By Amy J. Parrent
"You have to love yourself. It's our prayer everyone can hear that." That is University of Detroit Mercy's Greg Grobis describing the theme of the award-winning play "The Whale," a co-production of UDM's Theatre Company and Ferndale's Ringwald Theatre. But in a way, it's also the mantra of every actor.
An actor is often limited – and frustrated – by the types of roles they can play. But the goal of UDM's theater program has always been to teach its students how to work within that restriction.
If you're 22, there's not much chance a Broadway show will cast you as a 50- or 70-year old. So the Theatre Company approach is to cast students within their age range and life experiences.
"When you graduate, that's how you're going to get hired," said Grobis, who is assistant professor of performing arts and director of marketing and management for the theater company.
To accommodate that casting method, UDM also uses age-appropriate professional actors in most company productions. Working with older pros enriches the students' experiences in other ways.
"Students have to perform at levels of professionals, to meet expectations that are raised," said Grobis. "And this also grows their professional network."
This season a new course has been charted that takes students even farther out into the world of professional theater. In addition to working with the Ringwald, later this season the company will co-produce the Michigan premiere of "Low Hanging Fruit" with Matrix Theatre Company at Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit. The powerful play about female vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is a provocative piece heightening awareness of PTSD.
"What Matrix does fits with the social justice mission of UD Mercy," said Grobis. "Their mission is practically a rewording of UDM's.
"We're not only partnering with pros who come to our theater, we're going to their spaces," he continued. "It's providing more experience for more students, and getting out of the limitations of performance spaces and venues we've been in."
Ringwald artistic director Joe Bailey, who also stars in "The Whale," said, "Lately we've been talking more about getting into educational outreach. I think (The Ringwald and UDM) can do things for each other that we didn't do previously. And their audience base won't have to travel far (to The Ringwald)."
The new approach also means students experience a more professional run of several weekends. "In having to come back a third and then a fourth weekend, we'll be seeing how the growth of character (interpretation) continues, and how it becomes consistent," said Grobis, who is directing "The Whale."
It also provides more opportunities for the student crew who can be rotated in and out.
In addition the approach also develops professional mentoring. For instance, The Ringwald's executive director, Jamie Warrow, who costars in "The Whale," is also serving as a mentor/acting coach to the UDM students. Grobis can see the effect the veteran pros have on students.
"It's incredible to have someone come in, say the same thing you've been saying for two years – and suddenly the students get it," he said. "It's an awesome joy to work with professionals, doing work that's not standard. It's cool that UDM has always done that."
"The Whale" of this show is a 600-pound gay man from Idaho named Charlie. His health failing, and having lost his husband to a tragic death, he's reaching out for love and acceptance from others, including an estranged daughter.
"It's about a man that is lost in anxiety, and his love for other people," Grobis said. "Mix into it LGBT issues – being gay, but having religious institutions (judging) you. But whether you're gay or straight or bi, the whole spectrum, whether you're Democrat or Republican – you're going to see humanity in this. In this intimate space, the audience will be right there with the character processing what's going on."
The producers are also actively encouraging informal after-show gatherings at local Ferndale establishments to discuss the play or just meet people. (Several restaurants, including Dino's Lounge, The Emory and The Loving Touch, are offering discounts to anyone who produces a ticket for that night's production.)
Other efforts to make the play-going accessible have included reaching out to Affirmations and the Ruth Ellis Center, and offering special theater industry night tickets. Grobis joked that the theater's motto is "Fill it early and fill it often."
He described the writing of playwright Samuel D. Hunter – a MacArthur Fellow – as phenomenal. "When I read this, I instantly knew this was a show I wanted to do," Grobis said.
The script, with callbacks to "Moby Dick" and the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, also dovetails with The Ringwald's theme this year, a Season of Classics.
For Bailey's extremely obese character, costume designer Melinda Pacha has created what Grobis describes as a "state-of-the-art fat suit," which includes an internal cooling packet.
Grobis said the title character is a daunting role – "not just the weight of the role, but (imagining) how do you get to be 600 pounds?"
Bailey said, "I'm a bigger fellow anyway. But this is going to double the size of me. The way it's written I don't move a lot onstage. At first I thought, 'Oh cool, I'm not going to have to do a lot of blocking.' But there's also a challenge of not being able to use my body. It adds a whole other layer to everything."
And how does Bailey illuminate the mind of a despondent man? "I can't be Debbie Downer for 90 minutes, that's not interesting," he said. "I'd just disappear in the couch. I'm not just seeing him as fat, depressed. Everybody has love in them, hope. To engage all those qualities is the task with which I have been given."
The production also includes noted actress Linda Rabin Hammell, Greg Ettleman and Savanah Wright.
Grobis said there is humor in the play. But the show has made him cry at rehearsals, and he was only half-joking when he said he'd like a sponsor for selling tissues in the lobby.
"It's a tear jerker," he said. "I connect personally. What do we do (with tragedies)? Do we just give up? There is hope if you look for the light. You're worthy of love.
"That's what the script explores," Grobis said. "When you see this, you see the love everyone has for him that he doesn't see, although he has love for everyone else. When the play is over we want you to go call someone and tell them you love them."
UDM Theatre Company and The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24
3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25
8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26
$25 adult; $22 senior, UDM staff and faculty; $10 student (with ID)