A look back at how the past year of theater began

By Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtToday is a rather auspicious day. Though there was never a “Today We Are Officially And Without Doubt The Uncommon Loons” day, it was a year ago today that the idea to do a Shakespeare in the Park production in Grand Rapids happened, which is what needed to happen for our little theater company to be born.

I remember it quite well because of what happened leading up to that particular day. Really, the whole thing was just great timing from my point of view. The best place to start this story is probably back at the beginning of May, 2013, when my girlfriend Heather and I broke up. Actually, I should clarify a bit: she broke up with me very unexpectedly, which left me completely heartbroken. I was in love, and very suddenly, my love knew no purchase. Such events can do terrible things to one’s mind. At first I was inconsolable, but consolation gradually crept back into my life. The thing that stayed with me the longest, aside from a subtle yet nagging feeling of inadequacy, was my inability to write.

This is a problem for a writer. She had unwittingly hobbled me as if I were a dancer and she tripped me on her way out the door. Fortunately, I do make a distinction between creative writing and journalism, which is my profession. Getting stuff done at work was still a problem, but it was manageable. No, the biggest problem was the fact that I couldn’t write so much as a poem for weeks after we broke up. It didn’t have to be the case but for the fact that poetry was one of the things that bound us together. In short, she loved my poetry. Painful and distracting memories are difficult to deal with when they’re tied to the art you feel compelled to create.

Such was the case for the next month.

It wasn’t until June 8th that things began to turn around. The MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids had been gathering works by Gendron Jensen, who used to live in Grand Rapids, for a retrospective gallery of his work. The opening was on June 7th, which Jensen attended and spoke at, but I had worked it out with the MacRostie to meet with him the following morning at his hotel.

Jensen, without mincing words, is a charismatic and emotionally provocative artist. But you wouldn’t guess that from just looking at his work (he does amazingly detailed drawings of bones). We met on Saturday morning, the day after his opening reception, in the lobby of the Timberlake Hotel, and decided to wander over to the bar for a quiet place to sit and talk since it wasn’t open yet. In many respects, the interview was very much like many others I’d conducted in the past; I asked questions, he answered them, and we had a little banter in between. But unlike most interviews, he seemed to manage to cut through all the crap that we deal with in our day to day lives and to convey to me at that table in the bar on Saturday morning the essence of what inspires him. Life itself, the act of waking to a new day and being able to witness the static and the potential before him, seemed to mean more to him than critical and commercial success would mean to most of the rest of us.

And not only that, but said that he saw something in me. We were there to talk about his past work, but at a certain point he seemed more interested in talking about me than anything else. At a time when I couldn’t find value in what I did, let alone who I was, he appeared to do so after sitting together for only an hour. After a short while, we ended up ordering whiskeys once the bar opened, sharing our passions over spirits before noon.

It’s hard to distill what this conversation that I had a year ago meant to me at the time. But looking back, I recognize that it was the first moment of inspiration that I had had since my breakup a month earlier, and I was catapulted into a state of mind I hadn’t felt for awhile. I started writing again later that evening.

Old Central School

Old Central School

Once I started getting some words down, I realized that I had a lot bottled up inside me. But I didn’t really have a place to turn the bottle toward after popping the cork off. That changed a couple days later, when I finished work at the office a little early on what was a beautiful summer day on Tuesday, June 11th. I left the office and went a block away to the park outside Old Central School sit and read a book in the sunshine, when John and Steph Schroeder happened by a short while later. It turned out they thought spending some time in the sunshine after work was a good idea too. As fellow community theater advocates and practitioners, we almost immediately started talking about theater and some things we’d either like to do or simply see done in the community. If I remember correctly, it was John who, looking at the green space before us in the middle of town, said that it would be a great spot to do a Shakespeare in the Park-style show. Almost instinctually, we started taking about the logistics of how such a thing could happen in Grand Rapids, and it wasn’t 10 minutes until I turned to the Schroeders and said “We’re going to do this, right?”

Within three months, we had a successful run of a show that ran over the course of two weekends at the end of the summer. The whole thing couldn’t have happened at a better time for me creatively; I wrote the entire adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” in about two and a half weeks. The Schroeders and I took joint control of the production, each playing a particular role (on stage and off stage), yet fulfilling whatever needed to be done when it needed doing.

There’s no reason why this should’ve worked, except that we wanted it to badly enough (that and who can resist that kind of a challenge?!). And it did work. People loved the show, and we hadn’t even gotten out of our costumes yet before people asked what the next show was going to be.

So here we are a year later. We decided to make a company out of our little impulse, the Uncommon Loons, and have created three one-act plays over the winter, are about to perform a mystery dinner theater for the Wizard of Oz Festival (today, no less), and are less than a month away from our second Shakespeare in the Park production, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Considering all this, I look forward to seeing what the next year brings.

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