What is your official title?
Jack of all trades. Professional Juggler. Artistic Director at Farmer’s Alley Theater.
What is Farmer’s Alley Theater? What makes it different from other theaters?
Farmer’s Alley Theater is an up close and intimate, 100 seat professional theater in downtown Kalamazoo. We are affiliated with the Actor’s Union, which is called Actors Equity Association, and that allows us to bring in different kinds of talent from across the country, or maybe even across the world, where other organizations may focus only on local actors, which we do as well. We have great local actors and designers and artists here, but we are also able to bring in other talent as well based on the needs of the show.
At this time, we are currently Southwest Michigan’s first and only year round Equity Professional Theater Company. I think it’s a pretty big deal. It was a dream from the beginning; I don’t think we thought it would come as quick as it did. We have six seasons in the books, we are half way through seven, and are planning eight. It started naturally happening, and we knew what we wanted to do to be different. There are several other theaters in town that are so great, and do great work in their particular niche, but we wanted to be fully professional, and that’s what makes us different.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
My life and my schedule are probably a lot different from Artistic Directors at other theaters. Many new young businesses, startups, which is basically what this is, it’s a labor of love, especially in the theater. Right now, with the size of the theater and the age of the theater, I am not able to be on full time staff. I have a wife and two kids, who are so awesome. Jason is 11, and Carly just turned 8, and they have done some performing as well. My wife is also a performer; we’re like the Partridge’s or the Von Trapp’s! I need to be able to pay for our house and health insurance, so I also work for AT&T.
AT&T is a great company and provides that income that I need. That’s when I call myself the professional juggler because I work there between 40 and 50 hours a week, and in my off time I work on Farmer’s Alley, along with weekends and Thursdays and Sundays, which are my days off from AT&T. A typical day is getting up getting my kids ready for school, breakfast, shower, then off to AT&T. When the kids get home, I spend time with them, put them to bed, then grab the computer and work on some Farmer’s Alley stuff. That is what I’m doing right now. I love my family, so I need to be able to provide for them, and I also love theater, so I have to juggle.
Any upcoming events we should watch for?
We try to put together a well-balanced, artistically and commercially fulfilling season. We have to take some risks, and we have to put out some shows that have name recognition. Right now, we have a really funny show called Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. It was a Tony winner for Best Play, the playwright is a farcical author named Christopher Durang. It’s something you can literally laugh your head off, and who doesn’t like that. We try to do at least one of those per year.
After that is a classic play called The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. It’s sort of world renowned, I think a lot of people read it in high school, so good recognition with this play. It has a lot of Western connections; the director is a Western grad, we have two acting professors and a Western grad in the cast as well, which is so great. It’s another thing we thought of at the beginning, that there is a great University here with a theater program, so we could have interns come in and get experience, and it’s now starting to happen. Designers too! Our designer for this show is the resident costumer designer at Western. I really just want to say thanks for all of the Western support.
In March, we have the Children’s Theater doing a production of Goodnight, Moon. The Children’s Theater is a very important part of our mission.
We then have a cool musical in June called Dog Fight. It’s a new musical written by two University of Michigan grads who are just going to take over the world. They wrote the Broadway musical, A Christmas Story. They have written a James and the Giant Peach play, and they’ve written for the TV show, Smash. They’re incredible. I’m going to try to get them to come work on the show or do a master class or something. It’s risky in that it’s a less known title, and they’re up and coming, so they’re not as well known yet. It’s based on a movie with River Phoenix, but it’s still not as well known. We feel that the score is phenomenal, and it’s something that we want to present to Kalamazoo. All the college kids at WMU and U of M are excited to audition.
And then we are ending with a not so risky one. It’s called The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical. It’s raucous and riotous, but it has a lot of heart. We did The Great American Trailer Park Musical, not Christmas version, twice, because it was so popular, so now that there is a Christmas version, we just have to do it!
And that’s what we have to do – risky show in June, and then almost a surefire hit to end the year. It’s very exciting; we are planning season 8 right now, but unfortunately I can’t share anything from that yet. It’s going to be great.
Can you tell us about your background/passion?
I am from New Jersey, and I went to the Boston Conservatory of Music, and I have a fancy degree in musical theater. I had some success; I was on the national tour of West Side Story as Tony back in 1997-1998. And during that time period, I met my wife, and she was going to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. It was love at first sight, and that was all she wrote for that! We wound up touring together, playing Tony and Maria opposite of each other. My wife, Danene, is co-directing West Side Story at Portage Central High School. It’s really full circle, and it’s such a special show for us; it truly brought us together and helped us in so many ways.
Doing that tour, this guy who does Pops concerts saw me perform, and I got a chance to sing with all of these famous orchestras, like the Detroit Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra. You know those PBS specials every 4th of July? I got to sing in one of those in 1997; I was scared out of my mind singing live with the National Symphony Orchestra with 500,000 people on the Capitol lawn.
We had some success, but we had other dreams too; we wanted the house with the white picket fence and kids and a dog, but it’s hard to have that and a theater career as well. So, long story short, we weren’t really performing as much as we wanted to at the time, and Danene said, hey, why don’t we move to Kalamazoo? And, I said no. And that’s the end of the story – just kidding! So, I originally said, no, but I’m obviously here, and we had this conversation about would we rather put our family on hold and try to make it in theater, or could we put theater on hold and start our family with the chance to come back to theater later in life when the kids were grown. We picked the latter, and then thought, where is the best place to raise a family?
We came to Kalamazoo, and after a couple of years of trying to make things happen in the theater, we connected with Adam and Rob Weiner, who are our co-producers and co-founders. We were doing a production of the show Ragtime at the Civic Theater, and the four of us just really hit it off. Eventually, this space became available and they came to us and said, hey, we talk about big things and big dreams, let’s do this. We said, you’re crazy, but then we started working on it, and we took this leap. From seed to tree, one year, we did Ragtime in October of ’07, we opened these doors in October of ’08. I don’t know how we did it, but the timing was right, and the aces were in their places! It was one year from idea to opening the doors.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
I have been in Kalamazoo for 10 years. I don’t know if I have one word or one sentence. I want to say, diversity or culture, or diversified culture. I just love how at times it feels like a college town; there’s such a vibrant college feel, and I think that Kalamazoo has a lot to offer a college-aged kid from theater, to clubs and different venues.
It’s also very “adult” here and cultured. We spend time at those places, too. You can get a sense of the arts when you’re here. It was so important to me; every time I visited here, I could feel that it was a supportive arts community. It’s so rare to have a symphony in a place of this size. There are so many flavors to that, though, so it’s hard to pick just one thing.
I also have to come back to the family mentality. It’s a great place to raise a family. Even though it’s big-ish, it is a small town with a big city vibe! There’s a lot going on, but you can feel safe, and your kids can get a good education. The school systems here are excellent, and The Promise is so huge.
What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?
I must admit I listen to a lot of musical theater, because it’s part of my job. But, when I’m not listening to musical theater, I’m pretty eclectic. I love a Motown feel; I love Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. I’ve tried to expose my kids to some of that too; some this stuff is now on my son’s iPod, which is pretty cool.
I love the Beatles; my mom went to Woodstock, so I’m also very much into classic Rock. I love The Who. I remember one of the first Broadway shows I went to see was Tommy, which The Civic is currently doing. I love Tommy; it was so exciting seeing that show on Broadway, it’s a pretty killer show.
My son has been exposing me to some pop stars; I’ve become partial to Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga. I saw Lady Gaga do a concert with Tony Bennett – I’m also partial to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett – and I have a lot of respect for Tony, and I don’t think he would have performed with her had he not thought that she would take it seriously and do an awesome job. I feel like she is this generation’s Barbara Streisand; I was really blown away by her.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
Cream and sugar, please. I am not a coffee snob, but I do appreciate a good cup of coffee. I like Waterstreet and Biggby. My mainstay, my every day, is going to Irving’s. I bring my travel mug there and fill up my Waterstreet coffee there. My father-in-law helped Kip Plew open Irving’s; he was the Deli Manager there for awhile.
Do you have a go-to spot in Kalamazoo?
This (Farmer’s Alley Theater) is my spot. After that, anywhere my kids or my wife are. We used to take the kids to Jungle Joe’s or Bounceland, so any kid places. Home is definitely one of my go to places to spend time with my family.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Be more multitalented. Let me rephrase that – expand your horizons. It’s advice that I give to young artists today. Don’t hold yourself back from expressing yourself in different ways. If you sing, but you have an opportunity to play the piano, play the piano. Keep yourself open to all of the different forms of expression.
What is your dream for the future of Farmer’s Alley Theater?
My dream is to be able to pull from places like Grand Rapids and Chicago and Detroit. Grand Rapids has large tours, and they have a great community theater, but there isn’t a little professional equity theater there. I think a lot of people from Kalamazoo go up to Grand Rapids to see performances, so I believe that if we can do great work here, we will be able to draw a crowd from our neighbors up in Grand Rapids.
I would like to keep it growing and successful. We’ve been fortunate to have such a strong, loyal subscriber base; attendance has increased year after year. We are averaging 90% capacity, which is very rare in the theater, and we are proud of that. I would like to continue with that and see that grow.
I would like to see if there’s a way to expand. Right now, we love what we do; we do up close, intimate theater, and our audience loves that. We have such a small space that you can see everything up close. I wish there was a way to also increase our seating somehow; maybe have a second space where we could do larger events. Who knows how far down the line that is, but it’s a dream, nonetheless.
One thing that is in our mission is to do more from an educational standpoint. We’d like to do some classes; there are a lot of classes being offered in Kalamazoo, but we’d like to find a niche space, and offer some classes that currently are not happening. I think the sustainability is a dream enough. If we can continue to do high quality, professional theater and people keep coming, that’s a dream come true right there.
What is your favorite stage production?
I would say, The Secret Garden. We just mounted that in September-October of 2014. I got to play the lead role of Archibald, and my wife played the lead role of Lilly. My son played Colin, who is Archie’s son in the show. My mother in law directed it, and my father in law was also in it – he played Ben the gardener. The only person in my immediate family who was missing was my little one, Carly; she wasn’t old enough to play the lead role of Mary Lennox. It combines everything I love – family and theater at the same time.
What is your favorite role?
Tony from West Side Story. It started my professional acting career, and it’s how I met my wife.
I love a lot of musical theater performers, classics like Mandy Patinkin, or a newer actor, Sutton Foster. There’s Ramin Karmiloo, who played Jean Valjean in Les Miserable. Film acting, I love Jeff Bridges, and I love Sean Penn and Jeff Daniels. I feel a connection to Jeff Daniels; he is one of my role models because he started the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, MI.
I am, of course, very partial to the New York performers who have worked at farmers alley, like Barbara Marineau, Michelle Duffy, Trey Ellett, Lauren Kennedy and Scott Coulter. I also love actors like Tom Hanks and George Clooney. What they do besides acting is so important to me; they show me that you can be a great actor, but also have strong philanthropic purpose.
Who would play you in a movie?
I want to say Bradley Cooper, because he rocks. You know who has to play me? Eddie Cahill. Eddie was on CSI: New York, and he is currently on the show Under the Dome, with a Western grad named Alexander Koch! We’ll say he’s a distance cousin of mine. But yeah, Eddie and I look a lot alike.
Jeremy, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Jeremy and Farmers Alley Theatre on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.