For more than two decades, Mike Artis has been a familiar face to anyone involved in the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. As the community theater’s longtime stage manager, he has interacted with nearly every volunteer who graced the stage or worked behind it.
And when the lights flood The Civic stage this month after 20 months of pandemic-induced darkness, Artis will be there, but he won’t be “running the show.” After serving as stage manager since 1997, Artis has taken on a new role as The Civic’s director of volunteers, recruiting and managing nearly 1,000 volunteers who make theater magic happen each season.
“Volunteers are my first love,” says the 51-year-old. “I love teaching. I love being able to know just about everybody that walks through the doors. I hope to stage-manage here and there, but change is good. “
What was your first experience in theater?
I’ve been interested in theater for as long as I can remember, but what really got me excited was my elementary music teacher, Virginia Agne (at Gilkey Elementary School, in Plainwell). She did a musical every year. I started in the third grade by dancing in Charlotte’s Web, then I sang a solo in Tom Sawyer, and then I played Oliver Twist. I really enjoyed doing those.
I did come to see a production at The Civic when I was in the fourth grade. I saw The Snow Queen, and I thought, “I could do that.”
What brought you to your involvement in The Civic?
Friends encouraged me to audition. The first show I thought about auditioning for was a summer theater production. I walked into the theater and heard three or four people audition, and I walked back out. I had to get more courage up because being in theater is not the easiest thing. I did a few other theater productions and came back to The Civic and auditioned for Here’s Love in 1990.
How did you transition from acting to stage managing?
I volunteer stage-managed from 1996 until 2005, usually managing two productions a season, which gave me a good understanding of the workings of theater. In 2005,
The Civic was looking for a production stage manager. The interview process was very daunting, and I was lucky enough to get the job.
Crew members wear all black during shows, but you wear a red bandanna. Why?
Some high school apprentices working with me on a show started calling me their “sensei” (a Japanese word for teacher) and gave me a bandanna that had “sensei” written on it. So when I would stage-manage a show, I felt like I needed a bandanna, so wearing the red bandannas just came out of that. I still have the sensei bandanna, but it’s old enough that I can’t wear it now. Many things that I’ve done as a stage manager have come about from the youth I have met. They are the reason I always say something three times.
With the Covid-19 shutdown, did you worry that the theater would not make it back?
The Kalamazoo Civic and all of the theaters in Kalamazoo will make it back because they are such a big part of the community. People love to see art. They love to see their friends in shows. We have to make it safer, so it may look different, but it will make it back. It will take time. We have to give people time to figure out what makes them feel safe and what will make them feel like they can participate in things again.
As director of volunteers, what are your priorities?
Hopefully, I can make some differences that will affect the volunteers and make them feel welcome, included, safe, secure and appreciated. Theater is for everyone, and I hope people will not limit themselves regarding how they want to be involved. We have different volunteer activities at The Civic where one can volunteer just a couple of hours or opportunities that can go on for months.
What has been your favorite show at The Civic?
Onstage, I really enjoyed being part of The Full Monty. I also loved Jesus Christ Superstar. For backstage, Avenue Q was a bucket-list item of mine. We were the first regional community theater in the country to do it, and it was a thrill. I got to work with a professional puppeteer who came in and worked with the cast, and it was amazing to see how much goes into a production with puppets.
When you go see a show, what do you see?
A musical. I’m a happy-go-lucky musical kind of guy. But I’ll go see anything. Truthfully, I’m going to watch my friends and help support them in the theater a lot of times.
Besides theater, what are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about family and friends. I’m passionate about all art. I paint landscapes on occasion, but not as much as I’d like to.
I’m also passionate about my volunteer work with Gryphon Place and about helping people who are having difficulties in life. Having two brothers who have committed suicide, I definitely have a passion for Gryphon Place. I get out there and help when I can. I want to make sure that everybody feels safe in who they are.
— Interview by Julie Smith, edited for length and clarity