Dan Brooks is an English Professor at Aquinas College who teaches literature, writing, journalism, and grammar. He has also served on the board of Heritage Theatre in Grand Rapids, and has performed as an actor with several area community theatre organizations and at Aquinas. Dan earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University (SUNY) in New York. This essay is his own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
Two years ago I came out of theatre retirement and had the pleasure of performing in Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” at Aquinas College, directed by Randy Wyatt. After eight years away from the stage, I really enjoyed getting reacquainted with the theatre staff and getting to know the newer students in the program.
Then this past year I learned that some or these students have formed a new theatre company — but not just any theatre company. This was a group that intentionally did not even think about working up a show in its first six months; that chose not to charge admission for its last play; that was thrilled when the last performance of that play ended in dead silence instead of applause. Okay, I thought, I want to know more.
Enter the Alternative Acts Theatre Company, whose origins were inspired by a new drama major — Theatre for Social Change — at Aquinas. According to Eric Hand, founding member and former artistic director, Alternative Acts believes in “process vs. product-based theatre,” for the purpose of discussing social issues and effecting change.
While there is no formal connection between the company and Aquinas College, or its new major, the social aspect of its curriculum is what led to the creation of the company.
“Without the new major, this group would not exist,” says Hand.
According to Hand, the company came into existence on Inauguration Day in 2017, when he was feeling “politically feisty.” He put out a call on Facebook for anyone interested in using theatre to explore contemporary social issues. 40 people turned out for the initial meeting.
“Way too many people,” laughs Hand.
Currently membership is at about a dozen, made up of current Aquinas students and recent graduates, but is open to anyone interested.
As an educator and a local theater participant, I find the “process-based” theatre concept interesting — and refreshing. The more traditional approach focuses largely on the end product — the performance — executed by those both on and off the stage for the entertainment or edification of an audience. It’s difficult to ignore the practical issues like budgets, equipment, and how to get butts in seats, but intellectually actors and directors need time and space to explore questions and problems that arise in a script, especially when it addresses difficult social issues.
“The early stages for us,” says Hand, “were process-based gatherings where we could get together and do improv games and workshop ideas just so that we could learn about them, and not to put up a show.”
While eventually a show did materialize, it’s always beneficial to be able to explore questions and ideas without becoming too preoccupied with the end product. In my own experience I’ve seen answers, or at least possible solutions, emerge in the working out of issues only after actors have been able to live in a play over time.
Themes that Alternative Acts has explored so far include mental illness and the rising threat of school shootings. Its first production, “I’m So. . .,” was staged at Dog Story Theatre as part of its Lake Effect Fringe Festival in February 2018. It consisted of short vignettes written by company members on several mental health issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder, self-harm, and schizophrenia, framed within the construct of a college psychology course final project.
Its second production, a staged reading of “Columbinus,” commemorated the Columbine High School shooting on the 19th anniversary of the tragic event in April 2018.
In its most recent production, the 25-minute play “Lockdown,” by Douglas Craven, Alternative Acts continued the school shooting theme. The action of the play depicts high school students in the midst of an active shooter situation. Some non-traditional elements in the performance included staging it in a confined space, with the audience only a few feet from the actors. The play begins with cast members already in place on stage, in silence and in darkness.
“So that they felt like they were part of the lockdown,” says Tanner Kosten, another founding member and new artistic director of the company.
This kind of a device has a very distinct impression on how the audience enters the fictional world of the play. I remember in our 2004 production of “Our Town,” Aquinas’ first in the new Performing Arts Center, when director Anthony Guest had the entire cast on stage and sitting in their “cemetery” chairs staring at the audience for a full 20 minutes before the play started. It really sets a tone.
With “Lockdown, “It was very intentionally claustrophobic,” says Hand. The idea was for the audience “to be confronted with a lack of safety” more realistically than in traditional theatre. The play also incorporates jarring sound effects to simulate the situation, and ends again in silence — to accent the uncertainty about whether the incident is actually over.
Company members thought they had achieved their goal of depicting the confusion and desperation of the scene at the end the last performance — when nothing happened.
“The best moment for the cast was the night the lights came on and we didn’t get any applause,” says Kosten. “When the lights came on, the audience was just silent as we left the room, and just needed that moment to decompress with what they had just seen.”
Instead of buying tickets for this show, audience members were asked to make a free-will donation to the Sandy Hook Promise, raising $350 for the cause.
Its unique approach shows great potential for Alternate Acts. Like any theatre company, it must also attend to the practical details of the “product” — the play, the audience, the tickets — but the process-based concept recognizes that if the members of the theatre company want to connect with community and have an impact on social change, they have to also spend the time educating themselves on the social issues they present to their audiences.
It all has to do with learning the issues, not just learning the lines of a script.