Laura Henderson’s theater company tends to take the stage in spaces better known for beers, bar food and bands.
It may be unusual, but it’s a gamble worth taking for the Otsego native and founder of both Bare Backstage Productions and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo (QTK).
“In researching words for the name (of QTK), I learned that the one people have the most backlash to is ‘queer,’” Henderson said. “But I found in my research that by reclaiming these negative terms and empowering the people behind it, you can take away a lot of the negative impact by normalizing the word.”
QTK has been performing at the Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, but plans are in the works to stage future QTK productions at venues that won’t necessarily be in established performing arts spaces.
Meanwhile, Bare Backstage has already used alternative venues to stage its first production: Fifty Shades of Shakespeare, which premiered in February at the Kalamazoo State Theatre, followed by shows at the Acorn Theatre in Three Oaks and Louie’s Trophy House Grill in Kalamazoo.
“Our mission is to bring theater to people with a minimal number of actors and sets, so we can adapt productions to any stage,” Henderson said. “These shows are easily travelled, so we can bring theater to people but also take it out of that prestige context. We can get lot more people coming out to see shows.”
Henderson will be taking the travelling theater concept to the extreme by doing it in larger spaces with more original material, said Shannon Fleckenstein, a local actor, musician and cast member in Henderson’s productions.
Fleckenstein, who also acts in Fancy Pants Theatre productions, said when the theater company lost its space on the Kalamazoo Mall, it performed at other venues.
“It does present some challenges, because you never know how it’s going to work in a particular space,” Fleckenstein said.
In venues such as Louie’s or the State Theatre, audience members are able to eat and drink while watching a performance, which makes live theater much more accessible and engaging. Henderson said this brings in a new audience base for the venues while giving Bare Backstage and QTK performance space.
“We always produce shows that are inclusive with edgier work, and with the Bare Backstage productions, the audience has the opportunity to interact,” she said.
Henderson’s establishment of herself in Kalamazoo’s theater community began when she was a student at Western Michigan University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
During that time, she also taught school in South Korea twice. She traveled extensively and was exposed to people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations.
“I grew up in Otsego and there was no representation of diversity or the LGBTQ community in Otsego,” Henderson said. “We had one male in my high school who identified as gay.”
Although she performed in theater productions at Otsego High School, her desire to immerse herself in acting happened after moving back to Kalamazoo to work on her graduate degree. She got back into acting with the eLLe Theater Group, which since 2010 has annually performed a play with a continuing storyline that builds upon itself in subsequent years.
“Being a part of this group was the first time I was around strong allies who weren’t lesbian, but were strong and empowered and happened to be in relationships with women,” Henderson said. “Being a part of eLLe allowed me to be myself.”
Since becoming a part of eLLe, she witnessed two people who came out and transitioned and one who left a relationship for a woman. She said the theater group provides a welcoming and safe environment where the community can come to meet open-minded people and gain a better understanding of the LGBTQ community.
“As part of my studies, I started researching LGBTQ issues and I knew I wanted to do something with media and performance in the community,” Henderson said.
As part of her master’s thesis, she wrote a play titled Queering Quintero. The play focuses on bullying, small-mindedness and an environment that creates a higher risk for LGBTQ teens to commit suicide. The play became QTK’s first touring production, and was performed at various spots around Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
Following those performances, the audience had an opportunity to meet and talk with the actors. At a Cranbrook Academy for the Arts event, Henderson said about 30 students stayed behind to talk.
Long term, Henderson said she would like to reach more people by opening other branches of Bare Backstage and QTK throughout Michigan and other areas of the United States. In the meantime, keep an eye out for new shows throughout the year in Kalamazoo.
“We want to normalize through exposure,” Henderson said. “We want to provide representation on stage, but for all of our shows, we have a safe, welcoming, friendly, supportive environment and a place to let yourself be happy while enjoying high-quality entertainment.”