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Profiles in theater: Melissa Kaplan: the dean of producers

Behind the scenes of every piece of live theater, there is a producer. We do not give awards to them, not at City Pulse, nor elsewhere, and yet they are the superglue that holds every theatrical performance together.

The “dean” of producers? Melissa Kaplan.

She keeps busy. She has more than 80 productions to her credit, since she started organizing and coordinating productions at Lansing Community College since 2003.

She pulls together main stage, black box, and summer stage productions at Lansing Community College, and this doesn’t count the LCC dance and music productions, nor her immersion as a co-founder of the annual Renegade Theatre Festival. On sabbatical this year, she brought in an environmental production on climate change.

Climate Change Theatre Action 2017, Kaplan notes, “was an exciting opportunity to be part of a worldwide event, contributing performance with awareness, about one of the most important concerns of our time. We utilized alumni of our Studio Theatre Program, who used their art to make a difference.”

Fellow producer Gary Mitchell, is no slouch himself, having produced many of Riverwalk Theatre’s best productions. Mitchell notes that he’s always had a deep respect for Kaplan’s marketing and promotional skills when it comes to selling a show to the public. “She’s the producer’s producer,” Mitchell said. “The measuring stick all of us are judged by.”

Planning starts early in the academic school year at LCC with faculty assigned to direct specific plays as much in advance as two years to 18 months.

Kaplan orchestrates the planning meetings in which directors are selected. Plays proposed for submission are discussed with a substantial committee.

She heads this up, bringing together the faculty chair, John Lennox, along with other key faculty from the theater program, and with additional input from music Professor Jon Ten Brink, history Professor Kevin Brown, and community theater input from Blake Bowen, as well as technical director Bon Fernholz, costume designer Chelle Peterson, and interim producer, while Kaplan is on sabbatical, Paige Tufford.

Bowen, a co-director of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., simply observes this. “She gets things done” adding, “In the arts world, there is a lot of pontificating and theorizing as to what to do. Melissa takes all of this in, says — yes, let’s do it — and moves forward to deliberate action.”

LCC faculty directors handle much of the heavy lifting. Deb Keller, who trained at the Tisch School of the Arts, says of Kaplan, “She has a warm curiosity, engages the world with a spirit of inclusion, is a strong leader, makes things happen.”

Kaplan laughs at this. “For myself, it is the joy of seeing the performances. One of my all-time peak production moments was when ‘Never Swim Alone’ won a coveted spot at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival,” Kaplan said. “When the 400-seat house sat in rapt attention, then erupted into a cheering standing ovation, my heart almost burst.”

Photo credit: Mary McElgunn


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