Whether one is escaping into a character or learning more about one’s self through a role, theater has always provided the opportunity for growth, learning, self-expression and forging friendships.
For Dan Johnson, an actor familiar to patrons of Trenton’s Open Book Theatre Company, theater has become an experience characterized by transcendence and remembrance.
“As an actor, I approach theater instinctively, trying to erase myself to take on a particular character – how they move, breathe and see the world,” he said.
Johnson said as an actor, it is his responsibility to help audiences transcend the ordinary and escape from their lives for the duration of the show.
“It’s my job to facilitate that for them, through the performance of whoever I happen to be for the show,” he said.
Johnson said remembrance is characterized by who he is and how he presents himself on stage.
“I am a Black (biracial), bisexual theater person, and none of that should matter, because I approach each character differently, yet I am always hyper-aware of that fact,” he said. “Which means, on top of everything else, I am always hyper-aware of how I present myself on stage.”
Johnson said that while people may not know his sexual orientation, they will always be aware that he is black.
“I will not denigrate my existence on stage, and yet, because theater is predominately white, theater audiences insist I adjust how I perform on stage, so, my job has been to transcend race and sexuality, and to remember who I am,” he said. “Going forward, my job is to help audiences with both transcendence and remembrance.”
For Rich Bulleri, a 51-year member of the Players Guild of Dearborn, theater has also helped him to learn who he is, and to be true to himself.
“When I started, I was definitely in the closet,” he said. “It took a few years, but getting to know others in the theater got me to realize who I was.”
Bulleri also ran his own theater company, “Our Time Productions,” from 1994 to 1998, producing seven shows in a four-year span.
For Downriver actor Tony Primeau, theater has made him more outgoing and stronger-willed, which he said helps him in both his professional and personal life.
“I used to be shy, and read a lot, instead of going places,” he said. “Theater really got me out of my shell.”
Primeau said it is rewarding when a cast creates something that touches and moves the audience.
“I felt that when I performed in ‘The Boyfriend,’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Next to Normal,’” he said. “It lets us know we are doing something right, and it is not about ourselves, but for the audience.”
Primeau said the friendships he has forged with theater people are valuable and long-lasting.
“When a show is over, you can’t wait to perform with them again,” he said.
For Tom Sparrow of Allen Park, an active member of the Players Guild of Dearborn, theater has brought him friendship wherever he was in the world.
“I’ve lived in Wyandotte, Dearborn, Hartland, Vermont and Germany, and theater has allowed me to associate with, learn from, and collaborate and create with some incredibly talented, dedicated and wonderful people,” he said. “They have all enriched my life beyond measure.”
Downriver actor Thomas Koch also counts the relationships he has developed through theater as lifechanging.
“It’s made me captivated with the arts in life, and I have been drawn to relationships with people with similar interests,” he said. “Some of the best experiences I have had, have been on stage.”
Koch said theater feeds his creativity, which extends into other elements of his life, whether it be during group projects in college or in the workplace.
“I have been in customer service and sales for more than five years, and my exposure to theater has helped me in numerous ways,” he said. “Theater has also given me the courage needed to overcome life’s obstacles.”
Koch said theater brings together people who let one be creative and grow artistically.
“Being creative is a skill we were introduced to in our youth, and as I get older, I have to constantly remind myself to embrace that,” he said. “I am proud of my choice to embrace the arts, and without the support of my peers, I wouldn’t have the skills I have gained from performing.”
For actor Kirk Haas, who was a budding activist in college, a desire to be able to express himself better to the media led him to take an introductory television, theater and film class at the University of Michigan.
“I fell in love with performing, and changed my major concentration to the performing arts,” he said.
Through his work with the Actors Ensemble, Haas said he discovered the joy of working in the theater.
“I learned to fail, I learned teamwork, and I learned that if you truly love what you do, you will excel at it, and I did,” he said. “I did professional work for a decade after college, then community theater for the next 30 years, meeting my wife through theater along the way, and can now look back with pride on the work that I have done.”