After nearly a year out of commission, the Great Escape Stage Company is re-opening its doors in Marshall - complete with a new theater, a new season of shows, and even a new podcast.
Seven years ago, Randy Lake opened the Great Escape Stage Company in a quaint corner storefront in downtown Marshall. For the next five years Lake and his team worked hard to provide audiences with a unique and immersive theater experience.
"Each show that we do, I want to find the best way to tell that story, and so we reconfigure the space for every performance," says Lake.
Great Escape Stage Company performs in what's known as a black box theater. Unlike traditional theaters, these spaces rarely have permanent fixtures like a stage or seating.
They start as large rooms painted black from floor to ceiling, and are completely transformed for each performance.
In Great Escape's original theater, Lake often altered the stage, the seating, and even the main entrance, to give audiences a sense of adventure every time they attended a show.
"I want to bring more, different ways of telling theater to the public that are here. And I was surprised that our audiences embraced that as much as they did," says Lake.
However, a few years into Great Escape's existence, Lake realized his company wasn't doing as well as he had hoped, and he was struggling to get the support he needed. So he and Gayland Spaulding decided to team up and reinvent how the theater was being run.
Spaulding had been involved in several productions at Great Escape Stage Company and shared Lake's vision of bringing high-quality, professional theater to the Marshall area.
"The theater was not at the height of its success I think you could say, and [Randy Lake] was a little disheartened," says Spaulding.
"I did not want to see it dissolve. And so my suggestion, 'Well, what if we got a board together?' And he says, 'If you want to do it go ahead.' So, I did it."
Spaulding recruited a handful of members from the Marshall community that he knew shared his passion for theater and especially for Great Escape.
Shortly after the board was formed, it decided to expand the theater into a larger space. An old antique shop just up the street was up for sale and the board agreed that this building had the potential to be everything they were looking for.
"It was crammed full like a curiosity shop, filled with old ceramic vases and big statuaries, and big trunks of marbles," says Lake. "We saw the potential and so we basically gutted the entire building in January, and then we've redone it into a working black box theater."
For nearly a year, productions were put on hold in order to make time for some much-needed reconstruction. The space was cleared out to make room for a formal lobby, scene shop, and black box theater.
This makeover also included a slick new website and a new podcast. The podcast is hosted by board member Antonio Barroso. Each week he creates a new episode that is focused on a different topic related to the theater's current production.
The most recent episodes relate to the premiere show for the new theater, The Miracle Worker.
"I took some time to interview different cast members, and do some research also on subjects that relate to the story itself," says Barroso.
"Like we talked about what it was like to be a child, say, in the late nineteenth century in America, or what education for those who would be blind or would have other sensory deprivation issues."
The Miracle Worker tells the story of American author Hellen Keller, her teacher Annie Sullivan, and their journey to overcome Keller's vision and hearing impairments.
Randy Lake says it was important that this was the first show in their new space because everyone, including Great Escape Stage Company, can relate to the story.
"The idea that The Miracle Worker is about overcoming difficulties of finding a way to communicate when you don't know how to communicate, and it felt like a very in sync show for where we're at as a theater," says Lake.
Kim Forde is the Director of The Miracle Worker. Living with a hearing impairment of her own, Forde has always connected with this story and felt it was her duty to bring such a powerful script to the stage. But as the first show in the new space, there was a lot of pressure to make it a success.
"People have put a lot of their heart and soul - and a lot of sweat - into this building," says Forde. "And it's important to us that the community really gives us a chance to see what we can do."
The Miracle Worker ran for two weekends in late July, and featured 17-year-old Rachel Doane as Hellen Keller and Western Michigan University Alum Sarah Stiner as Annie Sullivan.
Randy Lake and his team are now looking forward to the rest of their season. They say they hope to continue surprising, challenging, and entertaining audiences for years to come.