L.A. Acting Veteran Beckons Michigan Artists With New Williamston Theatre

John Lepard's work took him from his humble roots in Haslett, Michigan, to Los Angeles (“On General Hospital,” he laughs, “I was a thug for a guy named Stefan”) to off-Broadway in New York, with stops in Washington, DC, Cincinnati, St. Louis and elsewhere.

As he reflects on his career, however, the MSU grad and 15-year veteran of television, film and live theatre tends to lump his experiences outside mid-Michigan together as simply “time away.”

“I went to L.A., and I think a lot of people go away, and see what it’s all about. Because you almost can’t be happy unless you go and see what’s going on there,” says Lepard. “So when our young talent goes away, I want them to be able to come back and have a home here, and be able to stay and do what they do.”

Lepard is back to stay, and is working to build just such a place as the founder and executive director of Williamston Theatre, an upstart venture now in its second season.

Home grown

Williamston Theater is one of only two Actors’ Equity Association theaters in the Lansing area. The other, Lansing’s BoarsHead Theater, is 40 years its senior. But while the theater may be in its salad days, the creative forces behind it are clearly seasoned, savvy, and talented.

Tony Caselli, the theater’s artistic director, was previously associate artistic director for six years at the Purple Rose, Hollywood actor Jeff Daniels’ home theater in nearby Chelsea, Michigan.

Other members of the founding team are Development Director Emily Sutton-Smith, formerly with the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, and Managing Director Christine Purchis. Purchis was formerly the company manager at Purple Rose. “A grueling job,” Lepard explains: “The one who has to pick up actors at the airport at midnight.”

There will likely be fewer trips to the airport in Purchis’ future, if Lepard has his way. “We want to hold a mirror up to this part of the world, using actors, designers, and directors from the Midwest—Michigan, Ohio, Indiana. We like to have our auditions here and keep it in this part of the state.”

The theater’s productions to date reflect this emphasis. Last season’s play, Flat, by Annie Martin, is about a woman who buys a house in Michigan. Martin, a Detroit playwright, is currently compiling submissions from and about women in the Midwest for Maidens, Mothers and Crones, premiering at Williamston Theater in May.

This emphasis is a natural outgrowth of John Lepard’s career, which has remained rooted in these Midwestern connections. He is a key member of a company of “go-to actors” for independent films produced by Traverse City-based Richard Brauer Productions, including Barn Red, Frozen Stupid, Jeff Daniels’ Supersucker, and their newest effort, still in post-production, called Mr. Art Critic, a film set on Mackinac Island, in which Lepard has a lead role.

Getting started

Lepard, Caselli, Sutton-Smith and Purchis founded Williamston Theater “in a coffee shop in Dexter sometime in 2005,” says Lepard.

“Williamston today is much like Chelsea was before Purple Rose—a charming small town,” he says. “We saw that everything is here to make this place into the kind of spot that Chelsea is. All we need now is a ‘movie star,” he grins—a reference to Daniels, patron saint of PRTC.

When the group left the coffee shop, Lepard recalls, they knew what they needed. “The first thing was a theatre,” he wryly notes. “But when the downtown antiques market pretty much disappeared, there was space available. And thanks to Steve Zynda of Midwest Homes we have our building—122 S. Putnam—for five years for $1 a year. That was the breakthrough.”

With that commitment, the community rallied around the effort. Mayor Ken Zichi and others in Williamston city government understood the theater was a key to their downtown revitalization strategy.

The team invested over $13,000 in a new façade, with support from the Michigan Interfaith Trust Fund. Additional investments in interior remodeling were done for another $20,000, thanks to generous contributions of time, lumber, seats, and lights.

Following a kick-off in the shell of their new building in January of 2006, and armed with an Arts Project grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the theatre launched its first season within six months, with the Midwest premiere of Rounding Third, a comedy by Richard Dresser. The Detroit Free Press recognized their efforts, naming the production one of the Top Ten Shows in Michigan for 2006.

Their second season builds on this success, and on ties developed with Michigan State University last year. The theater opened in the fall with Guys on Ice, a quirky “ice-fishing musical.” In January and February, the group will be co-producing the Tony-winning play Art with the MSU Theatre Department.

The relationship began in 2006, with Lepard’s direction of Recent Tragic Events for MSU. “What I tried to bring to that production was ‘This is what we do in professional theatre, and that’s how we’re going to do things here.’ “Plus,” he says, “it’s fun to pull the Michigan State people out of academia for a while: ‘we only have $12 to make this thing—can we do it?”

Digging in

The theater’s impact on the community of Williamston has already been substantial. In its first season, it provided 56 jobs and brought hundreds of theater-goers to the shops and restaurants of downtown Williamston. In the coming year they are planning joint projects with the popular Williamston-based restaurant, the Red Cedar Grill, and acting classes for adults and teens.

When asked about plans for the theater’s future, Lepard is quick with an answer: “$200,000 in additional work to the building to expand our capacity from the current 88 seats to 125, season ticket sales of at least 50 percent of capacity, collaborative programs with other area theatres, a strong relationship with MSU, an apprentice program, and production of our own shows with our own playwrights to sell to other theatres.”

“And,” he adds with satisfaction, “we’re right on track.” And right at home.

“If I was unemployed for months at a time in LA, I could come back [to Michigan] and do a show, and it was great,” Lepard says. “Purple Rose was home for me when I was away. I would love for us to be the same thing for the artists [living] here in Michigan—a place to come back to, where they can do their work.”

Rick Ballard of East Lansing published his first newspaper with a Smith-Corona typewriter and three sheets of carbon paper when he was ten, and has been writing ever since.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


John Lepard in the Williamston Theatre

Williamston Theatre

Joseph Albright (in front), B.J. Love & Bruce Bennett in Guys on Ice -Photo: J.D. Small Studios

Rehearsal at the theatre

John Lepard & Tobin Hissong in
Rounding Third -Photo: J.D. Small Studios.

Rendering of Willimaston Theatre's future expansion - by Tim Fox

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie (unless otherwise noted)

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