Jan. 18 2017 01:35 PM

Greater Lansing arts communities gather to encourage unity, inclusion

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With President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration looming, Greater Lansing artists are pondering if and how to respond to the tumultuous political climate.

“At first, it was like ‘Wow, we’re going to have a lot of material,’” said comedian Will Green, “but then it was like ‘Ugh, we’re going to have a lot of material … .’”

Green is the Lansing host for What a Joke Fest, one of three local events that are partnering with national organizers to respond to Trump’s inauguration. Thursday, Greater Lansing’s theater community gathers for the Ghostlight Project, an evening of discussions that will focus on theater as an advocate for diversity and inclusion. Then Friday, Williamston Theatre joins theater companies nationwide in offering a staged reading of “The Taming,” a political farce.

At 5:30 p.m. local time Thursday, over 200 theater communities nationwide will meet as part of the Ghostlight Project. According to the movement’s website, the communities will be asked to “make or renew a pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone — regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Chad Badgero, artistic director of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., is organizing Lansing’s meeting.

“I’ve been seeking a way to proactively and productively respond to my feelings about this political climate — something positive,” Badgero said. “Theater is my wheelhouse. It’s where I have the strongest voice in the community.”

The event will include representatives from nine Greater Lansing theater companies: Ixion Theatre, LCC Theatre Program, MSU Department of Theatre, Over the Ledge Theatre Co., Owosso Community Players, Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., Riverwalk Theatre, Starlight Dinner Theatre and Williamston Theatre.

“It’s valuable for us to remind ourselves that we’re a community, to feel the strength in that,” Badgero said. “I’m hoping we can begin a dialogue to speak to the ideas of inclusion and diversity.”

The evening will be a mix of live performances and facilitated discussions. Deborah Mikula, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, will emcee the event. “We have to start the conversation somewhere,” Mikula said. “Theater is a great place to put focus on societal issues.”

Badgero hopes to offer a wide-ranging discussion on ways theaters can promote inclusion, ranging from the plays performed to things like lobby art galleries and greater audience resources.

“It will take different forms at different theaters,” Badgero said. “At Peppermint Creek, we’re challenging ourselves to make each show a community partnership. We’re still developing what that will look like.”

This weekend, over 30 cities will host locally organized comedy shows as part of What a Joke Fest. All proceeds from the shows benefit the ACLU. The festival’s marketing materials feature Donald Trump’s signature red hat, but with the slogan “What a Joke.”

Lansing’s edition of What a Joke Fest, hosted by comedian Will Green, comes to Old Town’s MICA Gallery Saturday. Green, a Greater Lansing native, recently returned to Mid-Michigan from Maine. He learned about What a Joke Fest from some New England comedians, who connected him to the organizers.

“There’s a need for more comedy in Lansing,” Green said, “and the ACLU is an organization that’s hard to find a flaw with.”

In keeping with the spirit of the event, Green worked to assemble a diverse line-up of Michigan comics. Headliner Robert Jenkins, an African American and Detroit native, is a lawyer by day and comedian by night. The evening also features standup comedy from Nardos Osterhart, winner of 2013’s Funniest Person in Grand Rapids contest. She was born in Ethiopia but came to the U.S. with her family when she was a child.

“She has a very interesting background and a very interesting point of view,” Green said.

Green and local comic Nick Leydorf round out the evening’s lineup.

On Inauguration Day, Williamston Theatre hosts a free staged reading of “The Taming,” an all-female political farce inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Author Lauren Gunderson is one of the country’s most frequently performed living playwrights. While browsing Gunderson’s rental catalog for possible Williamston Theatre projects, Tony Caselli, the theater company’s artistic director, saw that Gunderson is offering the script for free, one-day staged readings on Inauguration Day.

Intrigued, Caselli requested a review copy. “It’s a funny piece about politics, a biting piece,” he said. “I immediately fell in love with it.”

The play centers around a Southern beauty queen who, to advance her political ambitions, enlists the help of an ultra-conservative senator and a left-wing blogger. In a blog post on playscripts.com, Gunderson explains that she wrote the play “to unpack the deep frustration of a divided and obstructionist patriarchy” and “to laugh with the painful truth about extremism on both sides.”

Caselli describes the work as “bipartisan” in its skewering of American politics.

“This year’s been pretty contentious,” he said. “This is a fun way to unwind but also to talk about these issues.”

For a playwright of Gunderson’s reputation, licensing fees for a one-night reading of a play generally run around $80 to $100, Caselli said. Williamston Theatre joins nearly 50 theater groups across the nation who are taking advantage of the fee-free script on Inauguration Day. While some groups are marketing it as “counterprogramming,” an alternative to watching the inauguration, Caselli sees the play as something more conciliatory.

“It’s not to distract people from it,” he said. “It gets people in a room talking, and that’s important. Let’s do something together that reminds us that it’s better to get involved than to stand and watch.”

It’s hard to say what a Trump administration and a Republican-led legislature might do to federal arts funding, and groups like Williamston Theatre receive very little direct federal funding. But Caselli is keeping a close eye on the situation, as funding cuts at the top levels could mean less money trickles down to local arts councils and grant-providing institutions.

“Every arts organization is always worried about funding,” he said. “Ticket prices only cover half of our yearly budget.”

The rest of the budget, he said, comes from private donations and grants.

Over at the Arts Council, Mikula hasn’t seen much funding-related anxiety — not more than usual, at least.

“Everything is so unclear, but I haven’t gotten the sense that people are worried,” she said. “I don’t feel like our backs are against the wall.”

But Mikula will be keeping an eye on groups like the National Endowment for the Arts, which has been a political lightning rod at times. In the past, Republicans have tried to defund the organization, which provides nearly $150 million in grants to community arts projects and organizations. But Mikula hopes local events like the Ghostlight Project and national advocacy groups like Americans for the Arts will keep arts in the national discussion.

“I’m an optimist,” she said. “There’s a future in all of this.”

Ghostlight Project
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19
Miller Performing Arts Center
6025 Curry Lane, Lansing
(517) 927-3016, theghostlightproject.com

What a Joke Fest
8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21
MICA Gallery
1210 Turner St., Lansing

“The Taming”
7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20
FREE, donations accepted
Williamston Theatre
122 S. Putnam St., Williamston
(517) 655- 7469, williamstontheatre.org