The Bard in the park, on wheels, with Fancy Pants

Shakespeare wrote that all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Fancy Pants Theater want to make sure all local parks are a stage, if not the world (not yet, anyway). Zinta Aistars checks in with the principals of the theater troupe.
With avocado green carpeting and orange chairs, a crocheted multi-colored zig-zag afghan tossed over the couch, the 1978 vintage mobile home called Argosy is a vehicle not only for road travel but also for time travel.

"The Bard would have wanted it this way," says Carol Zombro, executive director of Fancy Pants Theater. After all, Zombro argues, didn’t Shakespeare envision his theater performances under the sun and under the stars, out in the open air?

Argosy takes theater there.

Zombro is wearing a neon yellow T-shirt sporting the black silhouette of William Shakespeare, and with her is Ben Hooper, vice executive director, wearing the same shirt in neon green with matching green sneakers, along with a top hat, squeezed down tight over this curly hair. Brishen Miller, president of the board, is in neon pink and top hat, smoke curling from his lit cigarette.

These three have been together since their years at Loy Norrix High School. They were already treading boards then. Staying together over the coming decade was only natural, and now, Ben Hooper says with a grin, they are all hitting their 30th birthdays in 2014. "I’ve already fallen," he says.

The threesome shares a sense of values. Money means little. Hooper shrugs. "Just keep me and my dog fed." He and Miller majored in theater arts in college, but Zombro tried a more practical route (a major in business) and hated it (she switched to child development). Practicality suits none of them. Getting creative, even in problem-solving, does.

They needed every bit of those creative problem solving skills when the two other organizations that previously made up Studio 246 on northern-most end of the Kalamazoo Mall decided to go in other directions. Fancy Pants could no longer take care of the upkeep of the theater or afford to pay the rent. They had no theater to call home.

"I was in a meeting with Parks and Recreation people to talk about holding theater classes for kids in parks," recalls Zombro. "We were talking about how Portage Celery Flats had closed and now no one was doing Shakespeare in the park. We should do Shakespeare in EVERY park! I said. That day I came home and starting looking on Craigslist. I found this motorhome that same day."

A vision of a traveling theater in the park blossomed. The Argosy was on sale for $2,700. That was the next problem, because Zombro and Fancy Pants had no money. Ever the optimist, Zombro called the owner and pleaded with him to hold the vehicle for two weeks until Fancy Pants could raise the money for a down payment.

"And then I begged and pleaded on our Facebook page for funding, and in one-and-a-half weeks, we had the entire $2,700," Zombro says.

The three headed out to pick up their new motorhome, cash in hand, sight unseen.

"It had an arthritic transmission," Hooper says. "Wouldn’t make it to Florida, but it’s fine for local."

"And we’ve had only one run-in with the law." Hooper grins.

First trip home to Kalamazoo, they were pulled over "by a cranky cop," Zombro says. No plates. After an explanation of the situation, the officer relented and sent them on, sans ticket.

"We get maybe 6 or 7 miles per gallon, but it all still works, the generator, everything," says Miller. "I don’t think they make the Argosy anymore. This one, it should last forever."

"Gas will be our biggest funding need now," says Zombro. She touches a large pair of white, hollow plastic pants with polka dots, standing inside the Argosy. The fancy plastic pants are put out to collect funds at performances to help pay for gas.

"We’re the only ones doing guerrilla theater in the area," says Miller. "No stage, no admission. We go to the audience. What we’re doing is risky but progressive, and it’s causing a bit of a stir."

"Our goal this summer is to do at least one monologue from every Shakespeare play," says Zombro. "That’s 38. In every park, even the dog park. We’re considering doing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s McWoof." Zombro laughs.

The idea is to show up at a park unannounced, the three explain, or with little warning. Fancy Pants may send out a message on Facebook or Twitter that the Argosy is on its way. Often, they piggyback their shows with outdoor movies in the park. On July 18, Fancy Pants Theater will be at Upjohn Park at 7 p.m. On July 25, they will be doing Lunchtime Live in Bronson Park. Find them at the Riverview Launch at 7 p.m. on Aug. 1, in South Westnedge Park at 7 p.m. on Aug. 22, and in Arcadia Park at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5.

Along with appearances in area parks, Fancy Pants also offers children’s programs.

"We all work with children," says Zombro. "Childhood development, substitute teacher, nanny. I’ve worked with kids for 12 years, and I like them better than adult humans."

Fancy Pants Theater offers classes at the Youth Development Center, 230 East Crosstown Parkway, every Saturday for every age and every experience level. Classes are drop-in and $10 each, $5 for a sibling, and parents are not required to stay. Playcare is a kind of daycare with theater built in, teaching children ages 3 to 17 everything from basic role playing to Shakespeare.

"Classes are different every week," Zombro adds. "Our one rule is that everyone has to have fun."

Firstage is another aspect of Fancy Pants that makes their theater unique. Firstage provides a forum for Kalamazoo area playwrights to develop their original plays, from a simple reading to a full production.

"We’d rather show an original play to 30 people than replay the same plays again and again," says Zombro. Firstage, along with Playcare, Zombro says, are what differentiate Fancy Pants Theater from other theaters in town.

And, of course, that the Fancy Pants troupe can be found in a vintage motorhome, in a park near you. Watch for the silver and orange Argosy toddling down the road with the Bard seated inside.

"You can follow us anywhere," says Zombro.

"Just don’t follow us home," adds Hooper. "That’s just creepy."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.