder David Brewster founded the place 18 years ago.
The week kicks off with a live taping of “Says You” on June 25; author and professor Betsy Hartmann speaking on “The Danger of Apocalyptic Thinking” on June 26; a talk by author Arundhati Roy on her new novel on June 27; and a performance by local indie singer/songwriters Sera Cahoone and Kyle Craft, who will also talk about their crafts and Sub Pop Records on June 28.
On June 29, siblings Ijeoma and Ahamefule Oluo will share a stage for the first time to talk about their personal, writing and artistic lives.
And on June 30, the last day before the building closes, there will be an “extravaganza” of free programs from morning to midnight. Tours, best-of Great Hall moments. Guests will also be able to literally “make their mark” by inking up Town Hall’s lobby floor tiles for a $25 donation.
Once the doors close, Town Hall programs will be spread at satellite locations all over the city, with advisory committees and an artist/scholar assigned to each place to develop programming. (Those programs will start in September.)
“We want to build programs in collaboration with the community we serve,” Harman said.
Once the Roman Revival building reopens, it will look much the same, with its terra-cotta facade, columns, dome and stained glass.
But it will have had a seismic retrofit and upgrades to its heating and sound systems, as well as a new, west-facing entrance leading to a new, downstairs performance space bookended by a pub and a library. There will be a third performance space on the lobby level and non-gendered bathrooms.
Harman expects programming to grow from 450 events to more than 500 annually; and attendees to increase from 110,000 to 130,000 people in the future.
But the price won’t go up, he said. Forty percent of the Town Hall audience reports a combined annual income of less than $54,000 annually. So it’s important that attendance is affordable.
That’s why the recent appearance by Sen. Al Franken only cost $5. Same with political commentator Rachel Maddow. The 92nd Street Y in New York City was charging $45 per ticket and The Commonwealth in San Francisco $70. But at Town Hall, tickets were $5.
“What people recognize is that Town Hall is truly a collective effort,” Harman said. “It isn’t any one person’s place. We throw the doors wide open and make people feel like they belong here.
“This place exists by and for the community it serves.”
These days, though, it is also serving Harman by keeping him busy, focused, full of purpose, and looking good.
“What’s going to help me thrive, to keep me alive, is to make the most of my relationship with my family and this place, and my friends and community.
“I’m 12 years into this job and there’s never been more of an exciting time,” he continued. “It’s all happening. And I’m not going to miss it.”