For centuries, theater has provided its audiences with a means to escape the imperfect world in which we live. And during tumultuous times, theater is a place that can offer perspective and inspiration and aid in healing, says Tony Humrichouser, the artistic director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre.
“Now we have an even higher charge,” Humrichouser says of the Civic’s role. “We must listen and understand that Black lives matter. Then we must find stories to tell that reflect all experiences on our stages.”
Humrichouser, who first arrived in Kalamazoo in 1986 at the age of 19 as a student at Western Michigan University, is no stranger to the Civic’s role in the community. He performed in Brighton Beach Memoirs and had high regard for the position of artistic director. Through the years, he has acted, directed and taught professionally in cities such as Chicago and New York, working with many household names, but he says he always knew he’d return to Kalamazoo. He is engaged to actor Stephen Wallem, of Nurse Jackie fame, and the couple split their time between homes in Kalamazoo and New York City.
What brought you back to Kalamazoo after all these years?
Kalamazoo has always felt like home to me. In fact, every time I dream about being on stage, it’s on our stage. It is a special place.
What has been your favorite Civic experience?
Every time I get to walk down the center aisle with a full house and be able to introduce myself as the artistic director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. I waited 33 years for that moment.
Why do you think Kalamazoo has such a thriving performing arts scene?
I feel valleys geographically tend to be artistic hotspots. There is a collective spirit that is hard to describe, and this spirit infuses all of the arts in Kalamazoo. It has always felt very authentic and innovative. Artists respond to that.
What has been the best part of your job at the Kalamazoo Civic?
Helping people become the best that they can be. I have been so lucky to have been able to work with so many incredible artists over the years and gained so much knowledge that I feel it’s my chance to give back to the people and the community that gave me my career.
How can the arts, especially community theater, help society to move forward?
Every major civilization’s decline can be linked to its sudden disregard for the arts. Art reflects what we feel as individuals and as a society without prejudice or censorship. Children need art to develop an appreciation for the human experience and the skills required to become the next great interpreters of that experience.
What role do you see the Kalamazoo Civic playing in this?
I interpret the term “Civic responsibility” in and out of context. Community responsibility requires participation, and the key to community is you. You are the Civic. We are just the stewards of the institution. Come down. Participate. Many people don’t know it, but we have been providing free programming to the community for 93 years. And once you get to know our professional staff of artists-in-residence, you will learn about all our hands-on programming and classes, which we have been proudly providing our entire volunteer community since the 1920s.
With all the uncertainty in the entertainment industry, how do you and Stephen manage your careers and a relationship?
It is the life of a performer. You must go where the work is. That is the reality. We can fret about it, and sometimes we do, as do all couples negotiating distance. But we FaceTime every day, and he remains my favorite person in the world. And it helps that he is talented. It’s hard to get behind someone who isn’t committed to the thing they do.
Have you and Stephen ever competed for a role?
No, but I did replace him as Jinx in Forever Plaid at the Royal George in Chicago in 1997. That is how we first met.
What are the three things that all inspiring actors need to know?
1. Your only arsenal as a performer is preparation. 2. Chemistry is real. Sometimes people click, and sometimes they do not, and that is OK. Do not take it personally. 3. You cannot always rely on impulse. You can always rely on technique.
What’s next for the Kalamazoo Civic?
We are finding new ways to adapt to the need for social distancing. We have several projects, including The Importance of Being Earnest, that will be streamed online for audiences very soon. We are also working hard on a heartwarming family show for the holiday season.
There is an upcoming outdoor cabaret performance on tap too. Due to social distancing, we can only sell a limited amount of tickets, so everyone should stay tuned for that announcement.
— Interviewed by Julie Smith and edited for length and clarity