Studio 246 writes a new script

If you didn't know it was there, as you approach Studio 246 on the north end of the Kalamazoo Mall, you could be forgiven for not recognizing the downtown storefront as Kalamazoo's newest home for theater.

If you do know it's there, you could be forgiven for asking, "isn't this the old home of theater in Kalamazoo?"

Both are true. This is the home of the Kalamazoo's newest theater collaboration, located in the space at 246 N. Kalamazoo Mall, a spot on the far end of the outdoor pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown.

Studio 246 was born out of the demise of the Whole Art Theatre at the end 2009.

It's made up of a collection of actors who were not ready to give up when Whole Art, the 33-year-old home of innovative, often daring theater turned off the spotlights for the last time.

Whole Art presented new and experimental work and at times was known as one of the most progressive community theaters in the state. Playbills from productions staged years ago still hang in the restrooms there. ("Tom Small displays every emotion known to man!")

Building the new Studio 246 — in the old home of Whole Art — are spoken word artists Kinetic Affect, three comedy groups that make up Crawlspace Productions and longtime Whole Art actors who decided to work together under the name Fancy Pants.

At Studio 246 they're fighting to keep alternative theater alive. And the groups that make up Studio 246 are as invested the downtown as they are in putting on good shows in a place where change is taking place in the city around them.

Condos and other development have sprouted up and more theater-goers are walking to shows and taking in the city. Reaching out to the community at large, be it for social and economic change, a creative outlet, or just for having fun, is all a part of their mission.

Crawlspace Eviction, half-way through its seventh season, has been using the space now called Studio 246 long enough to see changes in the neighborhood. The theater's nearest neighbors are Kalamazoo Valley Museum to the west, the Arcadia Festival site behind the theater to the east and the shuttered Mr. President's Club to the north.

"The Little Cities Gallery used to be next door," Artistic Director Dann Sytsma says. "They exited. So not all the change has been pleasant ... but now there are condos down the street. This has become a residential area and some of our patrons come from the condos. They have their own sense about them because when they leave they're going to be walking home from the show. It starts to feel like we are really part of the community when people live so close they can walk to the show."

As Kinetic Affect's Gabriel Giron says, "We want to preserve this space for people in the community whose voices need to be heard."

"That's why Studio 246 fits perfectly," says Kirk Latimer, also of Kinetic Affect. "This is the home of the alternative, artistic voice of Kalamazoo. There's no other place to get strictly spoken word, improv theater or new works from local writers.

"Our work is to be a force for social change in the community," he continues. "Social change is our driving force. We'd like the community to see Studio 246 not just as cool and hip, but as a grass roots social change force in the community."

"We love our location downtown," says Carol Zombro, of Fancy Pants. "We want to bring in people from the East and North sides of town. We want to go over there and get the word out that we're down here."

In previous years, the space now known as Studio 246, one of two spaces used by Whole Art, primarily was home to Whole Art's late night series and Crawlspace Productions.

Now there's a new rhythm as different shows and different troupes hit the stage throughout the month. So far this year it's gone like this:

It's a Saturday night, the second show of the weekend for Crawlspace Eviction, a troupe of seven actors who do improv and skit comedy at least one weekend a month.

At the suggestion of the audience, a man and his panda are on a date. The panda roars like the wild animal it is. The audience roars back in laughter. "Pandas work?" a bemused cast member asks the crowd. Apparently, so.

A week later, there's a full house for the opening production of the brand new Fancy Pants Theater.

"Board Fold," a comic day in the life of a mall employee who works for a clothing store along the lines of Abercrombie and Fitch. It turns out to be a money-maker for the new group.

Next up is Kinetic Affect with its take on war, including a piece comparing gang violence and the U.S. military abroad.

Between works delivered in a raw, sometimes explosive style that evokes their slam poetry roots, Latimer and Giron reveal deep pieces of themselves in hopes of starting a conversation. As Latimer says during the show, if he and Giron are convinced of anything it is that they have been brought together to work for change.

The following week, Kind of Pretty Women, another member of the Crawlspace Production family, takes the stage with something they call "Less Extinct," though the theme bears no relation to the comedy on stage. Instead there is hysterical mayhem and bloodshed in a cow barn, a press conference with Michael Jackson and a look at the wicked side of a man-eating whale. (Bubbles is evil.)

That's just the beginning. The rhythm will speed up in coming weeks.

The improv duo, t & a, Tara Sytsma and Adam Carter, the third team of Crawlspace Productions, plan a return to the stage after the birth of the Sytsmas' baby.

In coming weeks, Kinetic Affect has asked Tracey Smith to host poetry slams the first Thursday of every month. Smith, a host of poetry slams for 10 years, is a favorite of local poets. Kinetic Affect also plans an open mic at the Thursday night shows.

At the same time, the spoken word duo is developing community-building projects, including a show that will coincide with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum's exhibit "Race: Are we so Different?" It opens in October and runs for three months.

The multi-faceted Kinetic Affect will continue to work with Battle Creek's juveniles, through their nonprofit, Speak it Forward, and will offer similar youth workshops in Kalamazoo. They also will continue work through the video production arm of their company and offer creative consulting.

While the productions are at the heart of the theater, its body, the building itself, requires a lot of work. It happens in between the weekend productions and whenever these actors, writers and performers — a social worker, insurance salesman and chemist among them — can fit it in.

Take one recent Monday night. The theater hums with the whir of circular saws and reverberates with the sound of hammers as risers are rearranged by performers who have taken on this nitty-gritty role of renovation.

This too is part of building a theater.

For Kinetic Affect this is the first time the mostly traveling players, who have performed together since 2006, have had one spot to call their own.

"Now we're here and home is orange," says Latimer, with a look of disapproval at the pumpkin colored walls of the theater lobby.

Painting is definitely on the to-do list.

Basement cleaning has already begun.

One recent Saturday, Carol Zombro, business manager of Fancy Pants, and Molly Hooper, who used to work with Whole Arts, spent the afternoon sorting through props and costumes left behind. Seizing the opportunity for a laugh, one find in their cleaning, a fresh disposable diaper, ends up on the cork board with a message attached: "It All Depends."

Before a recent show a small group gathered in the theater to look at the pitted wood floors and imagine it freshly sanded and stained.

Crawlspace artistic director Dann Sytsma has been pricing air conditioning units for the space that now cannot comfortably be used during the summer months, when the theater gets too hot for an audience to sit through a show.

It all takes money. Plus there's rent to pay. Crawlspace and Fancy Pants are exploring grant applications and nonprofit status to make their groups more attractive to donors, but the application is lengthy and the associated fees are costly. 

Most of the Studio 246 team fit in theater work  every minute they can between busy work and home lives.

Zombro is a typical example. She once was a business major at Western Michigan University but left school because she believed she was learning more at Whole Art. She is now a nanny for what she describes as "the most awesome 3-year old in town." And says,"I work 40 hours a week there and 40 hours a week here."

Some work in theater related careers, but most of the members of Crawlspace Eviction, Fancy Pants and Kind of Pretty Women all have very different day jobs.

Dann Systma is an analytical chemist for Eurofins AvTech Laboratories Inc. in Portage.

"It's the nature of a market the size of Kalamazoo that very few artists can do art exclusively. They have to have a day job," he says. So he urges employers to encourage employees who have artistic pursuits.

"Businesses need to support the people on their staff that are involved in the arts and be flexible with their employees involved with the arts," Systma says. "It makes for a better workplace, and it's better for the community.

"If the community thrives it's because of the quality of life here," Systma continues. "Business benefits because of that. It helps them in an indirect way. Oftentimes that is minimized. It's oftentimes forgotten. It's there and it's essential. Businesses that recognize that do better. Their people are happier. Given the business perspective, I'm not saying allow employees to slack off, but be flexible with them."

"Life is better with arts," he adds. "A community is better with arts and artists are better with an audience. Especially with performing arts, you need an audience. Improv is pointless without an audience," he says with a laugh.

Fancy Pants Artistic Director Adam Carter and Business Manager  Zombro worked many years with Whole Art, have a deep affection for the Studio 246 space, and say they understand what works best there.

When they started Fancy Pants in January, they were describing the theater as a place for the alternative voice of theater in Kalamazoo. Already that has evolved. Today they think of it as independent theater — a place where the work of new playwrights will be seen and the more familiar works will be done in a different way, Carter says. 

"No one will know what they are going to see here," Carter says, even as he acknowledges that could make for some interesting marketing challenges.

They will continue to look for the works that will attract the underground theater crowd and cultivate that.

Casting shows will be a mixture of inviting actors he knows he wants in specific roles and auditioning others in hopes of finding that surprise performer. "We're looking for quality all around."

Zombro describes Fancy Pants as a theater that will be "a safe forum for all people to explore society through staged art."

She and Carter agree the working relationships being established already have helped Fancy Pants, the youngest of the three groups in Studio 246.

"We have a great support group in the other companies at 246," Carter says. "It's a close-knit group and it's great to work with like-minded people."

Kathy Jennings is editor of Second Wave.

Photographs by Leisa Thompson


Gabriel Giron & Kirk Latimer of Kinetic Affect
Adam Carter & Carol Zombro of Fancy Pants
Dann Sytsma of Crawlspace Eviction
Adam Carter of Fancy Pants during production of "Board Fold: A Tale of Retail"
Fancy Pants actor Mikala Hansen
Sytsma in window of Studio 246
Studio 246
Fancy Pants actors getting ready
Lobby of Studio 246
A scene from Fancy Pants production of "Board Fold: A Tale of Retail"
Latimer waving
Latimer & Giron
Carter & Zombro