Nov. 2 2011 12:00 AM

Theater company faces challenges ranging from budgeting concerns to fixing up its facilities


Breaking the fourth wall isn’t always an artistic choice
for Stormfield Theatre and its artistic director, Kristine Thatcher.
What if the wall is made of concrete?

“We just wrote a grant to bring our bathrooms up to
code,” Thatcher said. “The men’s room is three inches shorter than it
should be. You have to move the toilet over, too.”

A Shakespearean set of high and low problems, from
securing rights to David Mamet to securing access to the dudes’ toilet,
have Thatcher and her loyal staff scrambling for money to keep the
2-year-old professional theater alive.

To help circle the wagons, Thatcher has enlisted
rope-twirling humorist Will Rogers, played by Chicago theater luminary
Kevin McKillip. The one-man show will replace David Mamet’s “Race” as
Stormfield’s second production of the 2011-2012 season. In the
meantime, Thatcher said, the season will be scheduled “from show to
show,” depending on finances.

Will Rogers isn’t Mamet, but Thatcher hopes the folksy
precursor to political humorist Jon Stewart may lasso enough money to
further her goal of keeping Equity theater — with material by living
playwrights — alive in Lansing.

Thatcher said loyal donors have been generous, but grant
funding is at “an all-time low.” Only a third of Stormfield’s budget
comes from ticket sales.

“Even Shakespeare relied on patronage,” she said. “He had
Queen Elizabeth and King James I to help pay the bills. That system
hasn’t changed.”

Thatcher said she yanked “Race,” a racially charged
courtroom drama, not because of money, but because the licensing agency
pulled the rights.

“In my six years of securing rights to various shows, I’ve never encountered this situation,” she said.

However, the Will Rogers replacement show gives
Stormfield a chance to save money, tap Rogers’ broad public appeal and
keep the company alive to mount Mamet another day. In previous seasons,
one-person shows showcasing personalities like Mark Twain and Ann
Landers have helped Stormfield stay afloat. 

Thatcher applied for the rights to “Race” shortly after
the JET Theatre in Detroit did the same. The play’s licensing agency,
Samuel French, feared the two productions would undercut each other,
even though Thatcher argued that the two markets are separate.

An East Coast colleague told Thatcher it’s a “typical New
York point of view,” and that any other production in Michigan, “even
if the second one were in the U.P.,” would have been considered too

“Race” was set to be Stormfield’s entry into the Cooley
Law School Stages of the Law series. It will be replaced by two nights
of a staged reading of “The Exonerated,” about six Death Row inmates
exonerated by DNA evidence, in January. Thatcher still hopes to produce
“Race” for next year’s Stages of the Law series.

Thatcher’s first choice to replace “Race” in the
Stormfield schedule was “Vigil,” originally set for later in the
season, with veteran stars Carmen Decker and Aral Gribble, but

field’s budget outlook is too uncertain.

“(‘Vigil’) had a real large footprint — a lot of set
pieces, the prop list went on forever, two Equity salaries,” Thatcher
said. “I want to do it, and do it with them, so hopefully we can push
it back until later in the season.”

After Will Rogers rides back West, Thatcher and her board
of directors will decide how to approach the 2012 schedule. “Romantic
Fools,” a farce by Rich Orloff, was set for January, with “Vigil” set
for March, and Thatcher’s own drama about the poetess Lorine Niedecker
in May.

Thatcher, an actor/writer/director, returned to her home
town of Lansing from Chicago in 2005 to be he artistic director of
BoarsHead Theatre. She founded Stormfield in August 2009 after her
contract was not renewed at BoarsHead, which closed its doors that

Many top BoarsHead actors, staffers, donors and
supporters followed Thatcher and her stellar reputation to Stormfield,
but the going has not been easy.

Thatcher admits her quest to bring Equity theater to a
former judo studio in a shopping mall in Lansing might look quixotic to
some people.

“Quixotic? It’s absolutely insane. It could be a certifiable offense.”

In the coming weeks, Thatcher said the theater will push
to find more donors, revamp its marketing techniques to use social
media more effectively, and pursue further initiatives for “growth” she
can’t yet discuss.

“We’re pulling out the stops to try and go forward,” she
said. “I came home to produce theater and be closer to my family. I
didn’t really have an option. This is what I want to do.”