Without a stage to call their own, it may seem that Betka-Pope Productions is hidden from the view of Grand Rapids’ wider theater community. Though, artistic director Eirann Betka-Pope seems to prefer flying under that radar. It gives them the freedom to find those pockets and gaps in live theater that are in need of some weirdness, all in the name of comedy.
“The goal is to keep creating opportunity and having fun,” Betka-Pope said. “I don’t think it’s as serious as people take it.”
For those uninitiated, Betka-Pope Productions boasts a grab-bag of theatrical, comedic and artistic projects, all happening year-round. From trivia nights to walking tours to stage musicals at Midtown, there’s always something fun coming up on their docket. However, their journey to the present began with particularly humble origins.
“When I moved back to Grand Rapids about eight years ago, I had an artist studio on Division called The Fuse Box,” Betka-Pope said. “It was one of those ‘live/work’ spaces. So, I turned it into a performance space, a venue.”
Performances at The Fuse Box were scrappy, with audience members packed into a small studio space and performers wearing handmade costumes. Even so, beloved cult musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other original parodies gave Eirann’s small theater a unique identity, one completely separate from what’s historically been Grand Rapids’ community theater scene.
Around this same time, Eirann performed regularly with a troupe of alumni from Aquinas College’s improv team called No Outlet Improv, putting on shows at Grand Rapids’ former Dog Story Theater. They later helped inaugurate The Comedy Project as their theater manager, but then the pandemic hit.
“Every theater’s shutdown, I don’t have any projects going on, and I was going really stir-crazy,” Betka-Pope said. “In October 2020, we started Grand Rapids Crime Tours. And that was just taking true stories of Grand Rapids crime, putting a theatrical spin on them, and bringing them outside.”
With Betka-Pope Productions off and running in 2020, it was time for Eirann and their partner Jenna to start big with their first full theatrical production: Xanadu. Taking place in a nontraditional theater arts space like The Pyramid Scheme, GR’s first impression of Betka-Pope Productions was a strong one. This was going to be different from anything else we’ve seen in town in terms of live theater.
“The goal was to bring in not just new talent, but new people,” Betka-Pope said. “If you want to direct or choreograph for a show in Grand Rapids theater, there just wasn’t historically a way to do that. Now, bigger theaters are opening that up, but that wasn’t happening back in 2020. So, I brought out an entirely new team for Xanadu.”
Since that first venture two years ago, Eirann and Jenna’s company has exploded. Selling out performances for Chicago as well as a second rendition of Rocky Horror this past year, Betka-Pope Productions has certainly solidified itself as an equal contender to that of Circle and Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. Despite this, longtime fans of Eirann will not be disappointed to see the familiar charm and whimsy in each of their other continuing projects, especially their often hilarious trivia nights at House Rules bar. Even their full-stage musicals bring a level of fun that’s refreshing and new.
“People show up with whatever they have, and it's like scrapyard theater,” Betka-Pope said. “We end up making this beautiful metal art out of it that nobody expected.”
Those interested in this sort of scrapyard theater have come in droves, and Betka-Pope Productions’ latest program is proof of that. Called “GUST,” or the Grown-Up Summer Theatre Camp, this weeklong event hosted across the Creston neighborhood puts together a group of adult theater nerds and casts them in a fully-produced musical in only six days. The musical selected, The Wedding Singer, will then be performed on August 5 at “Golden Age” above Creston Brewery.
“We thought it’d be really fun to do The Wedding Singer up at a place where they cater to weddings,” Betka-Pope said. “Tickets are $10 for anyone who wants to see these grown-ups who’ve learned a musical in a week come and play.”
With director Caitlin Hart and choreographer Hailie MacKay, the participants of GUST will benefit from instruction by some of Grand Rapids’ brightest creative artists and enjoy several of the same summer camp activities that have permeated children’s theater camps all over.
“We’re taking the anxiety out of the process and replacing it with workshopping and mentorship,” Betka-Pope said. “You’re going to be working alongside somebody who has been in some mainstage productions and somebody who is a newcomer to theater.”
With over a decade of summer camp experience under their belt through work with Grand Rapids and Muskegon Civic Theatre, Eirann is confident that this imaginative space usually reserved for kids can have all the same positive benefits for adults, too.
Another production happening later in October is Carrie: The Musical at The Pyramid Scheme. Based on the horror novel by Stephen King, Carrie is in the unique position of portraying several relevant ideas to its audiences on fatphobia, religious oppression, teen bullying and more. Known for their ability to uplift marginalized voices through their direction and performances, Betka-Pope Productions is eager to tell such an important and resonant story.
“When you can tell the truth onstage, whether it’s funny or gritty or depressing like Carrie can get, you can connect with your audience that much more powerfully,” Betka-Pope said. “I can inspire them to tell their truth to themselves, to somebody else, to live their truth differently or just sit in somebody’s else truth.”
Earlier that same month on October 1, their popular Halloween Bash at the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market will also be returning. With over a hundred vendors selling items both spooky and macabre, attendees from last year will find plenty of new attractions. One notable addition is “Goblin Lane,” which is a special art market for young crafters and creators. After last year’s impressive turnout of 5000 patrons, Eirann is anticipating this to be their biggest event yet.
Beginning this whole adventure right during the pandemic, Eirann Betka-Pope knows better than anyone how uncertain and unpredictable live performance can really be. Trying to find a space in which they felt they belong, finding the right stories to tell their audiences, and swinging for the fences with some of their biggest productions has been a process years in the making. But that same scrappiness and haphazard throwing together of talents is the sort of thing Eirann loves about their art.
They seem content to be working in this field that focuses almost entirely on people; the relationships we form through art, as well as the relationships that sometimes break apart and grow distant. Part of the beauty of live theater and comedy is this kind of ephemerality.
“It’s not the rehearsal, it’s not getting every step right, it’s not singing in sync,” Betka-Pope said. “It’s the cast party, the feeling you get walking into rehearsal with somebody, the side conversations. That’s the connection, that’s what the theater really has to offer.”
Learn more at betkapopeproductions.com or follow them @betkapopeproductions.