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It’s a conversation heard countless times in theaters everywhere: Two eager, young actors are talking backstage when one says to the other, “Wouldn’t it be fun to start our own theater?”
Most don’t, of course. But on April 17, co-founders Jay Harnish, 30, and Josh Fremer, 27, will defy the odds when their long-planned Dog Story Theater debuts in Grand Rapids with Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story.”
“We’re filling a niche,” explained Harnish, who serves as the theater’s managing director.
And that’s true: Dog Story Theater will become one of only a handful of professional theaters in the Southwest Michigan community when it opens its doors later this week. Its uniqueness doesn’t stop there, however.
“With our theater company, you’ll see a lot of new works, a lot of new ways of staging and a lot of works that are not necessarily performed in the U.S. a lot,” Harnish said. “We’ve got seven community theaters here, and THEY can all do ‘Oklahoma’ if they want.”
It’s not that the founders have anything against musicals. A musician himself, Harnish played bass with the Chicago bands Orson’s Well and Exit 68 and is currently working on his third album. But Dog Story Theater was conceived to appeal to a younger, movie-going audience. “Certain things we do are a little bit different,” he said. “We don’t do a pre-curtain speech; we actually run movie-style previews of coming events. So the ‘turn your cell phone off and please be quiet’ speech will happen just like at the movies. We even have a little Flash-animated Dog Story symbol that’s projected before (the show).”
Ticket prices will also be set as low as possible, Harnish said, “to help bring back the people that say they can’t go see theater because they can’t afford a ticket.”
Also carefully planned was how the word “theater” is spelled in the company’s name. “We’re trying to be not pretentious at all with this. We really want people to come and enjoy themselves.”
Unlike most start-up theaters, Dog Story Theater is actually two separate companies: a not-for-profit facility and a for-profit production company. So when Harnish and Fremer aren’t producing their own shows in their brand-new, black box performance space, professional touring groups will be brought in. Plus, the facility will be made available for use by local thespians. “We’re offering a place for people who have great ideas and want to work professionally. We’re working our best to create that opportunity for them, and help support others around the area.”
Harnish and Fremer met in the late 1990s when the two were cast in a local production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” “We never really hung out or anything,” Harnish recalled, and not long after, the two left the state – Harnish to Chicago, and Fremer to Austin. But both eventually returned home. “It was one of those random things when we got cast opposite each other in a show and started hanging out.”
The two played the villains in Heritage Theatre Group’s 2006 production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” and they clicked both onstage and off. “He’s an improv actor and I’ve been well-trained in Shakespeare, so (the director) just let us fly on stage. We had so much fun. It was a good connection. I couldn’t be paired with anyone else on stage better, I don’t think,” Harnish said.
“That’s when we came up with the idea that ‘A Tuna Christmas’ would be fun to do during the Christmas season.”
And prohibitively expensive, the fledgling producers soon discovered; affordable spaces to rent in Grand Rapids were impossible to find. But that only delayed the pair from launching their own theater company; starring together in a production of “The Zoo Story” with the Black Hills Theatre the following year kicked those plans into high gear. “One of the goals of doing the show was to see if we could pull other people besides the typical theater crowd to Grand Rapids – to bring people back to the theater,” Harnish revealed. “And it was a chance to do a show ourselves – and it worked. We played to packed houses. And we thought, ‘There IS a market out there for people that are looking for something new, something different.’ That’s when it clicked that we can do intimate theater in a small black box.”
The production also gave the new company its name. “In the middle of the play there’s a monologue called ‘The Story of Jerry and the Dog,’ and in rehearsals we called it ‘The Dog Story.’ So when we were trying to think of a name for our theater, we came up with Dog Story,” Harnish laughed.
The Black Box
Although the partners thought an old or abandoned church would be perfect for their theater, Harnish discovered an old, red schoolhouse in an industrial neighborhood near downtown Grand Rapids that intrigued him. Harnish, who was also looking to buy a house at the time, mentioned the building to a title company employee he met at his realtor’s office, “and the next thing you know, she put me in touch with the developer who owned it.”
The building was unsafe, however, and Third Coast Development refused to sell it. “But we’ll give you space in our new development,” Harnish was told.
The 1,200-square-foot, street-level, black-box theater will push the boundaries of traditional staging and lighting, Harnish said, with seating limited to no more than about 75. On the lower level, a smoke-free restaurant and bar (with 150 different beers on tap) is expected to open this fall, and plenty of on-site parking will be available. And the theater will operate a small bar for its patrons. “So if you want to grab a beer or have some popcorn, you’ll be able to do it.”
Outside the box
Although construction delays forced the two to postpone their original plans to open this past February with “Boston Marriage” – and Harnish doesn’t expect his new theater to be ready for another 60 days – the co-founders decided to go “outside the box” for their first production. So the two will again co-star in “The Zoo Story” – but staged in a temporary space a few miles away given them by the developer.
“It’s a personal favorite of mine,” Harnish said of Albee’s first play. “It’s an emotional thrill ride – but with kind of a disturbing end.”
The two-person drama, restaged by guest directors Rachel Finan and Amy McFadden, tells the story of Peter and Jerry, two men who meet on a park bench in New York City’s Central Park. “We’ll seat only about 50 people, and the audience will be only five feet away from the actors,” Harnish said. “It’s going to be as if the audience is watching the story unfold on the street – and that’s the way we like to perform it, with no fancy light cues or anything like that.”
Besides the show, patrons will be treated to a sneak peek at the theater’s future plans, including a preview of upcoming shows.
Recent events have all came together as a fluke, Harnish chuckled, when reflecting upon where life has taken him. “I ended up not buying a house, and ended up with a theater.”
‘The Zoo Story’
Dog Story Theater’s Outside-the-Box Series, 311 State St. SE, Grand Rapids. April 17-20 & 24-26. Tickets: $8. For information: 616-821-8955 or http://dogstorytheater.com