Taking Theatre to the Edge with the Stark Turn Players

Welcome to the Off-Off Broadway of West Michigan.

That would be, according to Mary Beth Quillin, The Stark Turn Players, a nonprofit theater company based in Grand Rapids, MI, who have carved out a niche for themselves in the last few years in the local theater scene. Quillin, along with fellow Grand Valley graduates Joel L. Schindlbeck and Sarah Stark, are the founders and board members of this edgy venture.

"I've always felt, from my experience with community theater in GR....they do all these standards, " says Quillin. Quillin’s experience includes acting as the former asst. education director of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and School of Theatre Arts. "All these shows you've seen before,” she explains. “A lot of Cinderella and Wizard of Oz -- family-friendly type shows, shows that don't push too many boundaries. In that way, I think we contribute because we ask more questions that safer shows don't necessarily put out there."

So far, The Stark Turn Players have gained the most attention and their biggest draws at Dog Story Theater for horror/musical parodies like Prom Night: The Musical and Nightmare: The Musical, based on Nightmare on Elmstreet 3: Dream Warriors. Shindlbeck, who also works with the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, wrote and scored both campy adaptions of the horror classics. Blood, guts, and song: that's what pays the bills, according to the group. That way, they can experiment with more experimental theater.

"We have three slots -- literary, social commentary and Halloween horror,” says Stark.

The group has also produced two plays based on Greek mythology, including this summer's Halcyon/Endymion written by Stark and Shindlbeck. May 2011 saw the production of Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos with an original translation by Shindlbeck. Currently, Stark is in the process of writing Wilde Tales Retold, an adaption of two stories by Oscar Wilde, scheduled to run March 29 - April 1 at Dog Story Theater.

The shows run the gamut between PG-13 and an R rating, with the horror musicals naturally being rated R.

"I'd say the lowest we've gotten is PG,” says Shindlbeck.

Wilde Tales will be one such show. Shindlbeck notes that the company is “always very forward in their advertising as to content."

In addition to Wilde Tales, The Stark Turn Player add A Terrible Memory, a new play by local playwright Cordello Jordan,  to their full 2012 lineup as well as PSYCHO: The Musical for Halloween. They are also toying with new concepts, such as creating works incorporating modern and ballroom dance.

Quillin describes Grand Rapids’ theatre scene as more diverse than cities of comparable size in Michigan, but where does Stark Turn fit in?

Quillin answers, "I think every theater in Grand Rapids has its audience. Grand Rapids Community Theater has one audience, and they have 750 seats to fill. That makes a big difference [as to] what you can put on the stage. So, they are going to do standards in the repertoire. They have found that even Shakespeare doesn't fill 750 seats, so they don't really do it very much. Actors’ Theater call themselves the Off-Broadway of GR. They do things that stretch they limits, with an Off-Broadway kind of context."

This is why they consider themselves the Off-Off Broadway of Grand Rapids. She further explains that Dog Story, with 50-60 seats, is helpful in accommodating their niche.

"Some people into theater go to everything,” says Quillin. "I go to everything. So, we are doing different things that are going to expand your mind in a different way. A new playwright or some sort of work you would not normally see on the stage is going to get produced. There may only be a handful -- 60 people a night -- who are interested in seeing that, but that's what we can afford."

Much of Quillin's viewpoint is informed by her experiences in theater in the Detroit Metro area, where she is originally from.

"Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state,” she says. “We have more community, semi-professional and profession theater than anywhere else. I am originally from the East side of the state, and community theater there was very rudimentary when I was there. It is just now starting to kind of keep up with Grand Rapids."

Local playwright Randy Wyatt, who runs the theater program at Aquinas College, is quite positive about Stark Turn and Dog Story Theater. In 2010, they produced his play, MINT, for a small, but appreciative audience at Dog Story Theater.

"I think Dog Story, [as] a venue, has enabled an explosion of new work and experimental forms in GR," says Wyatt. “Stark Turn. in particular. has taken that and run with it. Small theatre venues and companies like this are the earmark of a town growing up, in my opinion."

The group’s stated mission, as posted on their website, is to provide a professional, nonprofit theatre company in the Greater Grand Rapids area of Michigan which offers paid training for students and community members interested in pursuing the theatre arts as a career through various multi-styled performances and studio programs throughout the year.

Many of the students involved come from the board member's alma mater, Grand Valley State University. Stark Turn endeavors to allow students to be more independent in professional theater, giving the students the kind of experience they would not necessarily receive in an academic setting. Their efforts have been repaid.

"Grand Valley has helped us out a lot,” Stark says. "They donated costumes and fabric in the early days. Now we are more independent, and stand on our own feet."

But the company has been fulfilling in other ways, too.

"My passion is theater and I like theater that pushes boundaries,” Stark says. “It's powerful and can make an impact. And to have a team by my side, to have the opportunity to do that, is wonderful."

The Stark Turn Players are holding auditions for the 2012 season Sun., Feb. 12 and Monday Feb. 13 at Plaza Towers. Details can be found on their website.

Joseph Charles McIntosh is a local poet and an original cast member of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque. He was also a cabdriver in Grand Rapids for 12 years.
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