Kurt Stamm’s Mason Street Warehouse lights up Saugatuck
When Kurt Stamm walks the five blocks from Saugatuck Center for the Arts to Uncommon Roasters coffee shop, he’s greeted by so many people you’d think he was the mayor of this summer resort town in Southwest Michigan.
But as Founder and Artistic Director of Mason Street Warehouse, housed in SCA, people recognize him from his nightly curtain speeches during the theater’s summer season. That, and he’s simply a universally liked, approachable person.
“Kurt is the most humble man in the world. I mean, truly,” said Natalie Storrs, who plays the lead Casey in Mason Street Warehouse’s current season closer, First Date, which Stamm directed. “You kind of have to pry at him to even talk about the amazing things he has done.”
Originally from Casper, Wyoming, Stamm has lived in New York City for 23 years working as an actor, dancer, and director. Among many notable achievements, he associate-directed Tony Award winning musical revue Fosse on Broadway from 1997-2001 with celebrated American director, producer, and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. best known for Miss Saigon. He also holds BFAs in both theatre and music, which means he’s a director and choreographer who reads music. “I can drive weak music directors nuts, and I haven’t been able to find a choreographer who I can hand over a show to,” he said. “I always know exactly what it needs to be.”
What he didn’t know at the turn of the 21st Century was how to start a theater company. “I just did it,” he said. Mason Street Warehouse all began in the winter of 2002 when Stamm came to look at an abandoned pie factory in Saugatuck. A business associate with connections to the area had urged the visit, and what Stamm found was a beautiful town that supports the arts.
Dubbed “The Art Coast of Michigan,” Saugatuck/Douglas is known as a kind of gay mecca of the Midwest where people of means dock their boats and people come from far and wide for the spectacular Lake Michigan beaches. The year-round population hovers around 2000, but by August it swells to nearly 30,000. And it’s largely that rise in population that has made Mason Street Warehouse possible.
“This is something all communities should have: an arts center that’s supported,” Stamm said. “It’s people who come and invest in the community, people with second homes here, boats—a lot of them have the means to support the arts. Those handful of people see the value in what we do.”
In fact, that’s why he does it. “Every night when I sit at that theater and I watch people walk out the door, I can see on their faces whether or not they were changed by the experience. That’s what it’s all about for me—and giving them the joy of live theater,” he said. “I personally think live entertainment in whatever form is the most impactful. And the truth is, almost all live events are theatrically based these days, from concerts, to big corporate shows, to sporting events. Everyone is trying to connect these events through some kind of story telling. The joy comes from experiencing it live in real time. And the experience may not make you feel joy per say, but, if it’s good, it makes you feel something. And that to me is the joy of live theatre.”
It’s clear that the work isn’t about ego for Stamm, though “a lot of people come to this industry for that reason, because they need validation,” he said. “But I don’t feel that way…I don’t foster drama anywhere except on stage.”
“Kurt is an amazing artistic director, choreographer, director, and he could be doing that on Broadway,” said Storrs. “But he cares about Michigan, he cares about Saugatuck, and he wanted to bring this theater company here and you can tell it’s his heart, it’s really his passion,” added Storrs, whose first experience acting for Stamm is in First Date.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason people continuously return to work with Stamm. He likes to bring back actors whom he considers MSW alumni. And for more than 12 years he’s had the same stage manager, costume designer, and lighting designer.
“There are some of us who once we came on board, we’ve never left,” said longtime stage manager Danny Kuenzel. “I do my best work here…It is my happy place, my center…I’m always challenged and it’s never dull,” he added. “Not everyone gets to do theatre in a converted pie factory on the coast of Lake Michigan,” said Kuenzel.
“Everyone has their job and Kurt trusts everyone,” observed Jeff Smith, who plays the lead Aaron opposite Natalie Storrs in First Date, also for the first time at Mason Street Warehouse. “There is something personal about this place. Everyone steps into their roles and the only thing that really changes is cast.”
The audition cycle starts in late January after the three-show season is finalized in December. He auditions locally, at colleges and universities including Oakland, University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, and Kalamazoo College, as well as in New York and Chicago. And he’s committed to casting age and race appropriate actors, never compromising in bringing truth to characters with real bodies to the stage.
Stamm said he sees his role, in part, “as fostering the next generation of theater artists.” At MSW, only 40 percent of its actors need to be Equity, which meant for this season that 11 of the 24 actors were union. “I give out Equity cards every year,” he said. “And I tell Equity actors in the company, ‘Please be an example and not a bad one.”
He said he often works with actors “who are coming from places where they aren’t respected or treated well. Everyone here gets treated like they’re Equity whether they are or not,” he said. He refuses to exploit younger actors and won’t allow other directors they hire to do so. Everyone receives standard union breaks and no actors build sets, for example.
“You reap what you sow,” he said. “I want to be a place where artists can come without judgment, without the umbrella of New York over them, where we leave our egos at the door, where we experience the joy of live theater, whatever that means to you.”
And at MSW, that translates to a deep connection and bond among those putting on the show. “One of the things that we have is the feeling of family, and that starts with Kurt,” said Darlene Veenstra, resident costume designer. “He looks out for us and we for him.”
Sometimes the family is literal. Stamm occasionally casts his husband, Joe Somodi, who played Clifford Bradshaw in this season’s opener, Cabaret; and he brings his 12-year-old rescue Chihuahua, Samson, whom he calls “The Mason Street Warehouse mascot,” to every rehearsal. Stamm also credits Samson with rescuing him from the madness of over-commitment and midday demands. No matter how many people need him to tend to something or another, he has to leave and walk the dog for 20 minutes. “It saves me,” he said.
The stress of the job is real, particularly because of the severe limitations in terms of the shows MSW can produce. Stamm seeks to find a balance. He doesn’t want the usual summer stock fare, and he cannot choose works that are so edgy the Southwest Michigan summer resort town audiences won’t accept them. Stamm said they couldn’t do Next to Normal, for example, and what works best are small, clever, smart, funny musicals with six or fewer leads and an ensemble that can play the rest of the parts. Shows such as Bee Hive, Spelling Bee, and First Date have been terrific choices for them.
“He has a knack for selecting shows that fit our audience,” said Kuenzel. “Not to say I’ve been a fan of all of his choices, but they have always been well received.”
Other limitations are largely spacial. The building has undergone 17 renovations in 14 years to turn it from an abandoned pie factory to an arts center and theater. However, there’s only room for 10 women and 10 men in each show because of dressing room size, and there’s no costume shop, so Veenstra does all the sewing for every show at home. Also, the stage is 40’ by 26’, the grid is 16 feet high, and there’s limited wing span.
Regardless of the challenges, Stamm has created something that benefits all involved. Not only is Mason Street Warehouse one of very few professional theaters in Southwest Michigan, they put on excellent shows that delight audiences and are a major economic driver for Saugatuck. “People come to town for a show, come early, shop, have dinner, have ice cream after the show, and peruse galleries,” Stamm said.
And then they’re hooked and keep coming back. Stamm builds loyalty not just with his actors and staff, but with his audiences as well, and that’s deliberate. “As you’re building something you have to create a tribe to follow you,” he said. And Mason Street Warehouse continues to cultivate a tribe of theater lovers.
“We could not exist without our extremely loyal and generous supporters in the area, and I think they are just as much a part of our family as the artistic staff,” said longtime resident lighting designer Jennifer Kules. “Kurt has brought Mason Street into existence, and given a gift to this small town of Saugatuck. To all of us really.”