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Million Dollar Community Theatre – The Conundrum, Part One

Over winter break, I saw a production of Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, one of the few theaters in my hometown, and one of only several in West Michigan. (This is a town I am still getting to know, having only lived there on breaks from college for the past three years.) From my experience looking at programs in Dramaturgy class last semester and in my own experience at the theatre, I was instantly curious when I sat down to read more about my new town’s largest theatre company. As I read, I took in the theatre — two balconies were overhead and the set in front of me was artfully constructed on a large stage, complete with huge projections of the Presidential Seal and automated elements that divided the space. Here was a show that in its caliber of production value and detail in the program, was on par or even above certain theatre companies around Boston, like Speakeasy Stage, New Rep, and the Lyric Stage Company.

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As I combed through the program, I saw that the cast was made up of a 26 member company. I am not joking when I say that I had never seen more white men over the age of 50 on stage before. There were asterisk symbols next to many of the names. They included a page labeled “Dramaturgy,” which gave background on important historical figures of the Civil Rights Movement and from LBJ’s circle who were not included as characters in the play, but were influential to its content, like Malcolm X, and Ella Baker. They stated their mission, which is to: “To enhance the cultural life of West Michigan by creating opportunities for people to enjoy live-theatre performances using community artists, and to have access to a comprehensive theatre arts education program for all ages.”  Their work serves almost 120,000 audience members each season with 1,800 students in their educational programs. Their productions are made possible by the work of over 800 volunteers.

When I read this, my mind did a double take. Certain enough, the program claimed that all of their actors, stagehands, technicians, and designers were volunteers. The bios of the actors included messages like, “Richard just celebrated his 10 year anniversary as an AFLAC agent,” or “Thanks to my wife for your love and support of this crazy hobby of mine.” Those asterisks listed next to the actor’s credits were not in fact denoting their membership in a union but instead that they were debuting in their first production at the theatre.

I was shocked. Clearly this is a theatre that cares a lot about giving opportunities for community members to act, in conjunction with training some of them in their theatre classes. Their website has its own blog, including long interviews with actors, features in the Grand Rapids magazine, and videos with the actors talking about the context of All The Way. In all aspects, this was a very professionally produced show, and because this theatre is the largest and most popular in the city, it is the highest caliber of theatrical work that a lot of community members have access to.

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When I got to the final page of the program, I saw that the theatre is made possible by not only the extensive volunteers and their hours of work, but the donations of hundreds of donors and sponsors, and a 2.4 million dollar endowment established in 1986 by a private estate (which was stated to account for only 6% of the Civic’s operational needs). Other large donors include two subsets of the powerhouse DeVos family (contributing in total over $25,000 this year), and the Meijer family (of mega-mart store fame, known for financing several large-scale visual art exhibits and projects in town throughout the year).

This made me curious where all of this money was being spent if the actors and artists were not being paid. Clearly they had invested in the set, the program, the tech elements, and the promotion of the play. Perhaps the staff members receive a salary. But, nowhere could I find any information that this was a not-for-profit organization. I’m still curious about this, and I plan on reaching out to the theatre about their funding and following up in another post, because while I wholeheartedly support giving new and “unprofessional” local actors the chance to act a well-written, Tony-nominated, script on a beautiful stage in a large theatre, I am curious why a theatre with so much funding available does not find in a core part of its mission to compensate their actors and other creatives for their hard work.

As someone daring to make a living working in an artistic field, I am disappointed that a community I belong to does not have a strong enough community to support artists financially, and this further supports my choice to take my work elsewhere, even though I would love the opportunity to contribute to a theatre community I care about. I wish that Grand Rapids could become the kind of town where regional theaters could establish and draw talent from nearby Chicago and other parts of the country. There certainly seems to be enough desire and funding available, so why not?

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To be continued.

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