Singing praises of unsung backstage theater people

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Lansing is filled with recognizable actors. The crucial people behind the scenes aren’t always so familiar.  Here is a look at five unsung heroes in local theater.

In sixth grade, Jim Lorenz’s mom acted in a Lansing Civic Players show. They needed a spotlight person. Lorenz volunteered. 

“My job description was simple, ‘When you hear the orchestra start playing and the lights dim, spot whoever sings,’” he said. “I got to stay up late, and it was great.”

The 67-year-old never stopped volunteering. “For me, it’s always been tech. Primarily lighting and sound, and more recently, set building,” Lorenz, an electrical engineer, said.

He stayed with LCP for 30 years. For the past 11 years, Lorenz has worked for Starlight Dinner Theatre.  

“He works tirelessly for Starlight and is irreplaceable,” Linda Granger, Starlight Dinner Theatre artistic director, said.  “Jim’s van is usually the first in the parking lot before rehearsal and the last to leave.”

The most fun — and hardest — Starlight set Lorenz helped build was for the “Man of La Mancha.”  

“I was so happy, proud and impressed with how well it turned out,” he said.  

Lorenz also designed and installed new LED lighting for the Wilson Center in St. Johns. “I’m a die-hard community theater volunteer,” he said.

Pat Hepfer also started his theatrical career by running a follow spot for Lansing Community College’s Turner House Festival in 1996. “I’ve never had a job outside the entertainment industry,” Hepfer, 42, said. 

For 22 years, he’s been the Performing Arts Center Manager for Haslett Public Schools. Hepfer also runs an afterschool program for student technicians. “I’ve been fortunate to work with students who have gone on to remarkable careers,” he said.

He apprenticed at LCC for stage entertainment technology. “I learned my skills mostly on the job,” Hepfer said.

He’s done everything from working locally with touring groups like The Rolling Stones, to professional and community theater productions.  Hepfer worked with Jeff Croff for Icarus Falling and Ixion Theatre Ensemble.

“For two different theatre companies, I’ve been able to go to Pat,” Ixion artistic director Croff said. “Knowing I can call him makes almost any show seem possible.”

In the mid-’80s, Leroy Cupp was asked to assist building a set for “Annie Get Your Gun” in Albion. That led to decades making sets for most Lansing companies, and in Eaton Rapids where he farms.  

Cupp takes pride in taking designs and making them better. “You’ve got to have an imagination,” Cupp said. “Impossible is a word not used.”

“He’s one of those dedicated people who won’t settle for anything less than perfect,” Riverwalk’s building manager, Michael Siracuse, said. “Good enough isn’t good enough for him.”

Cupp is most proud of Riverwalk’s revolving “Noises Off” set. “I could push it with one hand,” he said. He recently finished installing an air purification system for the theater.

Meeting people and making new friends keeps the 74-year-old coming back. “I love working with theater people,” Cupp said.  “They are my second family.”

Jane Zussman’s started in theater writing, directing and starring as a wolf in a fifth-grade production of “Little Red Riding Hood.”  Zussman, 72, has kept active on and off stage ever since. “I’ve participated in 92 shows,” she said, “Mostly acting in the Lansing area, occasionally directing, playwright, or on crew.”

Zussman recently retired as editor and graphics designer for Riverwalk’s play programs.  “I’m still proud of keeping those programs going for 20 years,” she said.

Part of the job was compiling a 248-page, 129,876-word document with about 1,500 bios from the programs — some dating back to 2004.  “So I could update an old one if a new one wasn’t sent,” Zussman said.  

She continues to author the “Ripples” newsletter for the Community Circle Players at Riverwalk. She said the job was valuable and interesting, getting to interact and foster connections and friendships with so many in the theater community.

Since 2005, her “Greater Lansing Ubiquitous Theatre” emails (and Facebook reposts) have been a respected source for reviews, audition information, performance calendars and theater news articles. The “GLUT” is sent to about 1,000 addresses and it’s what Zussman is the most proud of.

She was surprised when she started getting press tickets and news releases from theater companies. “I’d inadvertently become a media outlet,” she said.

Joseph Dickson never intended to work in theater. He once read for a girlfriend’s audition in Jackson and got the lead. “All of a sudden, I had to learn a lot of things all at once — including basic stage directions,” Dickson said.

After discovering Lansing theater, he acted for a few years before getting involved in technical work. Dickson is known for his lighting skills. He helped make Riverwalk’s recent outdoor shows happen. 

“Joe is a phenomenal asset to Lansing’s theater community,” Kate Dickinson, a Riverwalk Board member, said.

In 2011, he founded the Over the Ledge Theatre in Grand Ledge. “I’ve expanded my lighting and sound expertise immensely, out of necessity,” Dickson said.

For Over the Ledge, he had to learn accounting and business basics — and about the risks in green lighting a project. “I’ve worked in Information Technology all my life,” Dickson said. He is a Director of IT at a small company in East Lansing.

“There’s something about working in a theater that’s just magical,” Dickson said. “It’s a definite craft and illusion is part of it, but there’s another part that’s just pure magic.”

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