Exit Left Theatre Company is working to change the boundaries of art in Holland.
Started by University of Michigan senior Jamie Colburn in April 2017, the company has already seen success in just over a year.
“After the (presidential) election in 2016, that really took a toll on me and it got me thinking about my own community where I come from … which happens to be pretty conservative,” Colburn said. “Along with that, I started thinking about how I could give back to the community in a way that will benefit everybody.”
Colburn’s reputation in Holland is with the theater, so he thought he’d start there. While the city has a good theater community already, Colburn wanted to do something different while also opening the doors of communication.
“There are going to be differing opinions no matter where you go, but it’s how you approach those ideologies and how you talk about them with each other,” Colburn said. “I wanted to create a theater whose mission was to spark a conversation that opens people up to new life experiences and allows them the opportunity to talk about it.”
Because Colburn is studying theater at U of M, he has a connection to professional theater as well as the community theater in his hometown. The goal with Exit Left was to have both.
Colburn has been part of theater in Holland since the age of 8, so by now he has a reputation with the community — so much so that he was able to raise $6,500 in one month to kickstart the theater company. After the first season — paying actors, buying sets and costumes, venue space, etc. — Colburn’s company broke even.
“Which is almost unheard of in the theater world,” Colburn said. “Let alone bringing something so radical into such a traditional community.”
Exit Left has staged a variety of shows, including Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a play focusing on a trans woman with a botched surgery, and Sweeney Todd, a classic but with Exit Left’s twist. The music was performed by a pianist and cellist, and the cast had nine people singing in a round, all performed at the Holland Armory.
Colburn said the goal is to stage six shows a year by season four. Currently, Exit Left is in its second season, preparing for the third and final show. Next year, Colburn has five shows ready to go.
This passion for theater didn’t just come from anywhere.
“According to my mother, I was singing since I was a baby,” Colburn said. “My dad is a musician and did theater when he was younger, and both my sisters did theater growing up, so it runs in the family.”
Colburn started at eight years old, playing Winnie the Pooh in a community theater program. He continued acting at Holland High School and even directed some shows. In 2014, Colburn traveled to New York City to compete in the Jimmy Awards, a.k.a. the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. That opportunity gave Colburn the chance to perform as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. After graduating high school in 2015, Colburn was accepted into the University of Michigan musical theater program.
After finishing up the June show, At the Table, Colburn is now preparing for Parade. Set to open July 26, this musical is about a Jewish man accused of murder while living in the 1930s South. Focusing on themes of race and anti-semitism, the story reminds us of our morals and the consequences of being prejudiced and ignorant.
Colburn definitely doesn’t do all this alone. Education Director Taryn Timmer Roels works with summer interns. Colburn’s sister, Kelsey Colburn, is the associate marketing director, Jen Kouw is the public relations director and Justin Dryer is the tech director. Rich Perez is the co-artistic director.
Colburn has big dreams for himself and his theater company. After college, he hopes to move to New York to pursue acting and wants to build up Exit Left to be a sustainable company, with or without his physical presence. More than anything, he wants to make a difference.
Everything Colburn does with Exit Left is in pursuit of a specific goal: starting a conversation. He believes theater is a unique and sometimes easier way to reach people when trying to address political or social issues.
“Theater is a collaborative experience from beginning to end, with the cast, the crew and the audience,” he said. “It’s one of the only art forms that tells a story and brings a community together and transports an entire room to a different place. You can tell so many stories and experience so many different things within two hours.”
Exit Left Theatre Company
77 W. 11th St., Holland
July 26-August 5