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Crafting a Creative Community


A lot goes on behind the scenes of a live theater performance. Sets are built, costumes are designed and hours surrender to seemingly endless hours of rehersals.

But one critical element of theater that’s not often talked about is the relationship between performing arts and a community’s economic development and long-term success.

“Arts and cultural are critical to the community,” says David Hollister, former mayor and current president and CEO at the Prima Civitas foundation. Hollister believes that collaborations between groups and individuals improve the economic outlook of the region. When the right parties are brought together, he suggests, they can combine their resources to bring about successful ventures.

So it is with performing arts, where non-profit arts organizations, economic development groups and hometown art galleries are working together to keep local theaters, troupes, and venues strong. And when the right parties are brought together, they can combine their resources to bring about successful ventures that will change the face and feel of the Lansing community.

Private Partnerships

Earlier this year, MSU Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) donated $2.5 million to the Wharton Center for Performing Arts on the campus of Michigan State University to help establish the new MSU Federal Credit Union Institute for Arts & Creativity.

The gift will fund the expansion of existing educational programs, such as the Act One School and the Young Playwrights Festival, as well as the creation of a new artist-in-residence program.

According to Wharton Center executive director Mike Brand, accomplished artists will be coming to campus for short stays to teach classes to aspiring actors, musicians, dancers, and writers. These classes will be open to both MSU and high school students. The artists-in-residence will collaborate with MSU faculty members and local high school teachers to design the programs.

Classes will help students hone their respective crafts, and also learn to survive in the entertainment business by practicing real-life scenarios like mock auditions and interviews.

“We want young, exciting artists who will be role models for students,” says Brand. A good example is Laura Bell Bundy, the star of the Broadway’s Legally Blonde: The Musical, who will be hosting a class on the music industry. Brand says Bell Bundy is a perfect example of an accomplished young artist. In audition to being a Tony Award-nominated actress, she is a recording country musician.
 
Jazz vocalist Sophie Milman happily agreed to participate after a recent meeting with Brand in New York. Milman, 25, lived in Russia and Israel before immigrating to Canada.

“She has an amazing story to tell,” says Brand. Her residency, which will take place when she comes to the Wharton Center this March, is being co-sponsored by MSU’s Canadian Studies Center.

Non-profit Boost

“The arts are being recognized as being important to the community,” says Leslie Donaldson, executive director of the The Arts Council of Greater Lansing (ACGL).

Founded in 1965, the ACGL works with more than 120 of the Lansing-area’s arts organizations by distributing grants, promoting events and working with community leaders on promotion.

The ACGL also provides networking opportunities and discussion forums for members of the arts community, a place to talk and brainstorm on topics such as public relations.

Since government funding is often needed for the building of arts facilities, the ACGL often sends letters to legislators and government officials to thank them for their support and to make them aware of happenings in the arts community. “Part of what we do is act as a liaison,” she says. “Awareness of the arts and support from state leaders is important.”

ACGL also helps theatre groups scout locations for their productions.

“We try to be the connector,” Donaldson explains.

Donaldson and the ACGL helped the Peppermint Creek Theatre Company (PCTC) find performance space in Old Town Lansing’s Perspective 2 studio.

I naively said, ‘I’ll put on my own show,’” says Chad Badgero, who founded the PCTC the summer after he graduated high school in 1995. He says he discounted how hard it would be to find performance space.

The PCTC has moved around, holding performances at Mount Hope Presbyterian church, MSU Gardens Conservatory, (SCENE) Metrospace and Perspective2 Studio.

Badgero wants to find a permanent home for PCTC, but until then, they’ll partner with local organizations to keep the shows coming. The Creole Gallery in Old Town is hosting this year’s season.

MSU Connection

Hollister, Donaldson and Brand all agree that East Lansing’s world-class university helps drive interest in area arts and culture. And local supporters and donors play a major role in MSU theatre, helping to fund on- and offstage expenses.

One way MSU gives back to community is by hosting the free Summer Circle Theatre, which runs Wednesday-Saturday, for three weeks in June.

“It’s our thank you gift to the community,” says the chair of the theater department, George Peters.

The relationship between MSU and the community goes both ways. MSU actors can often be found onstage at local Lansing theatres.

Liz Chase, a recent theatre grad, has performed with local companies such as Peppermint Creek.

“I think that people are really trying to make it something, which is great,” says Chase of the local theatre scene. “People are recognizing it more.”

MSU’s theatre department has been known to form collaborations within the university as well. Peters says this is going to be especially true during the 2008-2009 season.

This year’s fall musical, Cabaret (October 14-19), is being co-sponsored by the Departments of German and History; they’ll put on an exhibition about life in Berlin during the 1930’s, where the musical takes place.

A similar partnership with the Department of Psychology will take place during Hedda Gabler (February 20-22, 25-28). The spring musical, The Who's Tommy (April 9-11, 15-19) is the story of a young boy who becomes a pinball wiz; the show, the Department of Telecommunications will help create a pinball game.

Peters hopes that these partnerships will help attract a wider audience. In an era where film and television dominates, he wants people to see how exciting theatre can be.

“Theatre is a commentary on our society,” he says. “It’s the ultimate reality show.”

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Sandra Miska is a freelance writer based in East Lansing. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Chad Badergo of Peppermint Creek Theatre Company

MSU Theater Department's
Romeo and Juliet

BoarsHead Theater's
Escanaba in Love

Legally Blonde: The Musical

Waiting Room performed by MSU's Theater Department

BoarsHead and Peppermint Creek Photographs © Dave Trumpie

Legally Blonde Photograph by Joan Marcus

MSU Photographs Courtesy of MSU Theater Department

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