Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Round-up of Changes in Lansing Theater

I've been writing a lot lately, just not blogging very much. There is definitely a lot going on in our theater community, and not just because the new fall season has started. In the past several months, we've witnessed some pretty major changes:

(And I was about to use a bulleted list, but that screws with some people's readers, so I'll number the list and beg your pardon for the lack of pretty formatting.)

1. Kristine Thatcher's contract as Artistic Director was not renewed at BoarsHead.
2. Shakespeare on the Grand replaced Sunsets with Shakespeare as the summer outdoor Shakespeare company. Led by Lindsay Palinsky, Rita Deibler, and Tod Humphrey, they are associated with the Lansing Civic Players.
3. Len Kluge died.
4. Bob Gras died.
5. Lansing Civic Players announced that it was canceling its mainstage season and launching an Underground LCP Black Box season while they regroup and raise money.
6. The Renegade Festival in Old Town continued to grow by leaps and bounds and was an exciting event this summer.
7. Merrill Wyble died.
8. Paul Riopelle was hired as BoarsHead's interim artistic associate.
9. All-of-Us Express Children's Theater merged with the City of East Lansing and is moving into the Hannah Center.
10. John Neville-Andrews resigned as the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.
11. Kristine Thatcher announced the formation of a new professional theater company.

Things are changing fast around here. It's exciting times for the theater community.

I'm hoping in the next week or so to blog about a wonderful conversation I had with Jeffrey Sweet about theater and theater journalism. I also want to get a book he recommended and possibly share things from there.

In the mean time, if you're looking for theater this weekend, here are some of your options:

  • An Evening with Mark Twain at the Ledges Playhouse, Capital TheaterWorks
  • Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, Creole Gallery, Peppermint Creek Theatre Company
  • Beau Jest, BoarsHead
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pasant Theater, Michigan State University
  • 70 Scenes from Halloween, 168 Black Box Theater, Gannon Building, Lansing Community College
  • LCP Underground Grand Opening, LCP Firehouse (Reservations required--Saturday only)
I'll try to remember to come back tomorrow and stick in links for the Beau Jest review, the Rocky Horror picture show and 70 Scenes preview. Some of the other stories are no longer available online.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

R.I.P. Merrill Wyble

Merrill's obit is in today's paper here. It had to be cut far more than Bob's did, so I'll put the whole thing here. Granted, with the shrinking news hole, I'm glad they were able to get as much as they were in the print version of the newspaper.

On Aug. 29, the Lansing theater community lost another of its long-time members, the third since the beginning of July.

Merrill Wyble, age 80, died Saturday evening of complications arising from a colon infection. While he’d been ill for several weeks, he was recuperating and had been expected to be released from the hospital when he had to have an emergency colonoscopy Aug. 28.

Wyble was preceded in death by Spotlight founder, director, and theater critic Len Kluge on July 1 and director, actor, and teacher Robert Gras on Aug. 20.

Wyble, who retired in 1991 from the law firm, Church, Wyble, Kritselis & Robinson, PC, where he was a senior partner, was an active volunteer for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Community Theater Association of Michigan (CTAM), and local theaters. Wyble was a prolific actor who appeared on stages at Lansing Civic Players, Riverwalk, BoarsHead, and Peppermint Creek. His final performance was in Riverwalk’s “Born Yesterday,” in the fall of 2008.

Winifred Olds, who along with her husband Wes and Betty White breakfasted with Wyble every Saturday, said that Wyble had slowed down a little in the past couple years.

“He decided to do smaller parts and to stick close to local theater—Riverwalk and LCP,” said Olds, whose husband Wes had a room at the hospital next to Wyble during his final illness. “We always went to Starlight Dinner Theater together—Merrill, Wes, Betty, and I. We always sat at the same tables so we could talk about the plays.”

Starlight’s Artistic Director, Linda Granger, said that while Wyble was skeptical about the viability of a dinner theater, he came to support it with his active patronage.

“What to me is most memorable about Merrill is that he spoke his mind,” Granger said. “I admire that in people and he was also the first to admit if he was wrong. He told me that my dinner theater would never make it and sent me a nice email some time later saying more or less, ‘I was wrong.’ When Judy Such, his girlfriend, was alive, they attended every single play in the Lansing area. After Judy passed away, Merrill kept going to all the local theaters. He was a regular customer at Starlight and I would see him at LCP or taking tickets at Riverwalk.”

Wyble’s volunteer contributions were many. He served several years on the board of LCP, participated in the Worship Arts team at Good Shepherd, and served on the board and several committees for CTAM.

“He was a good lawyer,” Olds said. “There was a time when he served on the board of LCP that a letter on his letterhead sometimes moved mountains.”

With CTAM, Wyble and his partner of many years, Judy Such, helped to organize retreats at Boyne Mountain and traveled around the state as adjudicators to help develop other community theaters.

“Community theater was his great passion outside of his profession,” CTAM board member Joanne Berry said. “He had a wit and charm about him and a genuine concern for people that drew others to him. He tackled many jobs having to do with community theater with great gusto. You could always depend on him to get done whatever had to be done for the organization.”

Berry said she is certain that people will be remembering and toasting Wyble at their Cadillac conference in late September.

Pastor Roger Straub said Wyble had been attending Good Shepherd for the past 20 years.

“He was very active in a number of areas in our church,” said Straub. “One of the things he brought to us was his interest in theater. He was an active part in the Worship Arts Group, whose purpose was as a group to enhance worship in a number of creative ways.”

Wyble’s eldest son, Rick Wyble, spent much of the last several months with his father. He said his father caught a cold at one of the nursing homes where he volunteered and it attacked his colon.

“He got through the first bout, but when it came back, he was too weak to handle it and became resistant to the antibiotics they were giving him,” Rick Wyble said.

He said that during the past few months in the hospital, he got to hear stories from his father about when he served in the army in Germany and first passed the bar exam. Rick is the oldest of six children and three step-children. Merrill Wyble is also survived by 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Good Shepherd with visitation an hour before.

“He was very specific on how he wanted it done,” Rick Wyble said. “He left us a letter of what he expects and how it will be done. There was one line in there that, ‘There will be no wailing or gnashing of teeth. It should be a joyous occasion.’”

Rick Wyble expects there will be a large turnout at the service as his father had made friends in many different circles.

“That’s one of the things he enjoyed most after he retired,” Rick Wyble said. “He was able to do everything. It gave him time to social network. He was very active at church, at theater. He got involved in mall walking. He has a circle of friends there, a circle of friends at theater, a circle of friends form his office, another for his family, and another from church.”

As the news spread of Wyble’s death, members of the arts community began their mourning and sharing memories.

“He will be greatly missed,” said Granger. “It saddens me that in the past two months we have lost three men who have been so pivotal in building and sustaining community theaters in the Lansing area.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

R.I.P. Bob Gras

While writing obits were one of my first assignments in journalism back when I was still in junior high and high school, it isn't that common for an arts writer to have to write them. Nor was it common for me to know the people about whom I was writing.

In the past several weeks we've lost two giant in local theater: Bob Gras and Merrill Wyble. I knew, respected, had worked with, and liked both of them. Writing not a tribute, but a feature obituary for them was tougher than I thought it would be.

The obit on Bob Gras appeared last week here. Merrill's obit will appear later this week.

I'm going to once again take advantage of my blog to "publish" that which had to be cut because of space. The cuts are from various points in the story--not from all one place, so I'm just going to reprint the whole thing here.

On Aug. 19, the Lansing theater community lost one of its stalwart supporters and creative drivers.

Robert Gras, age 69, died from complications of acute leukemia after being on life support for more than a month. A retired Eaton Rapids Public Schools English and drama teacher, Gras is survived by wife Linda, children Robert Gras and Cassandra Gras, and two grandchildren.

Gras performed for community theaters throughout the Lansing area and led the drama program in Eaton Rapids schools. He was a driving force behind Riverwalk’s Black Box theater. In 2009, he performed in the final Black Box production at the Creole, “Substance of Fire,” for which he won a Best Lead Actor Thespie from the Lansing State Journal and a Best Lead Actor Pulsar from the City Pulse.

“Bob hadn’t been onstage all that much in the last few years because of his back condition,” said Bill Helder, the director of Substance of Fire. “Seeing what a good actor he is reminded people of some of the earlier things he had done. Bob really could do everything. Before he developed his back problems, he could design sets and build them. He was a super director and was wonderful to be on stage with.”

Former students Terry Jones and Wendy Fall both spoke highly of his teaching and how he inspired them.

Jones first met Gras 38 years ago in 7th grade when his teacher introduced them. Gras promptly cast him in a high school production.

“In the years after that, we formed quite a bond,” Jones said. “I was cast in every show that he did. I always got the lead if it was a non-musical. If it was a musical, I got the dominant non-singing role.”

Then during Jones’ senior year, Gras overruled the music teacher and cast Jones as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Jones lost contact with Gras until 1990, when he was cast as the title character in the first show that Gras directed at Riverwalk—Tartuffe.

“He went from teacher to mentor to friend,” Jones said. “He was a good guy. He knew his stuff.”

Fall said she still benefits from the motto Gras constantly repeated in his English classes: “Eschew obfuscation.”

“He wanted us to be precise,” Fall said, saying he was vigilant about removing all unnecessary words from their essays. She also said that he lit a passion for Shakespeare and great literature in his students. “He would get up and read it in his big booming voice with all his theatrical talent. It was incredible. When you’re a high school student, Shakespeare doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when he read it and brought the text to life for us, it was never the same. That was his particular talent.”

Playwright Eileen O’Leary described how Gras championed her new work, fighting to get its world premiere launched at Lansing Civic Players in 1999.
She had sent Gras a copy of her play “The Siege of Ennis.” He read it and wanted to direct it. At first, the LCP board resisted, saying that the financial risk of a new work by a new playwright was too great.

“Bob Gras told them that if they didn’t let him direct ‘The Siege of Ennis,’ he wasn’t going to direct any other play,” O’Leary said. “So they relented and put it on. I had never had anyone do anything like that for me before. He championed it and he put his neck out for it.”

O’Leary said that the production was gorgeous. She also said that she saw the financials after the show—and it made money.

“He was a real class act who would stand up for what he believed in. I thought he was fantastic,” O’Leary said. “He didn’t know me, but he liked the play and he didn’t want anyone to not allow him to put it on for a reason that was just financial. It was a wonderful thing to do for someone no one knew. Most people don’t stick up for others like that. He was amazing.”

Gras’ support continued to be inspirational to O’Leary. “I kept writing plays and I probably would have stopped writing because I was sort of at an impasse.”

Helder, who first met Gras during “The Crucible” in 1993 at Grand Ledge’s Spotlight, said Gras’ death is a real loss for Riverwalk.

“He really had taken the black box under his wing. He was the director of the first show in the black box at the Creole and starred in the last show. There is a certain symmetry there,” Helder said. “He was scheduled to open our first season in the new location with a Chekov piece.”

The Chekov piece has now been canceled.

“To the general public, (Gras will be) most remembered for the number of really solid shows that he directed,” said Helder. “He will be remembered as the kind of director that could direct everything: from a crazy farce like Noises Off to something like Hedda Gabler and on to something like Under Milkwood, which is really poetry on stage. He will be remembered for the variety of things that he could and all of them well.”