A fistful of drama

By Lawrence Cosentino

Renegade Theatre Festival brings stampede of theater companies, independents to Old Town

A spur-jingling cowpoke saunters through a Western street, picking up snatches of drama from every door: Guffaws, gunshots, a baby crying, some honkytonk piano, sighing lovers, the crash of the obligatory troublemaker flying through a plate glass window. He raises an eyebrow, touches his gun and moves on.

Now it’s your turn, pilgrim — and if you don´t know how to saunter, attend a free workshop. This weekend, the Renegade Theatre Festival, in its ninth year, is about to corral most of Lansing’s established theater companies, several independent presenters and a crowded sideshow of music, spoken word and other events into one Wild West theater free-for-all. (See schedule and descriptions on pages 20-21.)

Why did they have to come here and make so much trouble, Marshal? Simple. Lansing has the theater talent in spades, and the perfect 1880s set — the real thing, actually.

“We´re giving you a space and 50 chairs and that’s it,” co-organizer Chad Badgero said, spitting tobacco into the dust. “We’re not going to tell you what you can and can’t do.”

Twirling her Colt .45, co-organizer Melissa Kaplan explained that there is no “curatorial process.” Hell, the nearest curator is three days’ ride away.

“We open the doors and send invitations to all Lansing theaters and past participants,” Kaplan said. “The only way we would turn people away is if they were doing something that is illegal or outright inhumane or cruel.”

Each year, word of mouth brings independent presenters and other theater groups to town. This year there are more than ever.

As always at Renegade, the subject matter ranges wildly, from Peppermint Creek Theater Co.’s bisexual-confusion drama “Cock” and Williamston Theatre’s horrific “Camp fire” to the pizzazz of Riverwalk’s musical “Just Wanna Dance” and a life lesson delivered by talking fruit (Ngoc Van obi Troung’s “Orange You Perfect”).

The cubbyholes, alleys and storefronts of Old Town suit Renegade perfectly. It doesn’t matter whether new businesses move in, old ones fold up or long-empty spaces stay empty. Renegade adapts equally to gentrification and decay by latching on to the happening spots and occupying the dead ones.

This year, there are events tailored to spiffy new gathering places like the Old Town General Store, with its high-end comestibles and flower-filled “secret garden” courtyard, and newly renovated Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, transformed last year into a retro-style watering hole and microbrew destination. The former is hosting a spoken word slam at 7 p.m. each day of the festival; the latter is hosting a first-time “Renegade Cabaret” that nudges the festival for the first time into fizzy nightcap territory.

The cabaret is no slapdash afterthought. An A-list of local musical theater luminaries, led by Joe Quick and Kelly Stuible and accompanied by John Dale Smith, will perform a slate of real purty tunes from new and about-to-become-huge musicals. It’s an extension of a musical theater class Stuible taught at Lansing Community College last spring and a nod to a longtime theater tradition. Expect to schmooze with many of the actors and directors you’ve applauded earlier in the afternoon and evening.

“You get done with your show, you want to talk and drink,” Badgero said as the swinging doors flapped behind him.

With Renegade, an empty shell is just as much of an opportunity as a trendy watering hole. The historic edifice at 317 E. Grand River Ave., next to the railroad tracks, is no longer home to Aggie Mae’s Bakery, but this weekend will host the Mid-Michigan Family Theatre’s “The Castaways,” a musical about immigrant children living on the streets of New York in the 1900s and a story with resonance for our own times.

The play was supposed to be presented at the historic Turner-Dodge House, an 1850s mansion ideally suited to the period, but the water-damaged venue wasn’t ready yet, so the shell of the defunct bakery will fill in at the last minute.

The big plays are scheduled for all three nights, but Kaplan is keen to see how new one-night events, like the Renegade Cabaret or the Thursday night’s Skildtrade Cabaret, an evening of improv at the old Mustang Bar on Turner Street, will score with audiences.

“This year we have more one-off things,” Kaplan said. “If that´s successful, we may open up the schedule and do more of that.”

Some of Renegade’s independent presenters are Lansing theater alumni who have struck out on their own and need a place to try out unproven scripts or productions. Leslie Hull, director of “With One Little Stone,” moved to New York after graduating from MSU’s theater department and is active in the Flint theater community.

Established companies also use Renegade as a platform to polish shows for the upcoming season. Staged readings, with or without props, are as common as full-blown productions.

“We don´t have any expectations,” Badgero said. “Whatever you come to see, this is what you´re getting. It may be highly polished or not, it may be experimental, it may not.”

Badgero’s Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. will put on a fully staged and memorized play, but it’s still taking advantage of Renegade’s lax jurisdiction. For two years Badgero has wanted to produce Mike Bartlett’s “Cock,” a romantic drama about a man who is torn between his longtime boyfriend and a new girlfriend, but he admits it’s not without it’s challenges.

“It’s tough to market a show some people don’t even want to say,” he lamented.“It´s not nearly as provocative as the title.” (In England, posters billed the play as “Cockfight” and in New York, posters read “C*ck.”) The four-member cast of “Cock” has been rehearsing under director Shannon Bowen for three weeks.

Part of Renegade´s appeal, especially to theater newbies, is mobility. No one needs to fear being pinned in an uncomfortable or draggy experience for 90 minutes, especially when something else is happening a few doors away. But Kaplan hopes festival goers will bring more than a casual channel surfing mindset.

“We hope for a little bit of commitment from the audience,” she said. “You don´t know where a play is going to go, and it may find a way into your heart and mind that you had not expected. But if something isn’t working, go do something else. The doors are open.”

No matter how many boutiques and lofts crop up on Turner Street, Renegade kicks Old Town back to its 1970s heyday as a place where artists got into the streets and empty spaces and expressed themselves, often in unpredictable ways.

“The edges have smoothed out a little,” Kaplan said, “But it’s the perfect place to bring people together for a festival.”