Alternative Theater Marks 25 Years In GR

September 6, 2005
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What do presidential assassinations, the criminal justice system, Queen Elizabeth I and urine have in common?

They are all part of the 25th season of Actors’ Theatre.

Fred Sebulske, founder and managing director of the group, said Actors’ Theatre’s philosophy of giving non-mainstream theater a platform in Grand Rapids has solidified its presence in the community over the past quarter-century.

Sebulske said although some of the shows may be controversial or not appeal to everyone, they are meant to be “entertaining, innovative, challenging and thought-provoking theater.”

“We apologize for none of it,” he said. “We’re doing it because we think they’re important ideas or important themes.”

To help increase the diversity in the performances, Sebulske said the group tries to include issues important to women, racial minorities, and the gay and lesbian community.

One of the more controversial pieces the theater has performed was “The Normal Heart,” which dealt with AIDS and HIV at the same time the first AIDS cases in Kent County were acknowledged.

Though many of the shows deal with intense subjects, Sebulske said they also have some lighthearted shows such as “Bat Boy the Musical” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” which he said appealed to a younger audience.

“We’re not all grim and serious and issue-oriented,” he said. “We try to be as wide a community theater as possible.”

This year’s season will include “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, “Assassins” a musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, “Kimberly Akimbo” by David Lindsay Abaire, “Elizabeth Rex” by Timothy Findley, and “Urinetown,” a musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann.

Sebulske said “Assassins” has particular significance because it will be the first time in the history of the theater that a show has been produced twice. The Sondheim musical was performed 10 years ago when the subject matter — which concerns nine people who have attempted to assassinate the president of the United States — was very controversial. Sebulske thought it would be interesting to bring it back to see if time has changed people’s attitudes.

Sebulske said he started the theater with a group of about 20 actors who, like himself, were tired of leaving town in order to work in non-mainstream productions.

“Actors in the area were not getting a chance to see that type of work,” he said. “We also wanted to do work that was not being done at the time anywhere else in town.”

During the past 25 years, Jean Reed Bahle has acted in, directed and written Actors’ plays. She attributes getting her job as an adjunct faculty member in Hope College’s theater program to her experience teaching workshops at Actors’ Theatre.

“It’s been a huge part of my life and I’m imagining a lot of other people in Grand Rapids, too,” she said.

Bahle said the theater was the “off-Broadway” of Grand Rapids.

“It was just another venue for a different type of play,” she said. “It would be a place where actors could really go and stretch their acting muscles.”

Though the group is not a professional theater, the actors are paid a $40 stipend for every performance.

“We owe it to the actor to recognize his or her professional contribution just as we recognize everyone else,” Sebulske said.

Beyond being an opportunity for aspiring actors, Actors’ Theatre also encourages local playwrights through its Ben Franklin program, named so because of Franklin’s appearance on the $100 bill. Writers chosen to participate in the program are given $100 toward producing their play, which is then performed in a black-box theater space.

Six years ago the theater moved its performances to the new Spectrum Theater at 160 Fountain St. NE, on the Grand Rapids Community College campus. Actors’ Theatre, which is affiliated with the college, shares the space with GRCC’s theater program and with Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids and Heritage Theatre Company.

Sebulske said the move meant an increase from 118 seats to 250, but that the new theater retains the intimate feeling of the former space.

“We can do a lot more than we could do in that early space,” he said.

The program also expanded, making Sebulske the first paid managing director after his retirement as chairman of GRCC’s theater department in 2000, and also hiring an administrative assistant and a costumer in recent years.

Though there are many theater programs and companies in the Grand Rapids area, Sebulske said he believes there is room for everyone.

“As the community grows, there is an audience that grows for more and different types of theater,” he said.

With a $225,000 budget, Sebulske said that despite a slow economy, the theater has remained in the black for the past few years.

“That’s pretty much all you can ask for in a not-for-profit organization,” he said.

Though the program may grow eventually, Sebulske said he is content with the theater’s status and hopes to stay financially stable.

“We’re just happy to be in a new place,” he said. “We want to enjoy it for a while.”    

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