Williamston Theatre Transforms Small Town Arts Community

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When four theatre professionals based in Michigan started the Williamston Project in the spring of 2004, they envisioned the city of Williamston as the perfect place for a nonprofit theatre that would embody values of excellence and inclusion, while creating a sense of space and sustainability.

The project launched as the Williamston Theatre with its first full production in 2006: “Particular Additions” by Ed Simpson. Since then, this professional equity theatre has helped transform its community, providing more opportunities for Williamston and its art lovers.

Located at 122. S. Putnam St., the Williamston Theatre was founded by four professionals absorbed in the arts: John Lepard, the theatre’s executive director; Christine Purchis, managing director; Emily Sutton-Smith, development director; and Tony Caselli, the artistic director.

Part of the reason the founders chose to open a theatre in Williamston was because of the town’s locality. The variety of arts in a small town can be limited, but passion for the arts is no less vibrant when compared to bigger-city counterparts. 

“Just because you’re in a small town, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality … so we wanted to provide that to a small town, and we also wanted to provide another place for Michigan artists to work and try to give them a reason to stay in the state,” said Caselli. “There’s a fabulous pool of talented artists, theatrical and otherwise — a lot of times, because the work isn’t there, they leave for somewhere else.”

With over 50 productions under his belt, Caselli’s main role is “putting together the product.” Having received his bachelor’s degree in theatre at Eastern Michigan University, Caselli’s career has earned him various accolades, including Wilde awards and being named Best Director by the Lansing State Journal, Detroit Free Press and more. 

As a professional equity theatre, Williamston Theatre provides 80 jobs per year, finding most of its union and non-union talent within Michigan, including the Lansing and Flint areas. They have not only helped to transform artistic work throughout the state but also business development within the city of Williamston. 

Sutton-Smith is an acclaimed actress, singer and producer, as well as the narrator of over 80 audiobooks. In her current role, she oversees the business and economic development of Williamston Theatre. Since 2006, the town has seen noticeable changes as theatergoers come for a performance but stay for the area.

“Approximately 11,000 people attend our performances each year, and that definitely has an impact,” said Sutton-Smith. “It’s a complete experience — being able to dine, shop and attend a cultural event in one place. They may come for the [Williamston] Theatre, but they spend time shopping and dining here as well.”

“Beau Jest” is Williamston Theatre’s current and second production for their 2017-18 calendar, telling the tale of a young woman unable to introduce her boyfriend to her Jewish parents due to his heritage. From there, a plan is concocted and “things go horribly wrong,” leading the audience through a story of laughter and understanding.

“It’s a play very much about not being afraid to live your life and allowing other people to live theirs,” said Caselli. “At its heart, it’s a play about having the courage to be who you want to be … co-existing and thriving — I think that’s the heart of the play.”

Performances of “Beau Jest” began Nov. 16 and will run until Dec. 23. To learn more about Williamston Theatre, what’s next on stage and how to support, visit williamstontheatre.org


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Kristopher Johnson

Kristopher Johnson is a Communications Specialist at M3 Group, earning his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University. While currently residing in Lansing, Kristopher will always be a native of Detroit. He enjoys volunteering, listening to others and musing over contrasting insights. He is also fond of writing, keeping up with politics and watching too much story-driven anime.