It’s not hard to find a production of Our Town or Death of a Salesman in Southwest Michigan if you wait long enough, but new plays are a different story. For the second weekend in a row, Queer Theatre Kalamazoo will continue its run of two fresh plays from Western Michigan University theatre students.
This weekend's show runs Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. at Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative on Portage Road in Kalamazoo, followed by a Q&A with the playwrights. Tickets are $10. The plays presented include adult themes.
Nick Thornton recently graduated from WMU and Cara Beth Heath is finishing her master’s degree there this year.
In both works you'll hear many place names you recognize - Portage Road, Western, 'The Zoo.' Thornton says his piece, "The Great Three Legged Race," shows different aspects of gay life in Kalamazoo as he’s experienced it.
“The first one is two college freshmen in a dorm room. The second one is a spoken word piece about kind of the one night stand culture and the politics of gay romance in small town America," Thornton explains. "And the third one is an exploration of the relationships between straight women and gay men, and the interesting ways that intimacy can develop outside the traditional norms of best friends.”
This weekend's show also takes snippets from Cara Beth Heath’s larger works. Some of which aren’t finished yet—like her play "Good Enough." It’s loosely based on the lives of women working at Kalamazoo’s Gibson Guitar Factory during World War II.
“It just takes place in a particular room in the factory where they used to cut and coil the strings for the guitars, between two women that were actually partners in that room that I’ve done some research on," says Heath. "They actually sat next to each other in the string room and actually went dancing with each other and their husbands when they got back from the war.”
Heath also has clips from her play Lessandra - about an overworked college student who takes solace in talking to the moon as she watches her baby niece - and a short on sexual assault in the military.
But Heath says there’s a reason you see the same plays over and over again—it’s hard to gather an audience for a play no one’s heard of before. For bigger theatres, that’s a financial risk.
Thornton says many of the new plays you see today are from rising-star playwrights that are already popular in theatres.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of politics," adds Cara Beth Heath. "Like you got to know somebody at some theatre to recognize your name and then read your play. Or your play has to be so good that it stands out amidst 200 submissions. So there are way more playwrights than opportunities for their plays to be done.”
Thornton says we’ll always have those classic plays that everyone loves, but as times change, there’s always something new to say in the theatre.
“My first piece features someone being a webcam model. Well that’s not something that’s in a play from 20 years ago because it’s new," says Thornton.
"And also when you get new plays by people in the community there’s this amazing homegrown energy to theatre. Because we can tailor it to our audience here, you know cause you can’t do that with another play because that’s the playwright’s work. But when we’re here we can kind of build it to the Kalamazoo audience and make choices and changes that will appeal to them.”