|By Eric Gallippo|
Williamston Theatre ‘Voices’ Midwestern male perspective, staves off sour economy
“Ninety-two, 93, 94, 95, 9 … ,” and then, “pfft:” the barely audible sound of a ball of tape as it hits the carpet. Five hits shy of 100. It felt like we were on the cusp of a world record, but that was before learning the true Williamston Theatre World Record: 793, or was it 795? Either way, it’s a helluva lot of times for a group of people to swat at something before it falls. And they’re not done playing.
Since founders Tony Caselli, John Lepard, Chris Purchis and Emily Sutton-Smith opened it in the summer of 2006, mid- Michigan’s newest professional theater has been serving a slew of popular and critically acclaimed shows in a 90-seat playhouse on the eastern border of Lansing’s burgeoning theater scene, with a mission of creating shows that are “by, for and about this part of the world.”
Caselli (who is also artistic director at Williamston) said the r e s p o n s e s represented a cross-section of ages, occupations and lifestyles, and ranged from the “serious and philosophical to the silly — anywhere from five words, to five pages.”
As of last Thursday, changes were still being made to the script, with a few lines being swapped out and a new ending introduced. Director John Seibert said working closely with the writers as the show takes form has been “very special.” “We had a theater factory two weeks ago,” Seibert said. “A writer was here watching a rehearsal, and he said, ‘I think I can do better for you.’ He ran upstairs, plugged in his laptop and wrote it up.”
A young theater coming up in a small market and slow economy, Williamston is a work-inprogress as well. Sutton-Smith, the theater’s development director, said the productions “get better with every single show,” and the theater is slowly building a loyal audience by listening to its patrons and earning their trust. To keep people in the seats during hard times, this season the theater introduced special sales, dubbed “Entertainment Stimulus Packages,” and also lets audience members “pay-whatyou-can” for the first preview performance of any new show. “We don’t want them to stop seeing theater just because times are so tough,” Sutton-Smith said.
Still, private and state funding is down, which can make payroll difficult once all the actors, guest directors and technicians are compensated. “We don’t stop working, but sometimes we don’t get paid,” Sutton-Smith said. “It’s a serious struggle, but what other choice do we have? The work has to get done.”
The company has also recently developed a relationship with the Michigan State University Theatre Department that allows students to earn points toward joining the actors’ union by working on productions. And in February, Caselli directed MSU’s “Hedda Gabler.”
In house, the theater developed another relationship; Lepard and Sutton-Smith were married onstage at the theater on Oct. 19, bringing an already close-knit group of founders even closer. Sutton-Smith, who starred in “Madiens” last year, said it’s been fun comparing the process of working on that show with her husband’s work in “Flyover.”