I use the term "ecosystem" a lot when I talk about live theater and the theater community, though another metaphor I think would be apt is that of a human body.
Different theater organizations are like different body parts. There are those organs that we think are vital and others that seem less so. However, even though we can survive without a gall bladder or tonsils, they do serve a purpose in our body and we have them for a reason. So it is with different theatrical organizations. I tend to think that we need them all, even if sometimes we don't like their function or what they produce. Whenever we lose one, the entire community suffers even while it continues to survive. You can even undergo transplants of major organs, though that doesn't mean you don't mourn what you had before or run the risk of rejecting the new one.
Now, I am not so impolitic as to try to assign particular organs or functions to specific groups--I'll let you take the metaphor where you will. What I will do is explain why I think each group we have in town is vital to the community and plays an important role that is uniquely its own. Yes, there is some duplication of effort, but that's healthy and doesn't detract from the otherwise unique function the group serves. (At the risk of getting myself in trouble because I haven't looked up the dates, I'm going to try to go in the order that the organization has been around. There are a few that probably need to be switched. Also, I'm not even beginning to touch on the equally important high school theater programs or the outlying community groups such as Holt, Vermontville, or Mason.)
Lansing Civic Players: There are two things that LCP does very, very well: One, they bring people into theater and let people who have never been on stage before get the chance to perform. This creates value to the community as it helps people to connect to each other and to the place where they live. Two, they put on family shows that appeal to their audience--an audience that is always going to be there. They do many other things well--despite not having a permanent performance space, they consistently put on a full season; they have an excellent costume shop; they have a structure that supports the shows that they put on; and they have a long, rich history.
Michigan State University: MSU's mission is very specific; it provides students with the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the classroom and to experiment with ideas and technique. It is usually far more important that these shows take risks than that they are entertaining. They are the laboratory in which students try to create good theater and the skills to help create good theater for the rest of their careers.
Summer Circle: Unlike MSU's regular season, Summer Circle is less about risk-taking and more about providing enjoyable entertainment to the community. This is where the university gives back with its free, outdoor programming. It also provides paying work for mostly student actors.
BoarsHead: As the oldest resident professional theater company in mid-Michigan, BoarsHead is one of those cultural cornerstones that helps make a name for theater in Lansing. They perform the top-of-the-line work with high production values that the vast majority of the community associates with live theater. They contribute to the local economy and provide paying work for professional artists. They help to make it possible to choose art as a profession, not just an avocation or hobby. Of late, they've also been recruiting celebrities to come to perform here.
Riverwalk: When Riverwalk first broke away from LCP, it was because they wanted to do more classical work. Fifty years later, they still do an excellent job of providing a varied season that includes classics, old favorites, newer show, and even the edgier black box shows. They're also one of the few organizations to have their own space, a luxury that gives them a great deal of freedom to take risks and to put on a great number of shows.
Lansing Community College: Like MSU, the mission of LCC is very specific. The themes of the studio program dictate what type of shows they do and it is important that as many students are given opportunities to perform as possible. This LCC does very well, offering opportunities to work on voice, movement, classical, realism, and Shakespeare. Students get to perform in a broad range of show types, preparing them for future study or performance.
All-of-Us Express: Evelyn Weymouth, the founder of All-of-Us Express is an amazing woman. What she developed for this organization has created a place for thousands of children to participate in theater. Her amazing organizational skills put a structure in place where children get a chance to perform, work backstage, delve into the administrative side of theater, and to have their lives enriched by theater. It's an amazing organization that puts on a full season of large cast shows every year--shows that are done by and for children.
Wharton: Wharton Center is the organization that brings the touring groups to Lansing. Often known as a commercial theater, Wharton opens Lansing to what is going on in the rest of the world. Shows from Broadway and off-Broadway come through every year. They draw in huge crowds who are willing to pay big ticket dollars because they are going to be entertained with spectacle and shows that are part of the national culture and conversation.
Sunsets with Shakespeare: While this group didn't have a season this year, I have not yet heard that they are extinct. They were the only group providing free, outdoor Shakespeare in the area and during the year they produced shows that often had a distinct political flavor.
Icarus Falling: Icarus Falling fills a niche that no other group does. They produce a great deal of locally-written New Works and produce shows that are experimental in structure. They're willing to do shows that no one had heard of and often those that push the audience out of its comfort zone.
Peppermint Creek: Peppermint Creek does an excellent job of finding those socially relevant new shows that are hot currency. They're very good at searching out the best of modern plays and then committing to very high production values that consistently deliver powerful shows.
Starlight Dinner Theatre: Starlight Theatre is another group that has found a niche and is fulfilling the need of its market segment. They put on highly entertaining shows and bring in groups that want a social element to their theatrical experience. The shows are usually fun or sweet and deliver a feel-good experience to an appreciative audience.
Ruhala Performing Arts Center: Ruhala Center (formerly The Gate) provides intensive training for students who want a career on Broadway. Often likened to Olympic preparation, the students who perform here undergo rigorous rehearsals and perform shows that are specially selected to play to their strengths and needs.
Ledges Playhouse: The successor to Spotlight, the Ledges Playhouse is bringing popular shows to the Grand Ledge community. The Barn in Fitzgerald Park where they perform is a historic building which has seen shows for many a year. They also perform occasional non-summer shows in Lansing.
Williamston Theatre: The newest professional theater, Williamston was founded by four theater professionals who had worked for a number of years with Purple Rose. They put on delightful shows that are focused on the Midwest. They have a strong awareness of community and address issues that make theater relevant to people who live here.
Mid-Michigan Family Theatre: An organization that has grown out of Lansing Civic Players and MSU, Bill Gordon has founded a theater company that offers children a chance to perform in smaller shows than what All-of-Us Express offers. They also tend to perform more contemporary, smaller cast shows.
Yes, we have a lot of theater in the Lansing area (and yes, I know I've left people out!), but each group truly has a unique value. They all have their own contributions that make the area a fantastic place to live.