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Tenacity. Versatility. Outside-the-box opportunities. For stage performers in Grand Rapids, it takes
more than talent to craft …

A Life in Theater

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Sometimes real life makes great theater.

At the 2002 Grand Awards, Grand Rapids native Brian Damson was recognized as Best Actor in a Musical for his work in the title role of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s

“Sweeney Todd.” The local boy who had made good in New York City and performed around the country as a professional cabaret singer and stage actor had returned home two years earlier to perform in World Party 2000 at the Van Andel Arena. He was between jobs at the time, so he decided to stick around.

“ Sweeney” was Damson’s first community theater role in Grand Rapids, and he had to resign from the Actors’ Equity union in order to take the non-paying gig. “Being part of a community is better than being part of a union,” Damson said during his emotional Grand Awards acceptance speech.

Looking back on that moment from his temporary residence in California, where he is performing in two cabaret shows at Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino through March 2006, Damson has no regrets about his decision to leave New York and make a life for himself in Grand Rapids. And he still finds a sense of community in this city’s theater scene.

“ Of course I do,” Damson said, phoning from Tahoe. “That’s why you do it.”

He explained his decision to resign Equity, saying, “I own my talent — not a union —and they were not going to let me volunteer my time or talent to do the show. Knowing that Civic does some high quality work and at the time not having worked in the musical theater in 10 years — mostly (cruise) ships and

Vegas — I thought it was a good trade.

“ The union will always be there,” he added. “A chance to play that role won’t.”

A sense of community. Once-in-a-lifetime roles. Artistic fulfillment. These are just some of the things that performers get from community theater in Grand Rapids. You can’t put a dollar value on them, but it would be nice if you could. The struggle between daily obligations and the artist’s drive to create is a constant one among the growing number of Grand Rapids stage performers who are supporting themselves with their talent.

Kathy Wagner star-red opposite Damson in Civic’s 2002 production of “Sweeney.” At the Grand Awards that year she took home an etched acrylic plaque for her performance as Mrs. Lovett.

Wagner, a local favorite among musical theater performers, primarily makes her living as a concert vocalist. Like Damson, she looks to community theater for opportunities for artistic fulfillment that at times can be lacking in the broader world of professional entertainment. “It’s a matter of keeping your artistry in good shape,” Wagner said. “You’ve got to feed your family, but you’ve got to feed your artistry, as well.”

While playing Mrs. Lovett or Sweeney Todd in a community theater production won’t pay the bills, playing to a packed cabaret audience or to an educational training session can — and it does for a number of local performers who earn their living without succumbing to the nemesis of so many actors: a day job.

Community theater audiences might remember Tim Cusack as the jibberish-talking Jimmer from Community Circle Theatre’s 1999 production of the Jeff Daniels comedy “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” his most recent community theater role.

Cusack has become a sought-after storyteller and professional speaker, traveling around the country to bring his “Laughter that Matters” program to educators and students. A Screen Actors Guild member, Cusack began acting 20 years ago with The United Stage, a professional touring children’s theater troupe then housed at Grand Valley State University.

In between leaving United Stage and learning how to support himself as a free-lance talent, Cusack did what he had to do to make ends meet.

“ There was one time that I fell back on house painting for a couple of years, but I kept performing — doing stuff on the side,” he recalled.

For Cusack, the inspiration to focus completely on his craft came from an unlikely source.

“ So I’m in this new apartment building, and I’m with a guy (who is) hanging drywall,” Cusack explained. “We get talking about life and doing stuff and working, and somehow we got onto the topic of me being an actor, because at the time I think I was doing community theater.

“ And the drywaller, he said, ‘Seems like to me, if you want to be an actor, you ought to do more of that, because you’re not going to get better at that by painting.’ It was like I was with this drywaller one minute, and the next minute, Buddha showed up.”

Actors need to act. Although beautiful in its simplicity, it’s a difficult rule to put into practice in a city with few professional opportunities. Is there hope for theater people who want to stay in Grand Rapids and make a living?

“ The answer is ‘yes,’” Laural Merlington said. “There are ways to do it.”

In 1991, Merlington and her husband moved to Grand Rapids from Lansing, where for 20 years she worked regularly at the BoarsHead Theatre, which is an Equity house. Today, most of her income stems from recording audio books for Brilliance Corp. in Grand Haven. “It allowed me to continue being a performer,” Merlington said.

“ I have been living in Grand Rapids for 15 years, and I have never taken what we in the theater call a ‘job’ job,” she continued. “I’ve taught theater classes at GRCC, at GVSU, at Kendall, at Aquinas. I’ve done radio spots. I’ve directed here, there and everywhere.

“ There are always those kinds of things out there … Maybe you have to teach a class once in a while, as long as they’re theater classes. Do a voice-over gig, whatever.”

“ You have to really carve out a niche,” advised Cusack, who pieces together his income from work as a storyteller, private improv comedy shows, TV and radio commercials and creative consulting.

Wagner follows a similar catch-as-catch-can approach, working as a featured vocalist with the River City Jazz Ensemble and with pianist Rich Ridenour, performing character roles with Opera Grand Rapids and directing community theater. “I’m fairly mutt-ly,” she said. “A real Heinz 57 performer!”

Between cabaret runs in Lake Tahoe or anywhere else where he is in demand, Damson teams with Wagner to operate Better Than Vegas (BTV) Productions, a theatrical production company that casts and produces everything from intimate cabaret entertainment to full-scale arena spectacles. While this year most of Damson’s income came from the Lake Tahoe gigs and his two supporting leads during the summer season at Mason Street Warehouse, a professional theater in Saugatuck, in 2004 most of his income came from producing and performing live shows in Grand Rapids.

BTV Productions also has provided professional opportunities for a number of other performers who continue to volunteer their time in the Grand Rapids community theater scene, among them Kelly Carey, Lisa Whitley and Andrew Schneider.

“ We’ve always been blessed with great talent in local theater in Grand Rapids, and that’s been a steady influence on community theater for the past 20 years,” commented Joe Dulin, managing director of Circle Theatre. “I think the environment is a little different today than it was 20 years ago in that there are more opportunities for performers to earn some money here, which is great because it keeps some people around who might otherwise have headed to Chicago or New York.”

Schneider, for one, still plans on eventually making that move, but the 25-year-old alumnus of the Civic Theatre School of Theatre Arts has earned a living as a performer and stage manager right here in West Michigan for the past three years.

“ I have to say that I am very proud of myself, personally, because it has been probably about three years now that I’ve been doing that, just living gig to gig but being able to make things work, not starving, and paying all my bills,” he said, beaming.

Cheryl “Micque” La Mar may join Schneider in New York or Chicago someday, but with family obligations in West Michigan (“My parents are quite elderly,” she said, “and I won’t leave as long as they’re here”), she needed to find acting work closer to home. And thanks to KMR Diversity Theatre, she has.

La Mar, who is retired from the Grand Rapids Public Library, began working with Kennedy Management Resources Inc. (KMR) six years ago. KMR is home to Diversity Theatre, formed by local talent Alice Kennedy to help organizations bring effective awareness training into the workplace.

Kennedy, a Vietnam native, auditioned for her first community theater part after Actors’ Theatre (see accompanying story) put out a call for Asian American actors for its 1996 production of “A Piece of My Heart” by Shirley Lauro.

“ I guess I got bit by the bug,” said Kennedy, who since has performed with Civic Theatre and Heritage Theatre Group, as well as serving on the Actors’ Theatre board for eight years. KMR Diversity Theatre grew out of Kennedy’s human resources consulting business in 1999.

“ One of my long-time clients (Cascade Engineering) approached me and said that they really want to do something with diversity training,” Kennedy recalled. “They really didn’t want to have a speaker; they didn’t want to have a video. So they asked if I could help them put together a training program using live theater. And I said, ‘Sure.’”

Kennedy recruited local playwright Mike Smolinski and began gathering actors from the community theater scene, including La Mar, Todd Lewis, John Robinson and Michelle Urbane, all four of whom continue to work with her.

“ There are a lot of talented people in Grand Rapids and I’m really thrilled to be able to work with some of the best,” Kennedy said. “And obviously, they love their jobs because I don’t think they’d be with me for six years otherwise. And of course being able to make a piece of their living at it, that’s always nice.”
Sometimes real life does make great theater. And although it takes tenacity, flexibility and the new opportunities presented by KMR Diversity Theatre, BTV Productions and others, great theater performers can make real lives for themselves right here in Grand Rapids. GR


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