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Wednesday, February 9,2011

Noises Off

Lansing Civic Players close the curtain, change the set and wait for the next act

by Lawrence Cosentino

In that corpse-strewn staple of community theater, “Ten Little Indians,” dinner guests are lured to an island and killed off, one by one.


The game of “who dies next?” has appealed to generations of theater lovers. The Lansing Civic Players put the Agatha Christie potboiler on stage in 1947, 1976 and 1995.


After a truncated 2010-2011 season of turmoil and cancellations — and only a year after the demise of Boarshead Theater — people are wondering whether the Civic Players is back on the island, a few years ahead of schedule, in prone position.


Spotlight on chest. Cue breathing machine.


A transition team led by Bob Metzger, a staffer at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., says Lansing’s oldest theater company is busy regrouping.


“We’re quieter than we’ve been in a while, but it’s because we’re positioning ourselves to continue to make a long-term contribution,” Metzger said.


Actress Laura Croff, who got her start at LCP in 1995’s “Ten Little Indians” and manages the theater’s costume shop, put it more drolly.


“We’re like the Dick Clark of theaters,” Croff said. “No matter how many times people have said it’s going to die, it’s still around. Put some formaldehyde through us, and we’re good.”


Revival, not embalming, is the transition team’s objective. Metzger said the formula will come down to a few key ingredients.


A new artistic director, Michael Stewart, was installed last month and is already planning the 2011-12 season. This spring, a new board of directors with business savvy will take over the theater, replacing the old membership guild system. Fundraising, day-to-day business and promotion will be kept separate from the artistic side of the operation. The next part of the planned makeover would fulfill a dream has eluded the Civic Players for decades.


LCP owns its firehouse headquarters on Michigan Avenue, but the building is too small for anything but the most intimate “underground” plays. Metzger said the firehouse will be sold to buy or lease a larger, permanent venue. Two LCP sources said there is a buyer, and the search for a new home is in full swing.


The transition team hopes to unveil the whole package, from new season to the new board members to (maybe) the new home, this spring. They’ll spend the summer beating the bushes for funding, in hopes of leveraging LCP’s 82-year legacy — and public curiosity about the makeover — into a new lease on life.


For the set to change, the curtain must drop, but 2010 was an awkward "thunk" for LCP. In October, the aptly named Stephen King thriller “Misery” was pulled when an upcoming Broadway production forced a shutdown on productions nationwide. A last-minute fill-in show based on old radio broadcasts was barely promoted and sparsely attended.


The “Misery” meltdown was bad luck. But LCP’s November production of George Bernard Shaw’s comedy “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was also scrapped. The entire season was canceled in December.


For the first time in the Civic Players’ 82-year history, with the exception of a snow cancellation or two, the show didn’t go on.


That dismayed Lansing theater veteran and LCP mainstay Winifred Olds.


“When you get a play cast, and you stop dead in the middle, that doesn’t look good,” Olds said. “That disappointed a lot of people. It looked like there was a total collapse.”


“Nobody had complete oversight over what the current and long-term needs were,” Metzger said. “There were balls that were dropped, no question.”


Actor/director Anthony Sump, a transitional figure who served on the LCP board before and after the implosion, said the theater had to choose between "Band-Aid” measures or a thorough overhaul.


“We decided to pull it because we were changing every part of the structure, and we did not want to put on a sub-par show,” Sump said.


Metzger said it was time to stop the bleeding and go for a total makeover.


“LCP was operating on a very small budget, and we got to the point that, for long-term success to happen, we had to set aside much of this current season to be able to get ourselves back on a solid footing,” he explained.


It was the bottom of a slow slide from the theater’s glory days.


Olds has seen a lot of ups and downs at LCP. She got her first taste of theater in 1941, when she was cast as a maid in the elaborate costume drama “Berkeley Square.” She was in 11th grade.


“They used to fill the old auditorium on Kalamazoo, West Junior (High School),” she recalled. “You’re talking about the ’40s. All those people are dead. They’re not here to fill the seats.”


Lansing theater pillars Bill and Lee Helder started out in the 1950s as prompters at LCP, whispering lines to nervous actors from the wings.


“When I first came to Lansing, they were the only game in town,” Bill Helder said. “I’d hate to see them go, because they really established theater in the Lansing area.”


Ken Beachler, another Lansing theater mainstay with hundreds of directing and acting credits, came on the scene at about the same time. Beachler recalls going to LCP shows as a student at MSU.


“Wherever they played, people came,” Beachler said. “I thought it was kind of magical.”


Kristine Thatcher, artistic director of the fledgling Stormfield Theater and former artistic director of Boarshead, said LCP was still going strong when she came on the scene more than a decade later.


“I remember back in the ’70s,’ 80s and ’90s when Lansing Civic Players was one of the most vibrant producing organizations in the city,” Thatcher said.


Lavish musicals were a specialty. The 1971 production of “Fiddler on the Roof ” boasted a Russian village of 60 performers.


The theater was a gateway for many significant players in Lansing theater, from the Helders to Peppermint Creek’s Chad Badgero.


Thatcher ran into Olds at a Stormfield play last week. They first met in 1972, working in “Butterflies Are Free” at Lansing Civic Players.


“These were some of the greatest learning experiences of my life,” Thatcher said.


“The new leaders of LCP would do well to look toward the founders who remain vibrant and active in this city — the original artists. They are around, and they can provide great insight.”


Olds is happy to oblige.


“Back in the ’40s, the businessmen who were running it kept a handle on the purse strings and they knew how to market,” Olds said.


Over the years, Olds racked up over 60 LCP credits as an actor and director, and served several stints on the board of directors. When she wasn’t on stage, she was often seen marching up and down the aisles at intermission, selling “gold bricks” to help pay off the fire house mortgage. (She sold 1,148.)


Now, she has moved on to other things. This March she will play Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in Starlight Dinner Theatre’s “A Murder is Announced.”


But
she is still an LCP booster. “I have a soft spot for the Guild, and
would really like to see them come back with a vengeance,” she said.


Olds saw signs of decline in the early 1980s, when LCP’s venue changed from West Junior High to Harry Hill High School.


“That
was a beautiful stage, but audiences were beginning to fall off because
our audience was fairly senior,” Olds said. “We did the standards. We
didn’t do the avant-garde stuff like Circle Players (now Riverwalk
Theatre) was doing.”


Big
musicals fill seats — padded by the friends and family of their big
casts — but they cost a lot in royalties, musicians and sets. In 1984,
LCP’s “The King and I” cost $18,675 to produce, but the box office haul
was $17,603.


The
Civic Players perked up after moving to the Hannah Community Center
auditorium in 2001, when “The Sound of Music” drew 1,700 people. Two
years later, “Annie” drew 2,370.


Sump’s first show with LCP was “Sylvia” in 2005.


“We
had a wonderful following and a loyal audience,” Sump said, “Most
theaters weren’t able to pull off the big shows LCP could pull off, but
they had the muscle.”


But costs still outran receipts, especially when Hannah Center added a $2 ticket surcharge to the rent.


Meanwhile,
an inexorable pair of tongs closed in. The audience for the old
chestnuts was aging, while a spate of new theater companies, including
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., seized upon the growing demand for edgier
material.


LCP’s executive board, loaded with theater people whose chief assets were talent and enthusiasm, was ill-equipped to adapt.


“We
were not getting business people on our board,” Olds said. “When I
started in the 1940s, there were people like my dad (Ezra Breithaupt),
Walter Neller, Ed Hacker, businessmen who knew how to take care of
money.”


In the
2009-10 season, the Civic Players made a radical jump to an
“underground” series of intimate plays, staged in the basement of its
firehouse headquarters.


“It
was the most terrifying and the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” Sump
said. “We had to put the brakes on those giant shows, those shows we
couldn’t afford to put on.”


Metzger said the underground move was “purely a financial decision.”


“Box office wasn’t covering the Hannah shows,” he said.


But
now an identity crisis was in full swing. The "underground" label
didn’t play to LCP’s historic strengths — but could the company afford
to be anything else?


At
a series of membership meetings last fall, Metzger made the case for
switching from the guild membership system to a board of directors drawn
largely from the business world. Sensing a chance to regain some of the
company’s old vigor, Olds, along with a quorum of LCP members, voted in
favor of the switch.


Metzger and a transition board of 12 people began by separating the artistic and business sides of the operation.


As
artistic director Metzger picked a quiet, journeyman theater vet,
Michael Stewart, who managed the Hannah Community Center auditorium,
beginning in 2002.


After
18 years of acting, Stewart began directing in the 1980s, running the
River Repertory Theater in St. Louis. In Lansing and elsewhere, he has
been involved in over 600 productions, specializing in tech work. He has
directed about 49 plays, and acted in 116.


Bill Helder said Stewart is a “terrific choice.”


“He’s got a great range of talents, not only as an actor but also in tech theater, and that’s really important,” Helder said.


Sump called Stewart a “complete package” who can “do it all,” from tech to acting to directing.


John
Dale Smith, another key player on the LCP transition team, knew Stewart
as a tech student at Lansing Community College. Later, Smith worked
with Stewart when the Lansing Symphony Big Band did concerts at the
Hannah Center.


“He’s level-headed, he knows the production side as well as the artistic side, and I think he’s a great choice,” Smith said.


“He’s stepping in with both feet, and they’re really trying to realign the whole thing,” Olds said.


Now
Stewart is reading anywhere from three to five plays a day, looking for
the right mix of material. He knows that navigating between the
familiar and fresh is key to the theater’s future success. It’s a topic
everybody loves to weigh in on.


Sump
said he’d like to see a mix of “classic, popular shows with iconic
roles that talented people will audition for” and “riskier things that
might bring new audiences.”


He thinks the latter type of shows, if well done, would raise LCP’s standing in the theater community.


“I’d love to see the group figure out a way to do both,” he said.


It sounds like he’s asking for a horse with fins, but the challenge doesn’t seem to faze Stewart.


“You
can only do ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ so many times, and then people
get bored,” Stewart said. “But you also don’t want to go away from your
past too much.”


Beachler said he hopes LCP plays to its strengths, which include the big musicals, and Olds agrees.


“There’s
a whole batch of people coming along who have never been in ‘West Side
Story,’ ‘Guys in Dolls,’ ‘Anything Goes,’” Olds said.


Stewart is confident he can find the right balance.


“We’ll
leave the edgier stuff to Peppermint Creek and those that are doing
that,” he said. “But we’re not just going to do PG stuff. There will
times when kids probably won’t be coming.”


Part
of the solution, Stewart said, is to go with more original scripts.
“We’re starting locally,” he said. “I’ve gotten a few that look pretty
good. I read a play the other day by Jeff Daniels and I thought, ‘My
gosh, we gotta do this.’” In early spring, Metzger hopes to finish
recruiting a new board of directors, drawn largely from the business
world.


Smith wants
to see a paid staff.


Actor Joe Quick, a frequent performer with LCP and
other local theaters, thinks that’s key. A look through LCP’s history
shows a lot of the same people who served on the executive board walked
the boards as well.


“A
lot of times, the people who end up on a nonprofit board for a
performing arts group are people who are interested in performing,”
Quick said. “They might not have the business skills and connections to
successfully run the organization.”


“You can’t just have theater people talking to each other,” Helder said. “Somebody has to watch the money and say no.”


The next big step for LCP is finding a home.


“That’s a key, key task for them,” Smith said. He didn’t rule out a transitional venue.


“That’s
always been the problem for LCP,” Smith said. “When they move into a
place, they don’t have total freedom to do what they have to do for the
show. They have to live with the rules of the venue.”


“We
really need to get out of the basement back into a space that’s a
theater,” Stewart said. “Even a nice big warehouse would be nice, where
you could take it and transform it into what you’d like.”


Sump,
who is in charge of the venue committee, said he’s working on
finalizing the sale of the firehouse to a nonprofit organization he
declined to name.


He said the theater is looking at several possible locations, but doesn’t want to name them until a deal is finalized.


His
criteria include at least 12,000 square feet, rehearsal and classroom
space, and a ground-level showcase for the money-making costume shop.
(At the firehouse, the shop is on the second floor.) Ideally, Metzger
said, the space would be shared with other arts groups.


Chad Badgero, artistic director of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. and a veteran of the LCP stage, said he would be all over that.


“I believe in the concept of a common performing arts center for groups that are itinerant,” Badgero said.


“Everyone wants it. Do it, Lansing Civic Players. Find something that’s great, and I want to be involved.”


Hard
times aren’t new to the Lansing Civic Players. The company was formed
in the fall of 1929, as the stock market crashed offstage.


LCP’s
founders would surely relish the thought of anchoring a performing arts
center. After the scenery stops scraping and the curtain stops
billowing, the Civic Players’ next act may surprise those who counted
them out.


“To my
utter amazement, they are regrouping, and I feel positive about that,”
Beachler said. “They’ve got some people with a business knowledge of
theater, which I think had escaped them over the years.”


Olds used can-do 1940s lingo to describe Metzger.


“He’s got a lot of moxie,” Olds said. “If he can do what he says he can, I think they’ve got a chance to reinvigorate.”

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