Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison Neighborhood series.
Kalamazoo has a great performing arts theater community, buuuut … “They’re not doing this,” says performer Stephen Dupuie.
“‘This’ is sketch comedy that will make you think,” he says of the original work being written and performed by his 2-year-old sketch comedy group, The Dormouse Troupe.
“This” is also a place where they and other performing artists can call home. The new venue for what some would call raw or fringe material, will focus heavily on booking music, and hosting and producing other eccentric performers. "It’s any anything goes venue," Dupuie says. "You can expect to find things off the beaten path of traditional theatre ie Rogers and Hammerstein or Neil Simon."
After years of wanting to establish a theater venue, including the last two years renovating a location for the troupe he helped start, Dupuie may be only a few months from realizing his dream. He hopes to get The Dormouse Theatre up and running by this spring, hopefully in May.
Three years ago, Dupuie bought the 125-year-old church building at 1030 Portage St. It’s on the northwest corner of Portage and Lake streets in the Edison Neighborhood. He and his troupe have been working since then to renovate it for use as a theater.
They will use it to crank out comedy with a message.
“Our sketch comedy -- from the very beginnings when we’re writing it -- I look at it through a lens of ‘Well, what’s the message?’” Dupuie says. “And that might not hit you on the head (and be) obvious when you’re watching the sketch. But somewhere in there, there’s a message.”
He says the themes – involving family, friends, co-workers and others – are universal “but they have a slanted take. They’re everyday situations that we’re definitely looking at through a slanted lens with a darker take or an absurd take.”
Fellow troupe member Adrienne Waller says it’s difficult to describe in a few lines.
Stephen Dupuie, leader of The Dormouse Theatre Troupe, says, “I would say we dabble with different styles of sketches. I tend to like it to have a little bit of an absurd aspect to it and definitely also lean toward dark humor as well.”
“Whether it’s modern politics like (they do on) Saturday Night Live or whether it’s invading hordes like Attila the Hun from a Monty Python skit, it’s turning serious, scary, intimidating things into hilarity,” Waller says. “At other times, it’s just quirky. At other times, it’s ‘Why did we do this?: because it’s just funny.' And at other times, it’s absurdist – getting to laugh at something that’s absolutely absurd.”
The Dormouse Troupe has had as many as 50 volunteers at any one time helping with renovations. The main floor of the church building has been replaced and stage lighting has been installed. New bathrooms are to be installed on the main level and the lobby area is yet to be renovated. The church building has been the home to various religious groups over the years but sat unused for years before Dupuie acquired it.
Sketch comedy performances will be quirky and fun, but they may challenge the perspectives of some audience members and they won’t be PG. “It’s not a place to bring kids,” Dupuie says.
With a laugh, he adds, “It’s definitely a place where you may want to have another drink.”
Patrons will be able to buy vodka, gin, brandy and whiskey products created by the Kalamazoo Stillhouse. That company, now in the 600 block of East Michigan Avenue, will have a tasting room set up in the theater. A typical Dormouse Troupe cabaret performance may cost about $10 per person. The place will have seating for about 99 people at tables, in chairs and on sofas. For live music events the house will hold 187, including standing room near the stage.
The troupe has a network of followers as a result of performances its members have done at Crawlspace Comedy Theatre, LaughFest in Grand Rapids, and any number of “pop-up” events in the greater Kalamazoo area.
The seven-person troupe has performers ages 23 to 42, with Dupuie being the eldest. The others include Jud Gilbert, Lizzy Honoway, Sterling Orlowski, Cody McKnight, Anna Karpinski, and Waller. When not performing, their day jobs vary greatly. Waller, 36, is a special education paraprofessional, for instance.
Dupuie says a lot of area people may know him as Steve from Starbucks, thanks to the 13 years he spent at that coffee seller’s franchise location on Stadium Drive. He has worked for years in restaurant management and now works for a food retailer in Oshtemo Township.
“This is an anything goes type of place,” Stephen Dupuie says of his plans for the original comedy and local talents that will be feature at The Dormouse Theatre, which he hopes to have open to the public this spring.
A resident of the Edison Neighborhood for the past 15 years, Dupuie has a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from Northern Michigan University, with minors in English and business. The English background comes in handy, as he and the other Dormouse Troupe members write and perform their own material. The business coursework comes in handy as the former barista-turned-entrepreneur has worked to get the theater going – clearing regulatory, building, and business hurdles.
Dupuie was born and raised in Brown City, in Michigan’s Thumb area, but after graduating college in 2000, lived and worked in Columbus, Ohio. He worked at Shadowbox Live, a cabaret comedy club that did sketch and improvisational comedy. He learned a lot about how to run a theater there and, performing five days a week, he honed the acting skills that he started developing in college and summer stock. He later relocated to Kalamazoo to chase a work opportunity.
He says he loves living in the Edison Neighborhood because it has a lot of diversity in terms of income levels, racial makeup, and sexual orientation. And, he says, “It’s grassroots and The Dormouse is grassroots. And so we’re not big money. I’m just a regular Joe who lives on a block in Edison who cashed in my 401(k) to chase a dream. And that’s sort of the spirit of Edison.”
Comedy troupe leader Stephen Dupuie is shown recently inside the church building that is being renovated for use as a theater.
Waller agreed, saying, “This is the best. I see it more underground than downtown. Everyone knows Kalamazoo’s downtown area. You’ve got the Civic, big-name arts, big-name shops, big everything.” But she says Edison feels like a place where you can start small and help the community rise.
Noting that The Creamery Building, a multimillion-dollar, residential/commercial project, is under construction on the opposite side of Portage Street, Dupuie says he hopes Dormouse Theatre will help add to Edison’s upswing. He says he wants the theater to be used by other theater groups, musical groups, and performing artists in need.
“We do not anticipate having any dark weekends here,” he says. “We will book this thing every weekend. If we’re not performing, someone else will be here performing.”
With Kalamazoo located between Detroit and Chicago, Dupuie says he thinks the city has a niche of its own in Michigan. “It’s such an artsy, lovely little community, I think they’re going to go ga-ga for it (sketch comedy). But nobody’s done it yet. I think they’re going other places to see it. But now it’s here.”