The Many Faces of Lansing Theater Part 1: Performance Theatre

Lansing area theatre is built upon a legacy of performance companies; some still going strong, while others have faded away. The long list of companies includes nearly 20 separate performing entities, ranging from children’s theater to professional playhouses, and spanning life times of months to decades. Local audiences aren’t wanting for choices, with offerings from the MSU and LCC theatre departments, Wharton Center shows, Over the Ledge Theatre Company, Peppermint Creek Theatre Company, Riverwalk Theatre, Starlight Dinner Theatre, All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre, Williamston Theatre, and more!
So, what is it about performance theatre that draws crowds in and cultivates such a large number of companies in the area? It’s not just a difference in spelling (as I’m sure you’ve noticed the shift to –re at this point) that distinguishes live performance houses from movie houses; there’s a distinct connection made and experience offered. To explore this more, we talked to three Lansing area theatres in various stages of their successful lifetimes: Riverwalk Theatre, Williamston Theatre, and Over the Ledge Theatre Company.
Riverwalk Theatre
Riverwalk Theatre, an icon along the Lansing River Trail, is the most recent home for Community Circle Players, a troupe started in the late 50s. Homes in the past included an old cow barn in Okemos and a small warehouse on what is now Oakland Avenue in Lansing. Collaboration has long been at the core of the company’s mission, and has fostered relationships that have helped in the evolution of one Lansing’s oldest theatre groups.
"Our mission statement guides in offering a variety of experiences for all members of the community," says Board President, Tom Ferris. "It is the collaborations we have maintained and diversity of talent we have cultivated that have been the keys to our success. This embodies the spirit of community theatre in every way."
Perhaps the most notable collaboration CCP has had, and continues to have, is with Impression 5 Science Center. They entered an evolving purchase agreement in 1989 for use of I5 warehouse space and has been staging shows along the Grand River since. It is one of the few theatres in the area owns their space outright.
Ferris, echoing MEDC’s Bob Metzger’s sentiment, that "a strong arts presence is vital to the economy of any community; we are proud to be a strong element of that in the Lansing area. There is a vibrancy in this area, not only to see art, but to participate in the arts."
Williamston Theatre
Williamston Theatre embraces the concept of 'our theatre is your theatre.' Executive Director, John Lepard, explains: "We’re producing plays for, by, and about people in this part of the world; we hold a mirror up to the people in the Midwest."
Born from the talents and minds of professionals in the theatre industry experiencing staffing cuts, Williamston debuted its first show in 2006. The Williamston community rallied around the group helping to renovate a 120-year old furniture store into a not-for-profit professional theatre. 
"When you look at what has happened to theatres in larger metro areas, you see that they’ve become a huge spectacle," Lepard says. "There are not as many places for the voice of the small playwright in America to be heard. We’re giving a voice to those playwrights, and culturally giving a voice to the region."
As one of the only professional theatres in our area, Williamston also provides a valuable service in providing employment for professional Michigan actors and technical crews. Lepard believes in the ripple effect the arts has in creating jobs, not only for artists, but for the businesses in the area that feel the direct impact of increased traffic that arts-oriented communities experience.
Over the Ledge
The Ledges Playhouse, scenically positioned in Fitzgerald Park in Grand Ledge has over a century of an interesting and quirky history. Originally built as a séance house in 1895, the barn has been used as a skating rink, dancehall, and wartime parachute factory; all before the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, the barn housed its first theatre troupe and has operated as a performance space since.
"A big part of our goal is to showcase the venue," says Over the Ledge’s Executive Director, Joseph Dickson. Over the Ledge (OTL) is the most recent company to take up residence in the barn theatre. Dickson joins a prestigious list of theatre visionaries to call the barn home; a list that includes the founders of the now dissolved Boarshead Theatre, the former Spotlight Theatre operated by Len Kluge, and Kevin Burnham’s Ledges Playhouse Theatre Company.
"OTL was born out of my internal musing of ‘what could I do if I had my own theatre’," Dickson recalls. Respected in the area for his stage performances as well as his technical prowess, Dickson mounted company’s first season, and a successful season at that. "We’re very pleased with our first season; we had consistently better attendance than anticipated and are able to reinvest in our upcoming season," he says.
On why theatre is important in our area, Dickson says: "I think it’s important in every area. It’s one of the ways we’re able to examine ourselves as a culture; it’s one of the ways we’re able to look inwards to see why we’re doing what we’re doing."
Get thee to a playhouse!
If you’ve not experienced the thrill of live theatre, we challenge you to explore this side of the arts in Lansing. It is one of the more unique and invaluable aspects of our community, built upon years of community members striving to spark a connection and give voice to us all. Become connected with the artistic community of days past, while ensuring the longevity of this experience for generations to come.
(Stay tuned for the next "Many Faces of Lansing Theatre" installment. We’d love to hear from you about your favorite place to catch flick, and why!)

Veronica Gracia-Wing is the innovation news editor for Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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