There was a lot of isolation going on with the pandemic…oddly kind of a silver lining…a lot of us had worked together over a decade ago in the theater world…wound up back here (on the origins of the company).
We chatted with Colin Thelen and Katie Bakalars of Grey Area Productions, a multimedia-focused theatre company based in La Crosse, WI. We learned the origin story of the theatre, the process when producing a show, and what’s next for this theatre group.
So, I am Katie Backlars. I was born in La Crosse, but grew up in Fountain City, just north of here a little bit and went to school at Viterbo. And then I lived outside of La Crosse for about nine years and came back to the community kind of around when the pandemic sort of kicked off. And got into theater. I was in choir when I was younger, and then I got grounded for the summer and I was only allowed to do theater, community theater. So that’s truthfully how I got into it.
Colin Thelen 01:19
My name is Collin Thelen. I was born in La Crosse. Also kind of similar story, left for a number of years, I wound up with a degree in Theater Performance from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. Graduated in ’09 and then spent a little bit of time on both coasts, and came back. It’s hard to stay away from this part of the country, for sure. For me, getting into theater was kind of a little bit of a roundabout journey. I had done some stuff in high school, just with some friends of my mother actually who were doing theater at the time, and had done some stuff with them. And then hadn’t really done anything. And then my junior year of college I was in a class to fulfill a credit. And it was like an acting for non majors class. And I wound up trying out for one of the shows they were doing and got cast in that, and then they sucked me into the department and I wound up with a theater degree and have been doing it ever since.
Brent Hanifl 02:16
Just looking at Grey Area Productions, you know, a local theatre company, what was the impetus for that? What was the reasoning for starting this, this organization?
Colin Thelen 02:25
So yeah, it kind of started as just a group of people reading plays together at the onset of the pandemic, really. Theater itself, especially live theater being such a communal event, you know, you’re used to being around all these other people and being in a room filled with people telling new stories together, right? And so once that kind of got shut down. Being an artistic person, you kind of can witness all of the people who love to do this art form, just kind of start to wonder, okay, when are we gonna be able to do this again? Like, what are we what, how long are we gonna have to wait. So we just kind of started reading plays together. It was myself, Caleb Smith, Dominic Lukey, and Luke Erickson. And Luke really was our kind of our main play hunter, he’s just got a really good eye for some of these stories that we want to tell. So we just started reading these plays, and they were just really good. They were really, really good. And so we wanted to form a company to be able to kind of be able to be ready to go out of the gate once things did calm back down, and were able to get together again, and be able to actually create some live theater, so.
Katie Bakalars 03:35
Yeah, and there was a lot of isolation going on with the pandemic. But it was also oddly kind of a silver lining because a lot of us that had worked together over a decade ago in the theater world and in the community, we all kind of wound up back here. So we started to get excited to reconnect with one another. As this was, as things were opening back up.
Colin Thelen 03:55
Yeah, you’re totally right. It was like a silver lining where you know, and we all also had time on our hands to be able to devote to like, okay, well, what are we going to be able to create when we come out of this?
Brent Hanifl 04:07
So I mean, it kind of sounds like you guys are all kind of lined up. What is the process like when producing a show? I mean, it’s probably completely different this year.
Katie Bakalars 04:18
Well, it’s the first time we’ve ever done it. So we hope we’re doing things right. But again, with everything being virtual, we’ve had to market a lot online and get people connected virtually, which has been kind of interesting. Colin, what do you think?
Colin Thelen 04:32
Yeah, anytime you’re producing a show, it takes a lot of people, right, you might see a few people on the stage, but there’s always going to be an army of people behind the scenes, making everything run. As far as coming out of the pandemic into this, you know, it was obviously kind of playing touch and go with what the regulations are going to be and when you’re going to be able to get crowd sizes that makes sense to be able to be able to do it. But you know, it’s it’s kind of a slow process. When you start, you know, you’re we’ve picked out a script, the show that we’re doing coming up is called The Few. And that also deals a lot with isolation and fostering a sense of community. So it was just a really appropriate show to be doing coming out of the pandemic, when we’ve all been so isolated and are searching for these communities again. And so once you’ve got the play selected, it’s kind of about, you know, formulating a team, you got to have some designers, you need a director, you need a cast of actors, you know. Establishing a relationship with the venue, to be able to find a place to actually put it up and produce it. And the Pump House Regional Art Center has been amazing, they’ve been absolutely amazing to work with. Then it’s pushing into rehearsals, and we’re blessed to have a smaller cast, so rehearsal size has been kind of reasonable throughout this in terms of some of the pandemic regulations. But yeah, it’s always a big push towards the finish. And we’re getting close, so.
Brent Hanifl 05:53
So basically, it’s like a brand new company that’s performing in a brand new theater, how’s the theater been at the Pump House?
Katie Bakalars 06:00
Oh, they’re great. And it’s beautiful the renovations are great. They have all new floors and new equipment. And so we’re really being kind of the first group of people that are being trained to use some of this equipment, which has been really exciting.
Brent Hanifl 06:13
What’s next for you coming down the line? I mean, hopefully, it’s still do shows and things like that we’re not going in and out, what’s something that you guys are excited for?
Katie Bakalars 06:21
Yeah, so with building the company, we have looked into some research with getting a 501 C3. One of the main pillars of this group, in the original conversations were that we want to compensate our actors, we also, you know, want to have accessible theater for students or for people who don’t want to pay $30, a ticket to come see a show. So we are doing some donation-based nights, which is really exciting. And something that we haven’t really seen from the theatre community here. And so we are in the process of selecting a show. We did lock down some dates with the Pump House in March. But we’re definitely open to new projects and new venues as well.
Colin Thelen 07:03
Yeah, the idea going forward is really about cultivating an audience for the type of theatre that we’re trying to produce, you know, the type of stuff that we’re trying to do is stuff that doesn’t always necessarily fit a traditional story arc, you know, you’re always dealing with a protagonist and an antagonist and sort of these reliable character tropes. But we’re kind of pushing into stuff that is a little bit more abstract. And then that doesn’t always fit such a traditional story narrative. That’s the idea.
Brent Hanifl 07:33
So with that, that kind of non traditional sort of show, are you looking for opportunities to perform in traditional venues? Or are you going to straight up perform it, you know?
Colin Thelen 07:43
We’re kind of open to anything, right? So there’s so many different shows out there that could be done in a lot of different spaces that are non traditional. There’s like, as an example, there’s a show called, I want to say it’s called The Flick. Where the entire show, the actors, the cast of the show is people who work at a movie theater, right? And so the audience are in the movie theater seats, right. And that’s where the show takes place. So it’s this idea where, you know, that would be a partnership where maybe you look for a legitimate movie theater, and you do the show in that space. Right. So yeah, it’s something where we’re, as a company, the fact that we don’t have a specific home base for ourselves, means that we are able to partner with a lot of different venues, and even the city to be able to do things in different unique spaces around town.
Brent Hanifl 08:31
So if people want to find out more and see what you guys are about, maybe grab a show, what’s the best avenue for them to go to?
Katie Bakalars 08:36
Yeah, so right now we are in the process of having conversations about starting to build a website and things of that nature because we’re still kind of early on in the game here. But they can definitely find out more information on our Facebook site, and that would be Grey Area Productions, G-r-e-y Area Productions. And all of our info is there for the shows that are coming up and a little backstory on the group itself.
Amy Gabay 09:05
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