Setting the Stage: Bruce Tinker

Executive director and artistic director, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
Bruce Tinker
Bruce Tinker. Photo by David Sparks

Misunderstood characters take center stage during Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s 2019-20 season.

“There’s a lot of individuals who aren’t understood, assumptions are made about who they are, what they stand for, and they spend the majority of their time not necessarily fighting that misrepresentation but defining who they are,” explained Bruce Tinker, executive and artistic director at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

From Johnny Cash and the characters in “Frozen” to Blanche DuBois and Matilda — which represent the first half of Civic Theatre’s season — audiences are in store for a thought-provoking exploration of the fight for ownership over one’s identity.

“I think what attracted us to a lot of these plays is really a lot of what is going on in our culture,” Tinker said. “People are feeling that they are being defined, or they are trying to define themselves, and a lot of assumptions are made about those definitions, whatever they are.”

He added, “It feels like more and more, everyone is being called to task for — an opinion or stance is demanded — but then it’s constantly questioned or unaccepted, whatever it is.”

“Ring of Fire,” which will open Civic Theatre’s 2019-20 season, explores the music of Cash and its connection to his life through eight characters who represent but don’t embody Cash. The purpose is that, “The familiar tunes serve as anchor for a deeper narrative on love, generational living, struggles and redemption.”

“What I love about it is the eight characters tell the story of his life, but none of them are required to impersonate him for more than a few phrases or a scene,” Tinker said. “It’s really the music that he wrote and created and how that applied to that particular period in his life.”

Tinker said he finds the stories Cash’s music tells about “the loner” particularly interesting. “He wrote a lot of songs about incarceration and justice, and yet he also had a lot of songs about the drifter; so alone with space or alone in a confined space, you’re still the lone individual, alone, isolated.”

Tinker noted there are different kinds of isolation and the overall lack of community or belonging that an individual might feel regardless of where he finds himself.

Tinker also is looking forward to seeing director Jean Reed Bahle bring “A Streetcar Named Desire” to life.

“Tennessee Williams is one of the best American playwrights ever. His writing is beautiful. But also, he was writing in a particular era,” Tinker said, explaining that mental illness and alcoholism are understood much differently today than they were in Williams’ time, giving audiences a new lens with which to view Blanche and Stanley and their individual struggles.

“Just the nuances of what we understand about these conditions is so different,” Tinker said. “But what he did understand in his era was how incredibly painful experiences can be for people.”

Tinker said having a female director is important in telling this story today, too. “Because the show deals with domestic violence, torment and abuse, as part and parcel of a lot of the action, you need a woman in the room, and Jean is so gifted,” he said.

“That is how and why you do it. When you find the right director, who can lend a new perspective to the story and, perhaps, the proper perspective in the era; that’s why you tell some of these classic stories again.”

Tinker said he also is excited to see “Matilda” and “The Wiz” brought to life by Civic Theatre — both of which will be produced here for the first time.

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