Outside-the-box opportunities. For stage performers
in Grand Rapids, it takes
more than talent to craft …
A Life in Theater
By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Johnny Quirin
real life makes great theater.
At the 2002 Grand Awards,
Grand Rapids native Brian Damson was recognized
as Best Actor in a Musical
for his work in the title role of Grand Rapids
Civic Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s
Todd.” The local boy who had made good in
New York City and performed around the country
as a professional cabaret singer and stage actor
had returned home two years earlier to perform
in World Party 2000 at the Van Andel Arena. He
was between jobs at the time, so he decided to
Sweeney” was Damson’s first community
theater role in Grand Rapids, and he had to resign
from the Actors’ Equity union in order to
take the non-paying gig. “Being part of a
community is better than being part of a union,” Damson
said during his emotional Grand Awards acceptance
Looking back on that
moment from his temporary residence in California,
where he is performing
in two cabaret shows at Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino
through March 2006, Damson has no regrets about
his decision to leave New York and make a life
for himself in Grand Rapids. And he still finds
a sense of community in this city’s theater
Of course I do,” Damson said, phoning from
Tahoe. “That’s why you do it.”
He explained his decision
to resign Equity, saying, “I
own my talent — not a union —and they
were not going to let me volunteer my time or talent
to do the show. Knowing that Civic does some high
quality work and at the time not having worked
in the musical theater in 10 years — mostly
(cruise) ships and
Vegas — I thought it was
a good trade.
The union will always be there,” he added. “A
chance to play that role won’t.”
A sense of community.
Once-in-a-lifetime roles. Artistic fulfillment.
These are just some of the
things that performers get from community theater
in Grand Rapids. You can’t put a dollar value
on them, but it would be nice if you could. The
struggle between daily obligations and the artist’s
drive to create is a constant one among the growing
number of Grand Rapids stage performers who are
supporting themselves with their talent.
Wagner star-red opposite Damson in Civic’s
2002 production of “Sweeney.” At the
Grand Awards that year she took home an etched
acrylic plaque for her performance as Mrs. Lovett.
Wagner, a local favorite
among musical theater performers, primarily makes
her living as a concert
vocalist. Like Damson, she looks to community theater
for opportunities for artistic fulfillment that
at times can be lacking in the broader world of
professional entertainment. “It’s a
matter of keeping your artistry in good shape,” Wagner
said. “You’ve got to feed your family,
but you’ve got to feed your artistry, as
While playing Mrs.
Lovett or Sweeney Todd in a community theater production
won’t pay the
bills, playing to a packed cabaret audience or
to an educational training session can — and
it does for a number of local performers who earn
their living without succumbing to the nemesis
of so many actors: a day job.
Community theater audiences
might remember Tim Cusack as the jibberish-talking
Jimmer from Community
Circle Theatre’s 1999 production of the Jeff
Daniels comedy “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” his
most recent community theater role.
Cusack has become a
sought-after storyteller and professional speaker,
traveling around the country
to bring his “Laughter that Matters” program
to educators and students. A Screen Actors Guild
member, Cusack began acting 20 years ago with The
United Stage, a professional touring children’s
theater troupe then housed at Grand Valley State
In between leaving United Stage and learning how
to support himself as a free-lance talent, Cusack
did what he had to do to make ends meet.
There was one time that I fell back on house painting
for a couple of years, but I kept performing — doing
stuff on the side,” he recalled.
For Cusack, the inspiration to focus completely
on his craft came from an unlikely source.
So I’m in this new apartment building, and
I’m with a guy (who is) hanging drywall,” Cusack
explained. “We get talking about life and
doing stuff and working, and somehow we got onto
the topic of me being an actor, because at the
time I think I was doing community theater.
And the drywaller, he said, ‘Seems like to
me, if you want to be an actor, you ought to do
more of that, because you’re not going to
get better at that by painting.’ It was like
I was with this drywaller one minute, and the next
minute, Buddha showed up.”
need to act. Although beautiful in its simplicity, it’s
a difficult rule to put into practice in a city
with few professional opportunities.
Is there hope for theater people who want to
stay in Grand Rapids and make a living?
The answer is ‘yes,’” Laural
Merlington said. “There are ways to do it.”
In 1991, Merlington
and her husband moved to Grand Rapids from Lansing,
where for 20 years she worked
regularly at the BoarsHead Theatre, which is an
Equity house. Today, most of her income stems from
recording audio books for Brilliance Corp. in Grand
Haven. “It allowed me to continue being a
performer,” Merlington said.
I have been living in Grand Rapids for 15 years,
and I have never taken what we in the theater call
a ‘job’ job,” she continued. “I’ve
taught theater classes at GRCC, at GVSU, at Kendall,
at Aquinas. I’ve done radio spots. I’ve
directed here, there and everywhere.
There are always those kinds of things out there … Maybe
you have to teach a class once in a while, as long
as they’re theater classes. Do a voice-over
You have to really carve out a niche,” advised
Cusack, who pieces together his income from work
as a storyteller, private improv comedy shows,
TV and radio commercials and creative consulting.
Wagner follows a similar
catch-as-catch-can approach, working as a featured
vocalist with the River City
Jazz Ensemble and with pianist Rich Ridenour, performing
character roles with Opera Grand Rapids and directing
community theater. “I’m fairly mutt-ly,” she
said. “A real Heinz 57 performer!”
Between cabaret runs
in Lake Tahoe or anywhere else where he is in demand,
Damson teams with Wagner
to operate Better Than Vegas (BTV) Productions,
a theatrical production company that casts and
produces everything from intimate cabaret entertainment
to full-scale arena spectacles. While this year
most of Damson’s income came from the Lake
Tahoe gigs and his two supporting leads during
the summer season at Mason Street Warehouse,
a professional theater in Saugatuck, in 2004
of his income came from producing and performing
live shows in Grand Rapids.
BTV Productions also has provided professional
opportunities for a number of other performers
who continue to volunteer their time in the Grand
Rapids community theater scene, among them Kelly
Carey, Lisa Whitley and Andrew Schneider.
We’ve always been blessed with great talent
in local theater in Grand Rapids, and that’s
been a steady influence on community theater for
the past 20 years,” commented Joe Dulin,
managing director of Circle Theatre. “I think
the environment is a little different today than
it was 20 years ago in that there are more opportunities
for performers to earn some money here, which is
great because it keeps some people around who might
otherwise have headed to Chicago or New York.”
Schneider, for one, still plans on eventually making
that move, but the 25-year-old alumnus of the Civic
Theatre School of Theatre Arts has earned a living
as a performer and stage manager right here in
West Michigan for the past three years.
I have to say that I am very proud of myself, personally,
because it has been probably about three years
now that I’ve been doing that, just living
gig to gig but being able to make things work,
not starving, and paying all my bills,” he
Cheryl “Micque” La
Mar may join Schneider
in New York or Chicago someday, but with family
obligations in West Michigan (“My parents
are quite elderly,” she said, “and
I won’t leave as long as they’re here”),
she needed to find acting work closer to home.
And thanks to KMR Diversity Theatre, she has.
La Mar, who is retired from the Grand Rapids Public
Library, began working with Kennedy Management
Resources Inc. (KMR) six years ago. KMR is home
to Diversity Theatre, formed by local talent Alice
Kennedy to help organizations bring effective awareness
training into the workplace.
Kennedy, a Vietnam
native, auditioned for her first community theater
part after Actors’ Theatre
(see accompanying story) put out a call for Asian
American actors for its 1996 production of “A
Piece of My Heart” by Shirley Lauro.
I guess I got bit by the bug,” said Kennedy,
who since has performed with Civic Theatre and
Heritage Theatre Group, as well as serving on the
Actors’ Theatre board for eight years. KMR
Diversity Theatre grew out of Kennedy’s human
resources consulting business in 1999.
One of my long-time clients (Cascade Engineering)
approached me and said that they really want to
do something with diversity training,” Kennedy
recalled. “They really didn’t want
to have a speaker; they didn’t want to have
a video. So they asked if I could help them put
together a training program using live theater.
And I said, ‘Sure.’”
Kennedy recruited local playwright Mike Smolinski
and began gathering actors from the community theater
scene, including La Mar, Todd Lewis, John Robinson
and Michelle Urbane, all four of whom continue
to work with her.
There are a lot of talented people in Grand Rapids
and I’m really thrilled to be able to work
with some of the best,” Kennedy said. “And
obviously, they love their jobs because I don’t
think they’d be with me for six years otherwise.
And of course being able to make a piece of their
living at it, that’s always nice.”
Sometimes real life does make great theater. And
although it takes tenacity, flexibility and the
new opportunities presented by KMR Diversity Theatre,
BTV Productions and others, great theater performers
can make real lives for themselves right here in
Grand Rapids. GR