When most people talk about the Lansing theater scene, they mention the BoarsHead Theatre, Williamston Theatre and the Lansing Civic Players. Featuring shows like The Glass Menagerie and Fiddler on the Roof, these crowd pleasing subscription house theaters enjoy a place of popularity among the Lansing theater community.

But what about the other theaters in Lansing? Do the names Peppermint Creek, Sunsets with Shakespeare, and Icarus Falling ring a bell? These Lansing community theaters, while they may not have the same prestige as some of the city’s larger equity venues, are hidden gems. They usually offer cheaper prices and are able to push the boundaries of theater in a way that many mainstream theaters cannot. I recently sat down to talk to the actors, the directors and the owners of some of Lansing’s more obscure play houses to find out just what’s up with Lansing’s underground theater scene.

Left of Center: Peppermint Creek Theatre

The Cast of Peppermint Creek's Dog Sees God. (Toby Hemker)Peppermint Creek is perhaps one of the newest theaters in Lansing. Founded in 1995 by Chad Badgero, the company is beginning to make a name for itself as a “fresh and vital performing arts group” that takes chances and believes in the power of performance.

Lela Ivey, a guest lecturer for the theater department at MSU and a former director for Peppermint Creek, describes the company’s past seasons as left of center and alternative. “But I don’t think [Chad] deliberately goes out and looks for stuff that is alternative or dark or whatever. He looks for pieces that he connects to and that he’s not straitjacketed in to having to please somebody,” Ivey said.

Ivey also said it is Peppermint Creeks left-of-center, thought provoking productions that set the theater apart. “You know what the problem is when you get a Williamston and a BoarsHead, is they’re all subscription houses and they have to please their audience. So if they start, you know, trippin’ over to the dark side there going to have a lot of unhappy subscribers and board members,” Ivey said. “It makes you [wonder], is a theater’s responsibility to keep their audience happy and feeling good at the expense of making them think, and possibly making them uncomfortable while they do it?”

The cast of Peppermint Creek Theater's Dog Sees God. (Toby Hemker)But there is more to Peppermint Creek productions than just making the audience think. The shows themselves are deliberately picked to send a message and start a dialogue in the Lansing community.

“Chad is so passionate about the plays he chooses,” said Toby Hemker, a Japanese, theater, and psychology junior and former Peppermint Creek actor. “He does his stuff not to put on a show that will make profit, but to put on a show that will send a message that is important to him. All of the plays he picks have a strong message because for him art is his mode of expression. He once said to me that he is not the type of guy to go storm city hall when he thinks something is wrong, so he uses theater as a mode to get across his opinions.”

Shakespeare for the Masses: Sunsets with Shakespeare

On the other end of the spectrum of Lansing’s underground theater scene is Sunsets with Shakespeare, created by Lansing native Todd Heywood. Performing mostly classics, such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliette, Sunsets strives to provide quality performances free of charge to the Lansing community. Toby Hemker, who played Mercutio in Sunsets’ production of Romeo and Juliette last summer, said the theater’s mission is “to make Shakespeare available to a public that would never get the chance to see it.”

Hemker said he loves the community aspect of the Sunsets company. “Were a community theatre, we’re high schoolers, junior high kids, and elderly people who’ve never acted before getting a chance to do things that they never got the chance to do,” he said. “It is good entertainment, it is art, and it is something that, you know, people are coming together to make.” For Hemker, Sunsets “really has the community of community theatre.”

Hemker said the community has really joined together to support the theater donating supplies, money, and volunteering their time and services to help the theater.

“To see the community getting behind something like that, that is the purpose of community theatre,” Hemker said. “It’s not about putting out a great work of art; it’s about pulling the community together as human beings.”

Since the company does not charge for its shows, financing the productions has also been a community effort. Hemker said they often have to find ways to save money creatively building their own sets and designing costumes on a budget. “We built our own set out of old sets that they had used in the past,” he said. Along with community Sunsets also receives help from other theaters including the Lansing Civic Players who allows them to rehearse in their space when they’re not using it. They also save money by holding most of their rehearsals outdoors.

Toby Hemker playing mercutio in Sunsets' production of Romeo and Juliette. ( Toby Hemker )

New Plays by New Playwrights: Icarus Falling

Started nine years ago by co-founders Jeff Croff and Daryl Thompson, Icarus Falling is an acting company dedicated to “challeng[ing] its actors, its technicians, and its audience alike with new works, [new conceptions of old works], and innovative dramatic forms.”

“Our primary focus when we created [Icarus Falling] was recognizing that Lansing has an amazing collection of theatre,” said Croff, who is also the artistic director for the company. “It’s absolutely fabulous, most of the theater you find in Lansing. But we felt that there was still a gap that we could come in and fill, which was to give voice [to some] productions that you wouldn’t normally get to see. Some of the more well established theaters, or, you know, the equity houses, have a bottom line they’ve got to be sure they hit.” Icarus Falling does not.

The name of company came from the co-founders belief that, just like the mythical Greek boy Icarus who flew to close to the sun, they could follow their dreams and create a theater company. “I think there’s a certain naïveté that we just didn’t know we couldn’t do [a] show,” Croff said.

Unlike poor Icarus who fell to his death, Icarus Falling is still entertaining audiences and turning out quality performances despite its monetary restrictions. “It is absolutely possible to do well acted well told stories on a shoestring budget,” Croff said. “We’ve always felt that making sure the acting is strong and that the stories are string [is most important], and we have been lucky enough that there is an audience locally. Certainly not an audience that can sustain a $1,000,000 a year budget, but, you know, but the audience has been strong enough and consistent enough that we h
ave been able to keep doing shows.”

Icarus Falling stands out in Lansing’s underground theater scene as the venue that often features the works of first time writers and new playwrights. Unlike Peppermint Creek, which often produces Pulitzer prize winning and off-Broadway shows, Icarus Falling tends to focus on shows that are “a little more off of the [radar] than that,” Croff said. “We typically try to focus at least one spot [in our season] on original works.” Whether they be playwrights from the U.K., Australia, or Madison, Wisconsin, Icarus Falling has featured a myriad of fresh authors.

The Show Must Go On

While a lot of students may not be aware of the alternative arts culture here in Lansing, the fact of the matter is that there is a thriving underground theater scene here in the city. “I think that folks can go almost any weekend in the Lansing area and find three or four productions going on. And whether their taste runs to The Sound of Music or runs to the much more gritty avant-garde, they’re going to find it. We have a wonderful collection of theaters in the Lansing area,” Croff said.

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