Two Grand Rapids natives are returning to their roots, telling the story of their city’s theatrical history and the power of community theater.
Teresa Thome and Patrick Ziegler were both 19 years old when they started to pursue an interest in theater. Under the guidance of then Grand Rapids Junior College English professor Fred Sebulske, they dove into the Grand Rapids’ community theater scene and took off.
The two have stayed friends ever since and now co-own Fubble Entertainment, which celebrates its 12th year in business this summer. Thome travels between Grand Rapids and Los Angeles and Ziegler between Grand Rapids and Chicago, both working on various projects, whether it be writing, producing or performing.
“(Fred) certainly inspired in us a passion for community theater and for the theater arts,” Thome said. “So here we are coming full circle to celebrate and honor the theater that we love so much.”
Fubble Entertainment is teaming up with local community theaters in Grand Rapids, including, but not limited to: Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids, Circle Theatre, Civic Theatre, Ebony Road Players, Jewish Theatre and Heritage Theater. They are also looking at local improv groups and smaller theater companies.
“It was something that Patrick had been suggesting for some time,” Thome said. “We know that Grand Rapids is touted as one of the nation’s most productive, successful community theater communities … so we wanted to understand why, and that’s really the start of what put us on this journey.”
“We’re beer city, and number one place to grow a family, and all of these different number ones, but we’re also right up there on the community theater national list, and that story hasn’t been told yet.”
The producers went into the project focusing on the history, but said it developed to be so much more.
“We’re really working to get to the root of why does our community do community theater; what makes us so unique and special in doing that; what is that transformative power of community theater?” Thome said.
So far, Ziegler and Thome have been conducting interviews with local actors, directors and other people involved in community theater, as well as looking at historical research of theater over the years in Grand Rapids. In this, panel discussions are taking place between executive directors, those involved in the production of a show onstage and off, and actors. Thome said they will have interviewed at least 70 people by the end of the research.
Ziegler and Thome are finding there are many leaders in the community are keeping the theater scene alive now, but many who have passed on played a large role as well, over the decades.
“There are a lot of influencers who have since left us in the last five to 10 years and that was one of the reasons we wanted to do this, because we wanted to make sure we capture their stories before it was too late,” Thome said.
This includes people like: Paul Dreher, former managing director of Civic Theatre; Marti Childs, who performed until she was 90 years old and was a mentor to many; Norma Brink, who founded Circle Theatre; Cedric Ward, founder of Robeson Players; and Dave Nicolette, former Grand Rapids Press theater reviewer.
Beyond the history, the producers hope the documentary will tell a much larger story about the bond of a community.
“What we’re really finding from the documentary is the transformational power of community theater, not only within the community — how people can come to a show and it can change their thinking and it can inspire them — but also the people that are a part of the community theater, from the people you see on stage to the lighting people, the backstage people, the volunteers,” Ziegler said. “We’re really looking at … somebody might be a teacher during the day, but at night, they’re a performer on stage. Somebody might be a plumber during the day, and they’re a carpenter on the weekends.
“It’s just amazing why these people do this. … They do it for the love they find in the theater. The love that is created and this family that is created through the community.”
The producers don’t have a definite date on when the documentary will be finalized, but hope to have a teaser ready for the Grand Awards, a celebration of local college and community theaters, this October. A musical number is also in the works to be a part of the documentary.
Ziegler and Thome said they are not profiting off this production, but instead want to lift up the community theaters in town with the making of the documentary. Donations to aid in the research and production can be made on their website, grtheatredocumentary.com.