Man up

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.

It seems surviving in the world of small professional theater has served the folks at Williamston well when it comes to playing “tape ball,” a warm-up drill that’s part volley, part “don’t-let-theballoon-touch-the-ground-orthe-world-explodes.” Or is it the other way around?

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.”

This week, the company premieres “Flyover USA,” the second installment in producer Caselli’s “Voices of the Midwest” series. After a few more rounds of tape ball, cast and crew sat down to hash out the latest tweaks made to this latest “exploration and celebration” of the Midwest.

The first part in the series, “Maidens, Mothers and Crones,” was a hit with patrons and local critics alike; the show took home Best Production and Best Original Script awards at City Pulse’s 2008 Pulsar Awards for Lansing area theater. Like “Maidens,” “Flyover’s” script was drafted by a pair of Michigan playwrights, this time Dennis North and Joseph Zettelmaier, and based on responses from surveys spread throughout the region, which asked participants everything from, “Tell me about your first car,” to “What are you most afraid of?”

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.”

Over the course of the show, actors Lepard (who is also the theater’s executive director), Tobin Hissong and Scott Norman play a mix of characters, scenes and monologues, sometimes addressing the audience with words of fatherly wisdom or anecdotes about wild adolescent stunts. Lepard, who lives within walking distance of the theater, recently learned one of the more gripping stories in the script came from close to home, when he asked a neighbor about coming to the show. “I wrote it,” the neighbor replied.

Lepard found out the man had submitted a story about a 100-mile-an-hour car race he’d been involved in when he was younger, in which the competing driver got so close to his back bumper he couldn’t see his headlights, but he could make out the other driver’s face by the dashboard lights.

One of the actors’ favorite bits is a face-off over which Midwest city has the best cuisine, a bitter food fight between Chicago deep-dish, Detroit conies and Cincinnati chili.

While the focus is on the men of the Midwest, Lepard said one of the roles he’s having the most fun exploring is playing a mother in one scene. “It’s not your coconutsfor-boobs kind of thing,” Lepard said. “I’m a real mom.”

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.”

So is there any pressure for Lepard and the guys to compete with the success of “Maidens?” “This is a different kind of monster,” Lepard said. “That was feminine. Ours is guys and testosterone. There’s really no comparison. If we were trying to dance, it would be difficult.”

‘Flyover USA’

21-June 14 8 p.m. Thursday & Friday 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday 2
p.m. Sunday (no Sunday show May 23) Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam
St., Williamston Pay-what-you-can May 21 $15 May 22-28 $18-$24 after
May 28 (517) 655-SHOW