It has been 38 years since Dan Pappas first treaded the boards of a theater, but he remembers the show with fondness. At 30, he was cast in “God’s Favorite,” a modern retelling of the story of Job, for a community theater production in Livingston County.
“I just had this urge when I saw an audition notice,” he said.
He was bitten by the theater bug and hasn’t strayed from it since.
“I’d always kind of enjoyed being in front of people,” he said.
Nearly 100 shows later, Pappas’ latest adventure is a turn as the Sorcerer in Riverwalk Theatre’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It’s a children’s show with lots of audience interactions with the cast. Theater types refer to the meet and greet with the audience after the show as “the petting zoo,” but Pappas said the interaction helps keep local community theater thriving.
“It engages the kids and adults and gives them a little bit of confidence,” he said.
Engaging youth and adults alike is a passion for Pappas. He recently retired from the Michigan Association of School Administrators, where he served as director. Before that, he worked in various administrative roles at Waverly Community Schools, including principal, deputy superintendent and interim superintendent.
Acting is not just a matter of moonlighting for Pappas. He thinks theater can be a key to education. He believes that while basic skills like writing, math and reading are essential, businesses are looking for workers who have soft skills that are developed in theater experience.
“You have to communicate and work together and you have to get along,” he said.
As an associate professor for the online University of Phoenix, Pappas taught young people public speaking skills, drawing on his own theater experience.
“It was amazing to see these 20-somethings go from being intimidated by doing a two-minute improvisational self-introduction, to the end of the class,” he said.
Since Pappas retired about a year and half ago, he has made it his goal to help build community theaters. He’s using his education background to serve as a liaison between Riverwalk and All-of-Us- Express Children’s Theater. He hinted at an exciting joint production next year. All-of-Us-Express is marking its 30th year of operation; Riverwalk is celebrating 30 years in its downtown Lansing, a converted warehouse space it has gradually expanded and renovated over the years.
Pappas, who has served on the board of Riverwalk, noted that the agency never embarked on an expansion or improvement without having the money in the bank -- an extraordinary record for a nonprofit organization.
“That’s in itself a sort of economic investment,” he said. “It helps anchor things.”
While theaters have struggled with declining attendance and increasing costs, Pappas doesn’t consider theater a dying art. But he has a caveat.
“If we don’t do more to get younger people involved, to learn from the elders in the community and to be ready to take over when they are no longer able, then it is a dying art form,” he said.
Pappas has learned a lot from Lansing theater legends like Tom Ferris, the long-time president and fundraiser for Riverwalk, and Lansing theater titans Bill and Lee Helder. Most recently, he cherished the chance to work with Lee Helder, director of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
“She’s truly an elder,” he said. “And she’s been so amazing to work with. She came in with a vision of what she wanted and she worked to get it.”
Even when he was working as a school administrator, facing down budget cuts and addressing other community concerns, the theater was more than a place of refuge for Pappas.
“When you cross your interests, it’s a way to refill your tank,” he said. “And this always refills my tank and energizes me.”
‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’
7 p.m. Thurs.-Fri., Nov. 30-Dec. 1
2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sat., Dec. 2 2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 3 Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing $8-10 (517) 755-4966