Kalamazoo

With a new executive director, Kalamazoo Civic Theatre gets ready to turn on the footlights again

The curtain rises again the day after Thanksgiving.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Now is a time of "New Beginnings" for the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. 
 
The main auditorium is getting a million-dollar-plus renovation, the new executive director Laura Zervic is in place, and actual live productions are on their calendar. The curtain rises again the day after Thanksgiving.
 
The future looks bright. But the theater is pulling out of a dark time. 
 
When a theater "goes dark," it goes dark. 
 
Zervic unlocked the doors and entered the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre when she became acting executive director in July 2020.
 
Things were untouched since the theater had closed that March. Half-full water bottles were sitting where staff and volunteers were once hard at work. On stage, the full set of "Frozen, Jr." was waiting for its youth cast, who didn't even get their opening night -- that was to be March 13, 2020, the day everything changed in Michigan.
 
"It was heartbreaking," Zervic says. "Even more heartbreaking were Olaf and Sven, sitting backstage!"
 
The snowman and reindeer (props, but Zervic says she wouldn't want to spoil children's belief that they are real) were waiting as if, at any moment, they could come to life once the magic of theater returned. 
 
Zylman and Zervic are looking forward to "A Season of New Beginnings" when the Civic reopens.The cold weather characters were there in mid-July, sitting like a Santa waiting for a Christmas that never happened. Zervic repeats what she told staff, with restrained emotion,"Please pack them up." 
 
She laughs. But it was an emotional, hard time, she and long-time Civic vet Ben Zylman say. 
 
Aside from the COVID shutdown, the theater also had its leadership up in the air.
 
Last year previous executive director Stephen Carver had left the Civic. Zervic was interim director, and up for the permanent position, but another job offer complicated things.
 
Zylman came out of retirement to fill the position temporarily in October, "the beneficiary of all the work she had done prior to my arrival," he says. 
 
He's been involved with the theater practically since the doctor brought him into the world -- literally "Dr. Paul Fuller, one of the founders of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre... From the very beginning I was..." Zylman stops himself, laughing. Though he's now "retired" once again, he'll "be helping out in any way I can."
 
Ben Zylman, former director of the Civic who stepped in during 2020, was recently honored with a star at the auditorium entrance. Choosing theater after a life in law
 
Zervic says, "I feel like my whole life and career and passions have been building to this office here in this theater."
 
Born in Cincinnati, she's been in theater since she was a child -- her first role was as an "Even Irater Villager" in a sixth-grade production of "Robin Hood."  In her hometown, then after she moved to the Gull Lake area in 2005, she's acted in, stage managed, produced, and directed shows. 
 
She first appeared on the Civic stage in 2009 in the title role of "The Affections of May." She involved herself in the world of the Civic, as well as in Gull Lake Community Schools as a trustee and treasurer of the school board, and president of the Gull Lake Community Schools Fine Arts Foundation, working to bring more theater arts into the schools.
 
Meanwhile, she's been an advertising, promotions and trademark lawyer for over 20 years. It sounds like work in two separate worlds, staging theatrical productions versus guarding the intellectual properties of companies like Kellogg's and BISSELL Homecare, Inc. But the skills she developed in the for-profit world can be used backstage at the Civic, she says.
 
When she stepped into the dark theater last summer, she realized "what the organization needs. And I realized I have a lot of the skills that I felt would be very useful for the organization. It's leadership skills -- there's a staff here that needs personal professional development, that needs leadership, that needs decisions. There's patrons involved, that need relationship building." 
 
There's also risk management, contracts, fiscal management -- "I feel my career as a lawyer has prepared me very well for many of those things." 
 
Facing a choice between continuing her career as a lawyer and heading a community theater in a challenging time, Zervic went with what she loved.
 
A Season of New Beginnings
 
Zylman says "Laura stepped into this organization last July at a very crucial time, a very difficult time. And she displayed no hesitancy whatsoever in doing whatever it took to keep the organization moving forward."
 
The main auditorium now, while undergoing a million-dollar-plus renovation. For the theater's future, Zervic says, "I have these visions of making it more of a hub" for Kalamazoo arts and surrounding businesses. If the Civic stages, for example, a production of "Streetcar Named Desire," they might have a local restaurant serve "a three-course New Orleans inspired meal." She sees partnerships with local arts and other community organizations. Local youth groups and schools could partner with the Civic Youth Theatre program.
 
For coming seasons, "I'd like to see larger casts, and very diverse casts. And shows that make you think. There are intentional moments when you want to deliver something that is light, is enjoyable, is truly an escape. And we feel like that is what this season is about," she says. "But then I think there's a moment when we want to force ourselves into thinking, force ourselves into going in those areas, maybe forcing us outside of our comfort zone...."
 
They have three different venues, that can present three different styles of performance, she says "We have the flexibility to do that." 
 
But before that bright future, there've been issues that demanded attention immediately. When this season opens, "the ceiling won't fall on your head!" Zervic laughs.
 
The Civic Auditorium, built in 1931, needed major repairs, so they took advantage of the closing to get it done. "The plaster restoration process, and it really is more complex than just patching some plaster, but the project itself is well over a million dollars in totality," Zylman says.
 
Now the seats are covered in plastic, with metal scaffolding filling the space above. But they'll be ready for what they titled "A Season of New Beginnings," Zylman says. 
 
Planned early in the year when it wasn't clear what direction the pandemic would go, the season starts later than usual, features smaller casts, and can be produced virtually if needed.
 
Laura Zervic in her new office as Kalamazoo Civic Theatre's executive director.But Zylman and Zervic are sure the curtain will rise the Friday after Thanksgiving, with "I Got A Gal in Kalamazoo," the opening number of "The 1940s Radio Hour," welcoming the Civic audience back into the auditorium.
 
What keeps a theater alive is its audience. And of course, the flipside to that is, a theater provides an audience with an escape from the darkness. 
 
"Facing these very dark times, those very things that provided us with a respite from these dark times were not available to us," Zylman says.
 
There was a period last summer when staff were poised, waiting like Olaf and Sven, for the curtain to rise. But it became obvious that the only thing they could do was refund purchased tickets and season passes. 
 
"I remember one of our volunteers she got off almost every phone call in tears!" Zervic says. "Our subscribers are so passionate, and dedicated to us, and really rely on the theater for their outlet... (Patrons) would tell their personal stories of how much they missed the theater... and the volunteer is just crying, making phone calls, 'What do you want me to do with your money?' It was such a moving moment for me." 
 
That was when it was vividly clear to Zervic that theater "brings community and brings people, together," she says.

 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.