Theater Profile: Williamston Theatre
New theater trumps economy with laughs
With risers still to be installed and a light grid yet to be hung, workers are busily transforming a former furniture store in downtown Williamston into Michigan’s newest professional theater. Although some might think it’s insane to start such a venture at a time when many – if not most – of the older, more established theaters are struggling to fill their seats, Tony Caselli disagrees. In fact, Williamston Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director believes now is the best time to launch the state’s newest professional, non-profit theater company.
“When everything is going slowly economically, people want a place to go and get away,” Caselli told Curtain Calls last week. “So I want to bring people in, make them laugh, pull the rug out from under them, make them cry and then send them home thinking about their families and the choices they make.”
“Hopefully if we build it, they will come!”
Filling the theater’s 85 seats shouldn’t be a problem – at least not initially – as many in the community have already embraced the project. “We’ve gotten a ton of responses from the people of Williamston, as well as from the businesses. The Red Cedar Grill, one of the biggest restaurants in town, immediately came on board donating food for some of our events. The True Value Hardware across the street has been so helpful as we try to turn this storefront into a theater. The Chamber of Commerce and the whole City Council have been really, really, welcoming. And the mayor is a big supporter of ours.”
So, too, is local businessman Steve Zynda, owner of Midwest Bridge Co. and Cardinal Fabricating, who is paying the building’s lease for a year.
But most surprising – and encouraging – has been the turnout at the theater’s various staged readings and open houses. While a few have attracted 60 curious souls, others have brought in over a hundred. “The first open house we scheduled for two hours, and it ended up running over three, and we had like 140 people come,” Caselli recalled. “Earlier in the day we were thinking, ‘Geez, I hope 10 or 12 people show up, otherwise this is gonna suck.’ And so we opened the doors and were just blown away. At the end of the day we looked at each other and went, ‘My God! We just might be able to do this!'”
One part inspiration and one part coincidental convergence, the idea to start their own theater was already germinating in the minds of Caselli and actor/co-founder John Lepard when Caselli received word that his position as associate artistic director of the Purple Rose Theatre Company was to be eliminated due to the economy. And at about the same time, Lansing’s BoarsHead Theater had let it be known that it was considering leaving the state capitol. So, according to Caselli, Williamston’s mayor contacted the BoarsHead and expressed interest in having it move to his city. “Ultimately, the BoarsHead decided to stay in Lansing, but what that did was get a bunch of people excited about the idea of having a professional theater in their town.”
So Williamston resident Lepard met with the mayor, and after careful research and consideration, the Williamston Theatre was born under the leadership of Caselli, Executive Director Lepard, Managing Director Christine Purchis and Development Director Emily Sutton-Smith.
It’s a prospect with great potential, the artistic director believes – for both the theater and the local community. “Williamston is very much the same way Chelsea was just before the Purple Rose came in. It’s a great downtown; people love to come here, but economically, there’s still some boarded-up windows – some storefronts that could be full but aren’t. We saw the same sort of opportunity to do with a small town like this that the Purple Rose did with Chelsea.”
With one of those empty downtown storefronts now their home, work is underway to get ready for their early June opening.
“I love our building, but it’s an older building,” Caselli noted. “We have a picture on the wall of it in 1895, and it’s clearly been there for a little while. But for us it’s nearly perfect.”
Modifying the structure into a workable theater has been a challenge, however. “I now know more about being a general contractor than I ever want to know,” he laughed.
For its inaugural endeavor, the award-winning Caselli will direct the bittersweet comedy, “Additional Particulars,” a funny and moving play about the lives of four employees who work at a Save-A-Bundle Discount Store. The first act focuses on the budding romance between a reserved, but enthusiastic sales clerk and her mild-mannered boss, while the second act examines the attitudes of two maintenance workers who have very different outlooks regarding the paths they’ve taken.
“It’s a very Midwestern play,” Caselli said. “It’s one of those plays that if you grew up in the Midwest, you’ll recognize everyone in it. And that’s one of the things I love about it.”
Several names and faces familiar to local audiences are helping launch the theater, including actors Dennis North, Aaron Moore and Brian Thibault, as well as stage manager Michelle DiDomenico and lighting designer Dan Walker.
A staged reading of the script several months ago was well received, Caselli said. But will it generate enough heat to pull in audiences for a six-week run? “That’s one of the things we’re anxious to see – how long will we be able to sustain a run out here.”
Ultimately, Caselli hopes his company will one day be as highly regarded both nationally and within Michigan as are the bigger Equity theaters in the state. “I’d love for people to be able to say regularly, ‘Let’s see what’s going on at the Williamston Theatre’ because of our quality of work. That’s what we’re looking for.”
The Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam in downtown Williamston, will open its doors June 8 with a preview performance of its premiere production, “Additional Particulars.” Previews will continue June 9, 10, 11 and 15, with opening night scheduled for Friday, June 16. Performances will continue every Thursday through Sunday through July 16. Preview tickets are $15; regular prices are $18-$22. For tickets or additional information, call the theater at 517-655-7469 or log on to http://www.williamstontheatre.org.