Stan Gill and the theatrical life

Christina Leidel (left) and Emily Giant rehearse Stan Gill’s “Satire Diaries.” (They are not actually pregnant.)

Stan Gill is doing everything. Not always easy now that he’s 62 and has been through the ringer.

But his energy hasn’t flagged a bit. So he dresses up as the Genie and gives a vigorous performance in the Sprouts Children’s Theater production of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” in Mount Pleasant, then dashes off to appear in “Satire Diaries: Too Stupid to Fail,” an adult sketch comedy revue he co-wrote with Peter Tolan.

At a rehearsal before “Satire Diaries” opened last weekend, Gill was positioning large parts of the set, checking lights and coordinating stage direction with his three fellow actors.

The strain shows. But so does the smile.

It’s a well-worn cliche but true in Gill’s case: His life is the theater and theater is his life.

Born in Detroit in 1950, he came of age in the late-1960s and early 1970s during the Vietnam War. The military had its eye on him. He was in the draft lottery in 1968 with a low number.

His interests were scientific, and the young Gill figured he’d become a researcher for NASA. Problem was, he said, if his grades in college slipped too low, the draft board would come calling pronto.

And Gill did not want to go to war.

So he took his scientific mind in another direction, started a theater company and launched what would become a lifelong career.

These days, he’s running the Sprouts program at Creative Spark, which introduced drama classes and live theater about two years ago in an effort to shore up its operation and finances.

It was a reunion of sorts. Creative Spark founder Carol Antman, who has since retired, knew Gill in Detroit, where the two families often socialized.

“Our parents were bridge colleagues,” Antman said. “There was a whole big pack of children who would hang out on Sunday afternoons while our parents played cards. My father was very fond of him and followed Stan’s career. When he happened to be in the same town, they would get together. So we stayed in touch through parents.”

After decades of theatrical successes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Boston and Seattle and diligent investment of the money he earned, Gill awoke one day a few years ago to learn that his modest fortune, meant to pay for his retirement, had been gobbled up by the Great Recession.

So it was back to work. He called Antman, discussed how he and Creative Spark might ameliorate one another’s financial struggles, and agreed on a course of action.

Gill would relocate, start a children’s theater, generate a new line of revenue for the arts organization and help it build audiences and develop enthusiasm for the theater among the city’s youngest folks. He would mount productions with professional actors, continue to create original revues and appear on stage in various characters, including an old stand-by, Mark Twain.

“He is thriving here,” Antman said. “He has been a tremendous asset to Creative Spark.”

Sprouts’ shows are bringing in new faces and complementing the group’s other offerings, she said. But best of all, impressionable children are witnessing the magic of live theater.

“It’s been a very good match,” Antman said.

Gill earned three bachelor’s degrees from Michigan State University in education, theater and art. In 1972, as soon as he left Michigan State, he got a job teaching drama at a nearby high school. But after a year and a wave of budget cuts, he was let go: last hired, first fired.

He was about to return to school to get a Master of Fine Arts when an old girlfriend told him about a dilapidated opera house in Manchester, Mich., that had been purchased by the owners of Black Sheep Tavern across the street.

It was love at first sight. But it wasn’t sightly; it needed lots of work.

Gill and some friends renovated the space, called the new enterprise the Black Sheep Repertory Theatre and began to mount productions. It was self-sustaining within a year, he said.

After two years, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and quickly earned his master’s.

The experiences began to pile up. In 1981, he was hired to run a touring children’s theater based in Madison, Wis. The Kids Theater operators were looking to expand, and they wanted someone who could write, direct, act and manage. Before long, Gill was taking the company to 12 states.

“The thing that I found most rewarding about that was we’d perform in places like Rhinelander, Wis., places like that, where kids had never seen a live show before, and probably never did again.” It was sometimes a lonely existence, he said, “but I learned I could do anything.”

From 1984-92, he was in Cambridge, Mass., working with a couple of buddies, producer Doug Feinberg and writer Peter Tolan, on a sketch comedy initiative they called Boston Baked Theatre.

“I liked Cambridge a lot because the people were sharp,” he said. “I knew who I was writing for.”

During the 1990s, he stationed himself in Seattle and started SecondStory Repertory.

“I wanted to try the West Coast” but avoid California, he said. “It was the prettiest place I ever lived.”

At the end of the decade, he took a few months off to spend a little quality time with an alter ego. He took “Mark Twain: The Last Tour” on the road, got away from running the theater and performed one of those magical mind-melds that good actors do.

“The reason I like Mark Twain so much is that it appeals to the best of the best in us. You have to be a reader, you have to understand people. So the people who come to a show like that, who sit through two hours of a man speaking, I love those people.”

His Mark Twain portrayal is one the few times Gill is the undisputed star of the show. And while he calls the experience therapeutic, he generally prefers the other aspects of theater: writing and teaching first and foremost, but also directing, scenography and musicmaking.

Acting is at the bottom of his list, “but acting is the most visible, so that’s what people glom onto.”

A few years ago, before Gill lost his savings and went back to work, he met a beautiful and independent Ukrainian woman on a Caribbean cruise. Svitlana Pasko spoke excellent English. In fact, she had worked from 1996-2000 as an interpreter for scientists doing research at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, she said.

They’ve been together since. She helps Gill with his theatrical efforts by designing costumes. And when she’s at Creative Spark, Pasko can exercise her native Russian with Inga Agrest, a piano teacher at the arts school and music director for Sprouts.

Agrest, who has a master’s degree in opera theater directing, said she’s glad to work on Gill’s productions. The team presents six shows a year, cast with professional actors and drawn from a repertoire of more than 20 musicals adapted by Gill and his collaborators from classic fairy tales. The musicals are 60 minutes or less and designed to appeal to the 4- to 12-year-old set as well as parents. Often there are pithy references to current affairs or geopolitics worked into the material.

“There are a lot of jokes for adults that go over the kids’ heads,” Agrest said.

Sometimes Gill and Agrest are invited to bring a production to an elementary or middle school, they said. But they won’t do it.

“It’s not the same thing,” Agrest said. “(The children) don’t know to behave differently, they don’t have the lights, the special effects.”

The experience becomes banal in a school setting, just another event in the gymnasium, Gill said.

One great feature of good live theater is its magic: It transports audiences to another time and place, another world, another life. It welcomes spectators into a unique space, a world within the world, distinct, displaced, where wondrous things happen.

The theater is a special domain, Gill insists. It is a place of privilege. To fully appreciate it, one must make an effort to abandon the familiar and embrace the unknown.

At the recent rehearsal for “Satire Diaries,” a sketch comedy revue for adults, Anne Warf arranges her music at the keyboard while Gill and Sam Jackel put the set in place. Emily Giant and Christina Leidel change into costume and do some vocal warm-ups.

Then three of them don flippers and perform one of the numbers, a patter song called “Fertilization Explained” by Gilbert and Sullivan and Masters and Johnson, which rhymes words such as “Madame Bovary” and “ovary.”

“I will conquer, and we shall both divide,” sings the chief spermatozoa.

Gill is energized, singing vociferously, working up a sweat. It’s been hard work, these last couple of weeks, preparing two shows and plotting the next.

He is thinking about a million things at the same time: the blocking, the lyrics and lines, the sets and costumes, the music and lights, not to mention all that’s happening in his private life.

But this is what it means to be dedicated to the theater. This is what Stan Gill has gotten himself into.

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