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G-Sync: A (not so) Quiet Theatrical Revolution

Getting into character for Hedwig and the Angry Inch






It took a lake effect to produce a series of events that took us by storm.

Nestled in what is typically the quiet of winter, the Lake Effect Fringe Festival (LEFF), spearheaded by The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company and GEM Theatrics, blew into town with more than three weeks of theatrical programming amounting to nearly 20 productions of all shapes and sizes.

If you had passed by the single venue that hosted this festival, the tiny Dog Story Theatre (DST) on Jefferson St., you would have marveled at the lines spilling out into the streets. It was, to say the least, a smashing success. It not only brought theatre fans a festival comprised of eight theatrical troupes of our region, but firmly ushered in a new chapter in our ever-evolving arts history.

Not even a month has passed, and still many more productions have hit the DST stage, as well as other theatrical venues in our city. But this spring, one of the most anticipated productions provides the perfect opportunity to plunge the depths of love and showcase in a contemporary style the resourcefulness of our arts community. It will also illustrate (once again, like LEFF) why our theatrical revolution is so successful.  

The SouthSide Theater Company is a small, six-member nonprofit theatre group founded by former students of East Kentwood High School. They're performing Hedwig and the Angry Inch in an intimate, stripped-down fashion with all the delightful trappings of a theatrical glam score, rich with ballads and a touch of country. This is no Andrew Lloyd Weber rock opera, but more like her punk rock sister. (Note: There will be also a full rock band performing the Hedwig score as they get closer to their opening on March 28.)

Before Hedwig lands at DST, it will undergo a transformation not unlike other productions of this nature, moving quickly from rehearsals to production in less than eight weeks. Typically, acting troupes seek out space to rehearse and stage their productions before landing on the stage, but Hedwig's production team took an unusual journey.

I met two of Hedwig's cast members, Jordon Carnegie (a multiple Grand Award nominee) and Cera Drake (Grand Award Winner, GR-NYC-GR boomerang), as well as Richard Carnegie (production manager) and the company’s director, Andrew Williams. After spending years in the Chicago market earning a BFA in Theatrical Direction from Columbia University, Williams moved back to Grand Rapids because of the opportunities offered here.   

"I really enjoyed my time in Chicago because, as many already know, they are well known for their commitment to theatre, but are lacking in opportunities for musical theatre," says Williams, "When I looked at Grand Rapids, I saw a lot of opportunities as the barriers to producing a show that typically get in the way in larger markets just fell away."

Most often for theatrical companies, these barriers are purely financial. But even with a shortage of theatre options at a reasonable rate for rehearsal, troupes are finding space around our town.

"We typically would rehearse our productions at Mt. Mercy (a local senior retirement community), who has graciously worked out a deal with SouthSide where in exchange for space, we perform cabaret style music shows for the residents," says Williams. "But for Hedwig, a rock musical that is going to be very loud, we decided to seek out another venue." (DST will have earplugs.)

And this is how we landed today in Williams' parent's Cascade home  -- who, whether by chance or design, were not to be found as Hedwig and his sidekick Yitzhak roared through a thrilling, 90-minute tale of creative sacrifice and love lost before the triumphant resolution in the final moments of this musical.

The story of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not your typical coming-out, creative-exploration sort of tale. This musical is about a fictional rock and fronted by an East German transgendered singer whose desire to be free of communism leads him sacrifice a piece of himself to hurdle over the Berlin Wall. A stunning multi-media slideshow is ongoing during this stripped-down and intimate production.

This constant need to sacrifice a piece of himself for others is the source of the Angry Inch metaphor that will haunt and follow Hedwig throughout this story of escape, opportunity lost, desire, fame, and eventual love as he travels from East Germany to Junction City, Kansas. This is exciting theatre.

Hedwig, created John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, was a massive hit in NYC when it debuted in 1998 before becoming a much-lauded film via the Sundance Institute. Hedwig is still just as relevant today because the themes it honestly explores are truly timeless.  

"This show could not have happened without having such a collaborative and supportive theatre community," Williams shares as he addresses the source of their pending success at DST. "SouthSide has discovered over the years that other theatrical groups, from the big and the small, are very much there for you in ways you would never imagine."

Part of this bond is evident when the other members of the troupe begin to talk of the collaborative assistance from places like Grand Rapids Civic Theater's prop and costume department, or that of the Actors' Theatre of Grand Rapids' willingness to offer a special ticket package on their site in conjunction with Actors' newest show, also showing during Hedwig's run. (Offer expires soon.)

"There seems to be a mistaken belief among many nonprofits, especially those providing similar services like theatre or fine arts organizations, that we are in direct competition with each other," says Jon Clausen, marketing director of Actors' Theatre. "While that may be true if our schedules happen to put two productions on the same weekend (as illustrated by Hedwig's run at DST), the reality is that producing good, live theatre benefits all of the organizations, large and small, by fostering a culture of appreciation, participation, and philanthropy in West Michigan.”

Part of this openness is why our theatre culture is growing, but as Williams also shared, the costs are not as high to produce a show here, which translates into shows actually beginning to make money.

"The bottom line is that DST is incredibly affordable," says DST's Joe Anderson. "When people come from larger cities and find out how inexpensive it is to put on a show, they are flabbergasted. Yes, I said flabbergasted. This low barrier to entry means that groups with something to say, or shows that might seem to risky in a more expensive venue, will stand a chance."

And the outside arts communities are beginning to look more and more to West Michigan to debut or workshop their new dramatic works.

At the end of Hedwig, a star is truly born. And in this case, so is our region's quiet theatrical revolution, one that is becoming impossible to ignore -- inside our city boundaries and out. Just follow my voice.


The Future Needs All of Us.


Tommy Allen

Lifestyle Editor


This week's G-Sync Events is 100 percent Women-focused.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs March 28 -April 6, 2013 at Dog Story Theater. To take advantage of the Actors' Theatre of Grand Rapids and Southside Theater Company's special (but limited) ticket offer, please visit here.
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