Actors’ Theatre hosts inclusive pop-up performances embracing "raw honesty" & "marginalized voices"

Trading the traditional stage and lights for an empty parking lot on Alpine Avenue Northwest, Grand Rapids’ Actors’ Theatre has been bringing musical numbers to audiences sprawled across the pavement on lawn chairs. The Theatre troupe curated a series of show titled “Home,” “Queer Stories” and “Community,” featuring an empowering collection of songs from various musicals and plays. 

“I do not know how to effectively articulate the importance for all of us — each and everyone of us — to see our lived experiences mirrored onstage," says Kyle Los, executive director of the Theatre. "It allows us to feel known, better understood, inspired, connected.” 

“Actors' Theatre's mission is to be producing thought-provoking theater that impacts social change. When we can safely exist and thrive as who we are, that is social change. We all, then, can participate in transforming our culture, our systems, our communities, through all of our beautiful diversity. I cannot imagine a better way to return to storytelling,” he says.

With a stage at the corner of a nondescript building and a backing band tucked behind an open garage door, the troupe led the audience through a musical journey for the final production called “Queer Stories.” Songs ranged from stories about love and race to embracing differences and individuality. 

The theater series, which ran from July 29 through July 31, was realized as a way to creatively resume live performances in a safe environment amid the global pandemic. Hosting outdoor performances provided the ability to safely socially distance. The creative process for the productions was unique in that the directors met individually with each performer during the planning process to infuse elements of their own stories into the show. 

“Normally, a staged play or musical has a script and an actor needs to fill a role as it is described in that script. In this case, the directors sat with each performer and discussed the show's theme and asked how the performer connects with that theme. What words, feelings, songs, stories, poems, etc. might come to mind. The actors were immediately helping to craft a show based upon their personal experiences,” says Los. 

“These brave performers did not use their experiences to tell others' stories; they used their experiences to tell their own stories. Their voices, their experiences, their lives, onstage. What an incredible experience that was for everyone involved! And it makes an incredible difference from the audience's perspective too.”

The nature of these pop-up productions also brought with it some challenges. Actors were given one run through with the musical director and then one rehearsal the day of the show with the entire cast after preparing their material individually. 

“Being onstage, telling a story for an audience who also hadn’t experienced live theatre for so long was energizing and life-giving! The most impactful moments for me really happened in rehearsal, making some of the first in-person human connections in a long time,” says performer Jessica Luiz, who sang “Patterns” and “The Story Goes On” by composers Maltby and Shire.

“Being outside in the summer has its challenges of course, with weather and the elements. Our production team was incredible though and problem solved so much so the actors were able to focus on the story,” she says.

Sound was another wild-card since there are few acoustic surfaces outdoors and the performance is at the whim of passing automobiles and sirens. Fortunately, distractions were few on the final night of production and the audience was acutely engaged. 

“I thought everything went really well. I felt it was a very organic space. It didn't feel contrived and that people had to figure out how they were going to place themselves in that moment. I think it was something that happened very organically and that the end product turned out very well,” says Kristen Moss, one of the performers. Moss sang “Home” from "The Wiz" and “I’m Here” from "The Color Purple."

Courtesy Kristina Bird, Bird + Bird Studio

“These were stories that needed to be told. It was just super organic, super authentic and much needed. I hope that it left everyone feeling a larger sense of community,” she says.

Another goal of the production, Los says, was to make the performances as accessible as possible. The Theatre aimed to keep costs low. Tickets were listed for $15 but also came with a pay-what-you-can option that allowed attendees to select a dollar amount or forgo the cost altogether. 

The parking lot space was provided by John S. Hyatt and Associates, Inc., a theatrical and lighting provider based in West Michigan. Mary Hyatt (and her late husband John) have worked with the Theatre since its inception in 1980. The partnership for the performances allowed the Theatre to maintain a low cost of production as well as have a location to store equipment. 

Los says that there are not currently any more performances scheduled but that the stage will remain intact for the time being in case anything additional is planned. 
“As a theatrical platform for marginalized voices, beliefs, identities, etc., we needed to offer space for these same lived experiences to be heard, seen and felt," he says. "And not just the traumatic experiences; it's the joy of life as well. The breadth of the human experience. So, the process for these shows has been unique in the focus on equity, inclusion and collaboration.”

“The raw honesty existing onstage is palpable and part of the power of in-person performance that simply cannot be replicated in the same way on screen," Los says. "After a year of only witnessing digital storytelling, this was exactly what we needed. It's all about the community coming together to share, hear and experience powerful stories together.”

About Enrique Olmos: Enrique is a freelance writer, musician, and photographer living in Grand Rapids. When he’s not writing for Rapid Growth Media, he writes about music for Local Spins, plays keys with Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery, and drinks copious amounts of espresso. 
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