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Home Arts and Culture  'It was a good run'
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Wednesday, August 8,2012

'It was a good run'

Kristine Thatcher looks at life after Stormfield

by Lawrence Cosentino
Parking lot seagulls pace around the Sears water tower in the Frandor Shopping Center, looking as out of place as Chekhov characters in a strip mall. There are few hints of what went on inside the nondescript little building nearby, the former Stormfield Theater, which officially closed June 30 after three years.

Artistic director Kristine Thatcher hasn’t gone back to the unlikely cubicle that sheltered her dream of keeping professional theater alive in Lansing. 

“I haven’t looked through the windows or anything,” she said. “I had my shot at running a theater. I did the best I could, and it’s time to move along.”

With grant money shrinking and donors strapped for cash, there’s little chance Stormfield will come back, she said, but that comes almost as a relief to her.

Thatcher is facing a round of “serious” health problems that came to light just as the theater was winding down. She didn’t want to go into detail about them.

“I’ve got a great team at Sparrow, and I hope to make a full recovery,” she said.

In the longer term, she wants to get back to an absorbing pile of long-put-off writing projects.

“I was a playwright before I came back here,” she said. “I need to start writing again, maybe do some freelance work directing and acting.”

A modest sign and a few other remnants still testify to Stormfield’s three-year, seat-of-the-pants run. The two-by-fours wedged into the windows held up judo mats that kept the house dark. The pots, buckets and tin cans that caught the leaks are pushed together into one corner.

“We improvised a lot,” Thatcher said. “I was really proud of the productions we put on there. There were lots of problems, but the space also made you get creative.”

It’s a stretch, perhaps, but the sensitive, literate Thatcher has a lot in common with the autocratic Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty: they were both booted off the big boat they commanded, only to work miracles on a smaller one. Thatcher returned to her native Lansing in 2005 from Chicago, where she made a strong mark as playwright and actress, to take over the Boarshead Theater. She founded Stormfield in August 2009, a few months after she was laid off from the struggling Boarshead.

Then came the storms.

After the famous mutiny, Captain Bligh and 19 loyal British navy officers made the 3,600-mile journey from Tahiti to Southampton, England, in a 23-foot longboat.

Thatcher laughed at the image, recalling how loyal Thatcherites — staff, crew and actors from Boarshead — jumped with her into the Frandor parking lot dinghy with her in 2009 and took the heavy weather with a smile.

“I can’t believe we even made it for three years,” she said. “And if we’re going with sea images, my donors were the Rock of Gibraltar.” 

In June, Thatcher wrote a letter to Stormfield’s 400-odd donors explaining the decision to fold. 

“One of my largest donors wrote back and said, ‘I could have told you this was going to happen,’” Thatcher said. “And yet she was always right there for us and went along with whatever fantasy I was in.”

Last month, it became clear that the theater didn’t have the wherewithal to go on. Two years of negotiations to move the theater to a new venue foundered. Thatcher didn’t want to name the venue, because “the main developer was really kind to us.” Sources close to Stormfield confirmed it was the new theater under construction at the Heights at Eastwood complex.

“Each time we’d get together, the space was beginning to morph a little,” Thatcher said. “It was becoming a shared space and more and more constrictive for us. We wouldn’t have been able to do a full season.”

By the 2011-12 season, the recession caught up with Stormfield. “We needed a full-time person just to go after the money, but we were all wearing two or three hats already,” she said.

The theater’s short history made it hard to compete for grants, and the plan to change venues further complicated the fiscal picture. “While we were trying to put (the new venue) in place, we couldn’t announce it to the world,” Thatcher said. “We couldn’t start a capital campaign.” 

She called the last three years a “good run.”

“I was impressed that the people who followed us from those comfortable seats at the Boarshead and that wonderful stage to this tiny building and those uncomfortable plastic molded chairs.”

A key arrow in Stormfield’s small quiver was Thatcher’s ability to draw top Chicago talent as well as the cream of Lansing-area actors. She fondly recalled the theater’s first fully staged production in October 2010, “Among Friends,” written by Thatcher, with Lansing mainstays Aral Gribble and John Lepard and Chicago import Bill Bannon. 

“Those three guys came together, committed to it and put on one of the best productions I’ve ever seen, in that tiny little space.”

In 2011, the bizarre “Kimberly Akimbo,” with veteran actress Carmen Decker as a prematurely aging teenager, was another highlight. 

“That was our largest cast, with six people,” Thatcher said. “On that stage, that’s a lot.” To deal with many changes of scene, designer Michelle Raymond made stackable orange modules the crew called “Cheetos.”

“In about a minute’s time you were at an ice skating rink, the kitchen table, or wherever you had to be next,” Thatcher said. “That was the brilliance of Michelle Raymond.”

When the health problems are under control, Thatcher looks forward to getting back to work on three long-shelved plays that will delve with her customary acuity and sensitivity and into tangled skeins of American history, personality, race and politics.

The first play will bring to life an “amazing, exceptional writer and human being,” Leanita McClain, one of the first African-American editors at the Chicago Tribune. Deeply depressed by the “race war” that accompanied Harold Washington’s election as Chicago’s first black mayor, McClain wrote an essay, “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites” and committed suicide.

“A Fair to Middlin’ Woman” will tell the story of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, playwright Samuel Beckett’s wife.

“There would have been no Samuel Beckett without her,” Thatcher said. “She saved him from the Nazis. ‘Endgame’ is about the end of their relationship, and nobody knows anything about her. People don’t even know he was married.”

Thatcher’s most ambitious project, “The Bloodhound Law,” will recreate the Chicago Common Council’s deliberations as it passed a resolution calling on city police not to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which mandated the return of runaway slaves. Chicago’s City Lit Theatre, where Thatcher is associate director, commissioned her to write the play as part of a five-year Civil War Sesquicentennial project. The drama will be crammed with bigger-than-life characters, such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, underground railroad pillars John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones, and Stephen Douglas, nemesis of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the council and supported the Bloodhound Law.

Thatcher’s three-year tussle with the logistics of tiny Stormfield should stand her in good stead. “The problem, at the moment, is how to recreate the (Chicago) Common Council without 17 guys on stage,” she recently wrote in a letter to City Lit. “Don’t worry, I won’t do that to you.” 

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