Sometimes it shocks me when audience members ask me "Now where do you get your actors from?" because so many of them expect theatres in this state to be shipping in actors from the "Big Name" towns: New York, L.A., etc... I love the please/impressed/surprised reaction you get from folks unfamiliar to the theatre when they find out that most of the great talent onstage here in Michigan actually comes from Michiganians (Michiganders? You pick...).
I wanted to stand up and cheer. There are so many pieces to offering truly local professional pieces: the vision, the scripts, the playwrights, the characters, the themes, and yes, the artists who participate.
In the director's notes of the BoarsHead program for Escanaba in Love, Guy Sanville talks about how the BoarsHead theater changed his life back in 1979. He wrote:
For the first time in history, Boarshead produced a new play that year. The world premiere of a new play written by a guy from Michigan, a new play written by a guy from Michigan, a new paly about people who live and die in Michigan. The play was called Time Steps and it was written by Michgian native Gus Kaikonnen.
It was the first time I sat in a theatre and saw a play about people I knew, in a place I knew...Before that experience, I thought that all good plays were about neurotic people who lived in New York or were written by dead Europeans."
There is such incredible power in theater that is truly local in all senses of the word. Michigan theater--by, for, and about the people who live here--is what BoarsHead's Escanaba and Williamston's Maidens, Mothers, and Crones is all about. It's what makes them so exciting and so popular. It's what makes theater relevant to audiences here in a way that nothing else can do.
The experience we have at the theater has to be different from the experience we have at home with our television or in a movie theater--otherwise theater will never survive.
It's not that there is anything wrong with the stuff coming out of Nylachi. It's just that we often can more easily reach the universal through something familiar. We get plenty of Nylachi through the mass media and there is even a danger that the emphasis on the coasts and Chicago contributes to the homogenization of our culture. But I'm starting to digress.
Just as I get excited about plays like those being shown right now at BoarsHead and Williamston, I also get excited when actors from Michigan are used. There is no doubt that we have a tremendous talent pool in this state, one that never ceases to impress me.
I'll confess that television stars don't do much for me. For one, I don't own a television. For two, I rarely see more than one or two movies a year. This means I'm not exactly your standard audience member as I'm far more familiar with Michigan performers than I am anyone out of Nylachi.
Paula Prentiss was nice, but I would have far rather seen Janet Haley--one of the finest actresses I've ever watched. I'm sure Meshach Taylor will be good, but will he be as good as Flint-based Cameron Knight?
I don't blame BoarsHead for bringing in outside stars. Their box office told them that was the right thing to do. They also do use a great deal of Michigan talent--and local star Carmen Decker is as big a draw as a Hollywood name. I would, though, challenge local theater goers. How can we complain about the economy in Michigan for the arts if we're eager to throw our dollars at people from outside the state? What are we saying when we turn out in huge numbers to see people we could catch on the set any day of the week, but stay away when local artists take the stage?
Forget about Dance with the Stars--go see Happendance and the Ruhala Center.
If we want art to thrive in our community, then we need to demand that local artists be given a place to practice their art. Then we need to show up and see what they do.