Theatre Alumna Pays it Forward

MSU alumna says partnership between theatre students and Williamston Theatre helps foster successful careers 

Spend even a few minutes with Emily Sutton-Smith, and it’s obvious that the Theatre alumna is thrilled that the Williamston Theatre, approaching its tenth anniversary season (2015-2016) producing professional live theatre, has found a capable partner in the Michigan State University Department of Theatre.

a woman with brown hair wearing a light blue long sleeve shirt
Emily Sutton-Smith, Theatre Alumna

An actress, singer, producer and Williamston Theatre’s development director, Sutton-Smith says that the partnership between the Equity theatre and the MSU Theatre department is as much about being part of the community and giving back, as it is about providing opportunities to MSU theatre students and fostering the next generation of theatre professionals.

“The way it works,” Sutton-Smith says, “is MSU theatre students come and work in our theatre as actors, designers, or production assistants. In the process, they get to work with veteran stage actors doing their craft. I’ve always felt that there’s no better education. It’s such a great complement to MSU’s Department of Theatre.”

Sutton-Smith says that the students get to stretch their wings in their classrooms, and are pushed into uncomfortable realms so that they can expand their skills and their understanding of themselves as artists and actors. 

“Then, they come to Williamson Theatre and get to watch someone who has been doing this for 30 years, actually be on stage with them, and share that moment,” she says. “This includes professionals who’ve been in hundreds of shows; who bring that wisdom and experience on stage with them.

After all, theatre is, ultimately, a team sport. We all rely on each other.

“And what’s really cool is that many of these professionals don’t have any connection to MSU. But, they like our students, and love working with them, helping them understand the value of collaboration, and nurturing the creative process.

“After all, theatre is, ultimately, a team sport. We all rely on each other.”

And that’s precisely what the Williamston Theatre’s four founding theatre professionals, John Lepard, Tony Caselli, Christine Purchis and Sutton-Smith have been doing since 2004 when they decided to “create a theatre for, by and about people in this part of the world.”

“The four of us were all working in professional theatre in Michigan,” Sutton-Smith says, “and had met each other while working at the Purple Rose in Chelsea. When John moved to Williamston, he got the idea to start a professional theatre company. He got Tony on board, Tony brought Chris on board, and John brought me on board.

Sutton-Smith adds that the four eagerly offered up their particular skills, and before long, had chosen Williamston as the location for their small, not-for-profit, professional live theatre company with Lepard as executive director, Caselli as artistic director, Purchis as managing director and Sutton-Smith as development director.

performers and crew on stage posing for a picture
Cast and Crew of Sirens alongside Williamston Theatre Staff members

Throughout 2005, the four founders worked to develop their business plan, secure support for the project and raise awareness in the community. In late 2005, local business leader Steve Zynda of Cardinal Fabricating pledged to support the Theatre by underwriting its facility expenses. Williamston Theatre staged its first production in 2006.

“We started out as an Equity theater with all Michigan artists, creating jobs and telling stories; providing the Midwestern voice in live theatre,” Sutton-Smith says. “And we’ve branched out from there. Our most recent production is an Irish story, Outside Mullingar,from the Pulitzer, Oscar and Tony award winning creator of Doubt,John Patrick Shanley.”

Emily adds that the job creation aspect has been huge, “Especially these days. No one is working only on our stage; we’re only one piece of the pie. There are strong professional theatres throughout Michigan. And everyone who’s working is buying gas and groceries, and paying taxes.

“For years, students who graduated and who grew up in Michigan and still had family here, felt they had to move to Chicago, New York City or Los Angeles to find work. Now, when they realize that they’re in a region where there’s work, they can see that the survival part is easier and more likely. In the end, we get more of the creative class to stay.”

Now, when they realize that they’re in a region where there’s work, they can see that the survival part is easier and more likely. In the end, we get more of the creative class to stay.

And, Sutton-Smith says, because Williamston Theatre is a professional Equity theatre, there is the huge opportunity for students to earn points toward their union Equity card from Actors’ Equity Association.

There are three ways to earn an Actors’ Equity card: be under Equity contract; apply for membership while a member of a sister union in the performing arts; or through the “Equity Membership Candidate Program” (EMC). In this program, actors are allowed to work in Equity productions as credit towards eventual membership. An actor is eligible for membership once he/she completes 50 weeks of work at theatres that are a part of the EMC program.

“The Equity membership gets them into Equity auditions that are not open to those without a union membership,” says Sutton-Smith. “It signifies that you have a certain amount of experience, that it’s your profession; that this is what you’re doing.”

She adds that while having the opportunity to earn points toward their Actors’ Equity cards is an incredible plus for MSU theatre students and helps them get jobs after graduation, the students truly add to the overall enrichment of the community and Williamston Theatre, too.

About Williamston Theatre

Since 2006, the Williamston Theatre has produced eleven World Premieres of new works by Michigan playwrights, and mounted regional and state premieres of numerous other works. During its first full season, the Detroit Free Press named the Theatre’s production of Rounding Third as one of the Top Ten Shows of 2006. In 2008, the Theatre’s four founders received the prestigious Robert Busby Award from the Lansing State Journal for extraordinary overall contributions to theatre in the Greater Lansing area. That same year, the Williamston Area Chamber of Commerce named Williamston Theatre as the Chamber Member of the Year for its contribution to the vitality and economic health of the downtown area. The American Theatre Wing recognized Williamston Theatre in 2014 as one of the top twelve up-and-coming young theatres across the country with a National Theatre Company Grant Award.

For more information about the company and their upcoming productions, visit them on the web

Photos taken by:

Kellyn Uhl

Chris Purchis