An evolving community

Evolve Theatrics has weathered its share of storms, but it’s keeping afloat


From its beginnings as a small children’s theater company to producing sold-out musicals, Evolve Theatrics has outgrown venue after venue over the past two decades. But it’s had its share of tragedy, too. In the past five years alone, it’s weathered two major shifts: a global pandemic and the suicide of co-founder Dan Southwell in 2021. Formerly known as the Blue Light Players from its founding in 2005 until 2020, which stemmed from its mission to raise money for the families of fallen and seriously injured law enforcement officers, Evolve takes its name from the community’s ability to stay current and stay together.

In summer 2020, during the global uprising for Black lives, Southwell and his wife, co-founder Helen Hart, decided to rethink the Blue Light Players’ name and mission. Although it had donated more than $35,000 to families of fallen police officers, public opinion was shifting.

Hart said the impetus for the rebranding came from conversations with her husband and theater community.

“We had to look at ourselves as an organization, what we stand for, what our values are, and put ourselves behind those values,” she said. “Whether they’re popular with everybody, they’re not always going to be. But we’ve always prided ourselves on being an open and affirming group. We felt we needed to change, so we did.”

A statement on the group’s website reads, in part, “Like the rest of the country, we have been deeply shaken by the violence we have witnessed because of institutional racism within the criminal justice system and within our communities. We realized that we could no longer continue to support that system.”

When asked about the impact of changing the company’s name and mission, Hart said, “We were very concerned that we would lose cast members, but we wanted to make sure that we were listening to our community. Our community is the Lansing community, and I think the Lansing community knew the difference between right and wrong.”

Evolve Theatrics co-founders Helen Hart and Dan Southwell (right) with sons Philip Franke (left) and John-Weston Franke and daughter-in-law Lilly Conklin in 2017.
Evolve Theatrics co-founders Helen Hart and Dan Southwell (right) with sons Philip Franke (left) and John-Weston Franke and daughter-in-law Lilly …

Actor Marty Snitgen enrolled his daughter in an Evolve summer camp a few years ago, but before long, he was performing in the shows alongside her.

“She played Matilda in ‘Matilda,’” he said. “Watching her in that role, it was hard for me not to tear up while I was on stage. I was just so proud of her.”

The company’s production of “Chicago,” which runs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 26 and 27) at the First Christian Church of Lansing, is his fifth full show with Evolve, but he’s also done two cabarets and an online show.

“My daughter and I have been in every single one of those together, except for this one,” he said. “Being involved has done wonders for my mental health and boosted my confidence. Everyone involved — cast, crew and the audience — provides such positive and supportive feedback. They make me feel valued and capable of achieving anything.”

Andrew Muylle, Evolve’s new artistic director, joined the board last summer, but he was introduced to the group as a middle schooler. In the past few years, he’s been in three productions with the company and is the choreographer for “Chicago. “

He echoed Snitgen’s sentiments.

“Evolve just draws these really wonderful people. They’re receptive, they’re creative and they’re talented,” he said. “You can’t do theater without people, and there’s just so much kindness here.”

But it’s not a total love fest. Both Muylle and Snitgen remarked that Hart runs tight rehearsals. She’s known for being efficient — “uber-organized,” according to Muylle. That kind of respect for others and their time is often seen as the hallmark of a true theater professional. But Hart doesn’t have a professional arts background. She worked in information technology for many years, and she met Southwell through performing in community theater.

Southwell was a former law enforcement officer and firefighter. As a trained counselor to law enforcement professionals, he responded to traumatic incidents to help fellow officers emotionally process horrific events. He was even sent to New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to counsel police and firefighters. In 2021, he took his own life.

“I think there are people who probably still don’t know,” Hart said of her husband’s suicide. “But we’re not trying to hide what happened. If you don’t talk about suicide, then people don’t realize that somebody can be very functioning, look great, seem great, but have this happen. I think it’s very important to have those conversations so that people get help and there isn’t a stigma attached to it.”

Muylle looks back fondly on working with Southwell during his early days with Evolve.

“I always saw him and Helen as a really strong team. They worked really well together, and they had a clear vision. It was devastating when he died. I think he was really down to earth and liked to take care of the people around him.”

Hart credits the community that she and Southwell built together with helping her through this new era of her life and Evolve. She said that when she learned of her husband’s death, “The first thing I did was call my stage manager and said, ‘Hey, I need help.’ The theater community rallied around me, they came and performed at the funeral and all those sorts of things. Since my husband and I were the leaders of the organization, I’ve had to find new people to help fill different roles and be all of the support system I need.”


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