A Summer of Lighthearted Classics at Circle Theatre
Written by Zachary Avery. Photo: Circle Theatre.


Do you remember the first show you ever saw in a theatre? How old were you, what was it like? Were the actors dressed in costume, wielding props like fencing swords or brass musical instruments? When they sang, did you feel like dancing along?

Nothing is quite like live theatre. In an increasingly digital landscape for entertainment, and despite Grand Rapids’ proclivity to add new attractions and trendy new businesses all around downtown, modern audiences seem to be losing patience for locally supported arts.

“It’s not just us; everybody’s attendance has dropped, even before COVID,” said Lynne Brown Tepper, executive and artistic director of Grand Rapids’ Circle Theatre. “Once you can get people in the door, then they usually come back. It’s just getting them in the door to understand the value of live theatre.”

Community-led performing arts has entered its 72nd season with Circle, and Tepper’s team of directors, stage managers, costumer designers and tech operators are hard at work preparing for this year’s mainstage productions. With only days between closings for Tick, Tick...BOOM! and full run-throughs of their June show, You Can’t Take It With You, the theater continues to provide a necessary summer-stock feeling to Grand Rapids’ drama scene, one that yearly participants cherish deeply.

“With community theatre, it’s one of those rare things where people come together from all different walks of life, different backgrounds and people who would never meet under different circumstances,” Tepper said. “When you’re coming together for a common goal, you see each other differently. You become a family.”

And this family at Circle Theatre continues to grow. During this past March’s weekend-long auditions, Tepper estimated that nearly half of those participants were entirely new to Circle, and even more so in 2023. Considering how Tepper met and remains in touch with some of her best friends through past shows (beginning as long ago as the 1980s), it’s endearing to see so many fresh faces take the leap into what could be a new lifelong hobby.

“We get a lot of people who have always wanted to do this,” Tepper said. “They just now have the confidence to do it, or they have the time to do it. The great thing about community theatre is that we need all different ages and you don’t have to have previous experience coming in.”

Circle Theatre volunteer-performers and eager audience members can anticipate a summer of lighthearted and classic stories that may offer as a sort of escape from what could become a turbulent year.

To begin, You Can’t Take It With You is refreshingly funny, which is surprising when you consider the age of the script (Circle Theatre last performed it in 1963). Tepper was relieved to hear that the show’s director, Carrie McNulty, elected to keep most of the script’s stage direction and humor intact, seeing no reason to change what doesn’t appear to be broken.

“It’s just this eccentric, fun, lovely family,” Tepper said. “It’s very sweet, and it’s got a little bit of nostalgia with it.”

Next, the musical Spamalot transports us to the world of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with horse-clopping sound effects and quests for lost shrubbery. Last performed at Circle in 2014, cult-fans of the movie have a lot to look forward to from this comedy hit.

“I’m really excited to have such a goofy musical onstage with that slapstick feeling that Monty Python brings,” said Shannon Heldt, marketing and outreach coordinator at Circle. “I really hope the audiences enjoy it, too.”

Despite popular selections such as these, attendance and its connection to ticket prices are a regular sticking point for local theatre companies in this post-COVID era. This issue, along with the desire to balance classic plays catered toward Circle’s established, older audiences with newer shows that bring in a younger crowd, has helped spark a new initiative to offer half-off “rush tickets” on the same day as all their mainstage shows.

“We want people here, so we’re constantly trying to find ways to be more accessible,” Tepper said.

That being said, Circle Theatre’s yearly concert series is more successful than ever, filling seats consistently as local and regional musicians come in to play covers of some of our favorite bands and eras in music; iconic rock duos, dance tunes and favorites by Prince. Its affordable $20 ticket is also incredibly alluring to attendees.

Remarkably, attendance for Circle’s concerts feels more reminiscent of their earlier decades, when Tepper worked as box office manager. In the early 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for patrons to be kept on waitlists prior to performances. Sold-out nights were the unilateral norm, not the exception. Why the recent change? A series of cancellations and postponed performances from last season, either from extreme weather or COVID-related illness, seemed to aggravate some audience-goers. That shift in attitude, along with an upward trend in last-minute ticket buying, keeps Tepper and her team on their toes.

“We have to reinvent the wheel every year, but it’s exciting to do that,” Tepper said. “I would always choose to look at that as an opportunity. Look at the possibilities, look at what we could do. I’m more willing to take a risk now than I ever was before.”

Circle Theatre
1703 Robinson Rd SE, Grand Rapids

Tick, Tick…Boom!, Through June 1

You Can’t Take It With You, June 13-29

Monty Python’s Spamalot, July 11-27

A Raisin in the Sun, Aug. 8-24

Urinetown, The Musical!, Sept. 5-21