Dec. 29 2010 12:00 AM

Peppermint Creek Theatre founder sees opportunities for cooperation — not competition — among Lansing’s various theater companies.

Illustration by Vince Joy

Many artists leave their hometowns for bigger cities. What has kept you in Lansing?

I think what has kept me in Lansing is the ability to work on the kind of material I believe in, in a community that has proven to have a desire for that material. I’m thrilled Peppermint Creek has found its niche here. And my family’s here.

If no one was coming to our shows, we wouldn’t keep doing theater. I’m very aware of the specific bond between the theater and the community and I also know that just because I believe in (a piece) doesn’t mean I can do it; you have to consider the audience. Otherwise, I’d be doing it in my backyard, like it was when I was starting out in middle school.

What makes Lansing receptive to the kind of theater Peppermint Creek does?

That has been such a fantastic lesson for me. I think it began with “Corpus Christi.” I met with one of my mentors, Bill Helder, and told him I was interested in directing “Corpus Christi,” and he did one of his classic moves: He smiled and shook his head. I asked him, “Is it impossible?” He said, “No, it can be done.”

Any show has its challenges. In “Caroline, or Change,” it was the specificity of casting and finding people who were able to pull off that music. I was in New York recently, and I went to see “The Scottsboro Boys,” which is a musical about a group of African-American men that are pulled off of a train and accused of rape. It’s not going to be around much longer — it’s about to close — but it did what I believe every piece of good theater should do: It gives you a perspective on where we stand in the world. It’s so moving.

All that’s been a part of the shows we do, and in Lansing, I think in addition to a lot of things, we are fortunate to live in a progressive, open-minded town. That’s not 100 percent true all the time: There were some people who walked out on “Corpus Christi.” But I think we try to inform the audience accurately about the nature of the show they’re going to see so they know the kind of experience they’re going to have.

To bring it full circle, we don’t live in a 100 percent open-minded community, but we do live in a society that’s brave enough to challenge itself. There’s a whole host of towns where “Altar Boyz” wouldn’t fly and where “Caroline, or Change” would play to an empty auditorium. Instead, those shows were sold out here.

What are your goals for 2011?

I’m looking ahead, as I have been for the last two years, to start a shared performing arts center in the vein of what the Arts Council set out to do in the early 1970s. I was just reminded of that (goal) when I was working on the Arts Council fund—raiser, and I was thinking about it when we were doing the Renegade Theatre Festival (in August). There are so many groups that would perform and produce theater if they only had a space that was both viable and affordable. I started a theater company, literally, in my parents’ church and on our back deck. So I know the two biggest questions you face are “Can I afford it?” and “Is this a viable space to work in?”

Now that Peppermint Creek has kind of got its feet under us — this may sound cheesy, but I want to give back and grow. I’ve never felt the theaters here are in competition with each other. New York taught me that: They have 12 theaters on a street, whereas we have 12 theaters in the whole city. Williamston Theatre and Riverwalk have their own spaces, but other than that we’re mostly an itinerant theater world around here. To have a permanent space would be a sign that an organization is seen as being culturally viable. It would show we’re serious about being part of the community.

Obviously, I’m also focused on the rest of our season. We’ve got three more shows that will each have their own challenges and rewards, and I believe very much that you’re only as good as your last show.

How do you go about fostering that spirit of cooperation among organizations?

I guess the way I’ve personally done that in my own life. Working with AmeriCorps and working in Old Town has shown me what we can do in our community, and I’ve tried to be as focused on staying involved with as many arts organizations and artists as I can, whether it’s working with (City Pulse) on the Pulsars or collaborating with Riverwalk on “Caroline.” By being open to those kinds of collaborations, hopefully, I’m a living example that we can work together.

There are always going to be things that we want for ourselves and yes, at the end of the day, I am responsible for the financial health of Peppermint Creek. But it’s exciting that the success of one organization can be tied into the success of another. If someone goes to see a show at Riverwalk and has a really good experience, it makes them more open to going to see a show at Peppermint Creek.

Hopefully, I model that kind of behavior by teaching at Lansing Community College or doing staged readings at Williamston, or through Renegade. You know, Renegade — starting that embodies what I believe we can achieve as an artistic community, that for three days we can all be together and support each other and learn from each other and give each other hugs on the sidewalk after the performances. I am so excited about the success it has had.