"Dog-tired" would be an especially fitting adjective for the members of Dog Story Theater's Board of Directors. The five of them, all unpaid volunteers, have been working beastly hours -- 17 per day spent painting walls, sweeping floors, hanging curtains, installing lights and generally ignoring their bodies' need for sleep -- all in order to fix up their theater's new location in time for the inaugural events held there the weekend of September 10 and 11.
Now found at 7 Jefferson Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, Dog Story Theater
, which has been a non-profit, alternative theatre venue since 2007, used to be located in a Bermuda Triangle of sorts out on the northwest side of the city. Formerly housed in a nondescript brick building at 1115 Taylor, the small, 70-seat black box theater failed to enjoy the benefits of being in the middle of any particular neighborhood, despite its "community" theater persona.
"No one happened upon us, that's for sure," says Joe Anderson, a full-time comedian, actor, producer and one of the five Dog Story Board members. "We didn't receive any foot traffic, and people who knew about us and were looking for us couldn't even find us."
Because of Dog Story's former almost-impossible-to-find location, Joe Anderson would often hear patrons remark: "Wow, this is Grand Rapids' best-kept secret." To which he would always reply: "Please, could you tell someone?"
Now, potentially, the theater will reap benefits from the "walkability" of downtown and the added draw of neighboring bars and diners.
Its extremely hushed reputation for high-quality, small-scale stage productions doesn't mean that Dog Story Theater was struggling to fill seats though. Actually, many of Dog Story's resident acts—such as Pop Scholars
, a long-form improvisational comedy troupe from Grand Rapids, and Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company
from Grand Haven—regularly sold out, even to the point of turning people away at the door because every square inch of floor space was occupied. Pop Scholars has frequently resorted to performing two shows per weekend evening to accommodate their large, improv-hungry crowds.
The need for a more visible space wasn't the only reason for Dog Story's relocation, according to Amy McFadden, a schoolteacher for Belding Area Schools and another one of Dog Story's Board Members. There was the "other reason."
"Our landlord didn't inform us that he had decided to lease out the bottom half of the building to Mixtape Café
, a live music venue, without soundproofing the lower unit," says McFadden.
"When they began having practice sessions below us, we literally couldn't hear each other speaking from feet away," says Anderson. "We couldn't operate anymore. We had to cancel a weekend of Pop Scholars and a weekend of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company."
Dog Story members aren't bitter about their move, however, but thrilled. The relocation will allow them to keep doing what they do, but allow them to do it better.
What Dog Story Theater does is provide a low-risk, highly affordable, flexible theater venue for new performers of all stripes. Dog Story has garnered a misleading reputation as a comedy club and only a comedy club -- possibly due to the notoriety of its weekly V.I.P. Improv Show, in which a local "celebrity" such as Mars Hill's Rob Bell or Chef Tommy Fitzgerald of Café Stella is interviewed and then improvisational hilarity ensues based on the interviewee's responses. But Dog Story is open and always looking for new performers or producers who need to a place to get started. In the past, Dog Story has provided the stage for any even that needs one including live music, stand-up comedy, serious drama, live music and film screenings. In the future, plans to use their new space for acting classes and improv lessons are in place.
"You can afford to make risks here," says Anderson. "With our low reservation costs, if you fill half the house, you'll make two-thirds of the ticket profits and we'll make one-third."
The case in point is one of Joe Anderson's comedy side-projects, The Don't We Boys. The Don't We Boys was a trio of improv comedians, including Anderson, wanting to try their hand at writing and performing their own sketch comedy. Because Dog Story was so affordable, The Don't We Boys were able to fine-tune their new act in front of a real audience and still make some capital, which they could used to enter regional and national comedy competitions.
"And our space is flexible," adds McFadden. "Because ours is a black box theater with no set stage or seating, we can arrange the space any way that suits the show—alley style, in-the-round, thrust, whatever. The main thing is that Dog Story is supportive of the clients here."
Andy Allen, one of the Pop Scholars comedians, can attest to Dog Story's encouragement.
"When we first started looking for a place to perform, we weren't looking for a home theatre, but we found one in Dog Story," says Allen. "The Dog Story people are supportive, affirming, accommodating and, perhaps best of all for start-up performers, low-cost. If something like 20 of your friends come out to see your show, you'll be able to cover your costs for the night."
Not only the most affordable option for clients looking to perform, Dog Story Theater is also the most affordable on the patron-end of things as well, with ticket prices usually in the $5 to $12 range, and never higher than $20.
The Dog Story Board Members hope that with the new location, their non-profit theater will be not only solvent, but also able to save some funds in the bank to help with future production costs.
"Oh yeah, and we'd like to buy some new chairs," says McFadden, rapping the hard aluminum seat beneath her.
The other Dog Story Board Members are Becki West, a grad student at Grand Valley State University; Bradley Briegel, owner and promoter of PowerDiva Productions; and Justin Paul Lawrence, General Books Manager for Calvin College's Campus Store.
Mitchell Tepstra writes, landscapes, and renovates houses in the Grand Rapids area.
Photos: Dog Story Theater
Photographs by Tim Motley