If you perform theater or comedy in Grand Rapids and don’t know Eirann Betka, you may be missing out.
The 30-year-old child at heart has a full schedule by choice, working as the outreach specialist at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, director of Comedy Outlet Mondays, and as a comedian and actress at Funny Girls.
To start off most weeks, she’s at the Dog Story Theater for Comedy Outlet Mondays, where she coordinates performances and performs in her own troupe known as Funny Girls. Throughout the week, she spends her days at the Civic Theatre, teaching classes and coordinating outreach for community programs. In the evenings, she spends time at The Fuse Box, her studio and venue in the Heartside neighborhood of downtown Grand Rapids.
For Betka, a real fan of community theater, her work at the Civic Theatre allows her to tap into one of many passions.
The Civic Theatre, established in 1925, currently ranks as the fifth largest community theater in the country. It serves not only nine productions annually, with more than 800 volunteers, but also houses the year-round Civic School of Theatre Arts, with more than 1,600 students each year.
“I believe the people who need theater the most don’t have access to it right now,” Betka said.
Currently, Civic Theatre partners with Grand Rapids University Prep Academy and Coit Creative Arts Academy to offer year-round classes in acting, improv, musical theater, choreography, costume and prop design, and more for students in pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Theater instills so many values in especially youth,” Betka said. “It’s almost therapeutic. You’re able to deal with your own emotions by living someone else’s.”
Need-based scholarships covering 50 percent to 80 percent of the tuition are available to these students through the Civic Theatre.
ALWAYS HELPING OTHERS
Betka said her desire to help people came from seeing the same trait in her mother, Charlotte Betka.
“My mom was just everything and more — she filled every spot in the book,” Betka said. “We struggled a lot but we were rich in love.”
Betka grew up in a Catholic home in Ludington with three brothers and a father who was away on business a lot. But even though money was tight, Betka, her mom and brothers remained very close.
“Where we were lacking in financial support, we were excelling in emotional support,” Betka said. “My childhood made me feel like I could do anything. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t making money, at least I was doing it and loving what I was doing.”
Additionally, Betka and her brothers appreciated their mother’s openness when they all — at different times — came out to her as gay.
Betka went on to Aquinas College after high school, and for a time considered being a nun.
“I knew I didn’t want to marry a man, and I knew I didn’t want to work for money. I just wanted to help people. It turns out I’m gay and a humanitarian,” Betka said.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in theater, Betka traveled before returning to Muskegon to work for AmeriCorps for two years. She was later hired at West Michigan Therapy, a nonprofit for housing and homelessness.
“It has disbanded since, but was pretty renowned for the housing-first model, which is bringing people and giving them homes first and then providing services, because you need to have a place first in order to do homework, or come home from a job to cook a meal,” Betka said.
IMPROV, FOR GOOD
Betka also worked at the Muskegon Civic Theatre before moving to Grand Rapids in 2011. She immediately started to work at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and with No Outlet Improv Troupe.
“It was a bunch of goofballs who wanted to play,” Betka said about the original members of the troupe. “And adults playing is my favorite thing.”
For the first show with Betka, the troupe also held a canned food drive.
“If we’re bringing an audience, and a bunch of people are in the same place at the same time, we might as well do some good from it,” Betka said.
She recalls tickets were $5 each, but you could bring in some cans and see the show for free. Every show since, No Outlet Improv has partnered with a community organization, like The Humane Society, Women’s Resource Center, Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan and Kid’s Food Basket.
“I don’t have money to give to my community, but I have time and I have resources,” Betka said. “And I can get other people to give.”
Almost two years ago, in 2014, Dog Story Theater asked the improv troupe to start hosting Comedy Outlet Mondays (COMs). Betka is now the director of the weekly event that helped spotlight the comedy community in Grand Rapids.
“The first couple of COMs, I was calling actors that night to beg them to come and do some stand-up or some improv — and I was calling my friends and begging them to come and see it,” Betka said. “And then all of a sudden, people started coming and performers started contacting me and now we have this thriving community that’s been going on for almost two years now.”
Betka said COMs take the Grand Rapids comedy community up a notch, with the addition of improv, puppets and more.
Each year, No Outlet Improv hosts the Grand Rapids Improv Festival, where more than 40 troupes around the Midwest gather to perform for eight days.
“Last year when we were looking through the applications, I noticed that there were no female troupes,” Betka said. “There’s a troupe with all males, there’s a troupe with some females, but there was no all-female comedy group.”
For Betka, that sparked the idea for Funny Girls, a “feminist” comedy improv group made up of 20 women. They began with performing entries from their teenage journals, and now hold shows monthly.
“It’s so empowering to be among these creative, talented women who are just brilliant,” Betka said. “If Comedy Outlet Mondays is my baby, Funny Girls is my strength.”
Betka said the group is looking to host outreach programs in schools and plan workshops in the future.
INSPIRING OTHER SUPERSTARS
In all that she does, Betka actively tries to help others and to spread love in the Grand Rapids community.
“She has such a remarkable sense of humor and she just so deeply cares for people that she loves,” Charlotte Betka said. “Her humor, her artistic abilities, she so wants to share them with everybody.”
Charlotte Betka recalled her daughter in fourth grade wrote a poem about an act of kindness in which someone gave a homeless man a blanket — all despite growing up in Ludington where she would not have seen many homeless people.
“She knew there was such a thing as a homeless problem,” Charlotte Betka said. “I think it was her way of saying, ‘If I saw a homeless person, this is what I would do to make them feel better.’”
The mother also beamed about her daughter’s role in directing a performance of Peter Pan earlier this year, in partnership with the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan. All the parts were acted by children with down syndrome.
“Watching her interactions with those kids when they were on the stage was just priceless,” Charlotte Betka said. “She was there every step with them. … It was so gentle and so patient. The pride of their accomplishment of that show was the most heartwarming thing to see.”
Fellow Funny Girls member Amy Gascon said Betka is “ridiculously talented.”
“She has a way of making everyone look like a superstar,” Gascon said. “That is the mark of someone who is especially talented: She has the skill and confidence to not be the center of attention, but in doing that, she shines even brighter. I cannot say enough good things about her.”