It sounds so unlikely—launch a professional theater staging provocative, risky, smart, sometimes uncomfortable plays in small town Northern Michigan. Meet Parallel 45 Theatre.

Somebody had a connection with a grocery distributor. That was important. Because the year was 2010, and Parallel 45 Theatre company was just getting started, staging its very first play, in the tiny burg of Elk Rapids.

The company’s vision had a measure of boldness: launch a professional theater company in Northern Michigan—but that word “professional” meant founders Kit McKay and Erin Anderson Whiting would be expected to pay, or at least do their best to pay, the actors, designers and stagehands who produced the show.

Parallel 45 money, however, was nearly nonexistent in 2010, and so the connection to the grocery distributor meant the people who were traveling to Elk Rapids from places like New York and Chicago to be in the play could at least be paid with food, that is, at least they could eat while they were here. “You have to order in huge quantities when you are dealing with a grocery distributor,” Anderson Whiting recalls. “I remember unloading things like crates of blueberries off the truck.”

Thinking back on the artistically romantic hardship of those first days, McKay says, “I slept on a twin air mattress in a basement next to a boiler.” The actor who eventually became McKay’s husband, Noah Durham Fried, slept on a bench. “We went from first rehearsal to performance in nine days,” she says. She pauses, as if counting the days to make sure the memory is accurate, shakes her head in disbelief. “We had 10 actors, some vintage furniture, a ton of lamps to add twinkle. It was magical, such a beautiful, rich, intense experience, and we’ve been working with those same 10 actors—not exclusively, but they’re all still involved—for the past seven years,” she says.

First, know that practically nobody creates a professional theater company in a place as thinly populated as northwest lower Michigan. Second, know that, if they do launch such a venture, they tend to play it safe, cater to the mass market to make sure they can fill the seats, cover the bills. They almost certainly don’t risk the balance sheet with edgy, smart, provocative plays that can make people uncomfortable. And they definitely are not flying actors into middle America from Berlin, Germany, London, England, and America’s coasts to act and do tech.

That is, practically nobody is doing that, because Anderson Whiting and McKay and their team at Parallel 45 Theatre are doing that full on. Even more unexpected, the idea is working.

Parallel 45 Theatre

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Fast-forward five years, and, on a cold and blustery mid-November night, The Parallel 45 vision is on display in Traverse City’s InsideOut Gallery theater as the 2015–2016 season kicks off. The opening production is a run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with the lead played by Michael Norton, an American-born actor and director then living in Berlin. The musical—about seeking, finding and accepting self-identity—opened off-Broadway in 1998 and is something of a global phenom. The production was made into a film and is, “insanely popular in other parts of the world,” Anderson Whiting says, but not so well known to typical Traverse Citians.

The play tells the story of a young man who, in an attempt to escape East Germany of the mid-80s, has a sex change operation to marry a gay American soldier. But the operation is botched, leaving Hedwig disfigured. Her life has a couple of romantic disasters, and she is now touring as a rock ’n’ roll drag nightclub singer. The sinewy, 6’4” Norton—David Bowie–handsome and dancing in 4-inch heels, glistening top and shimmery pink mini-skirt—leaves an indelible impression. Mic in hand, Norton struts among the crowd, sits on laps and belts out painful songs of transformation and love lost, dreams broken. Not a safe play for a theater company to mount in small-town America, but the show sells well throughout its seven-show run.

What the theatergoers don’t see, but which is also an essential part of the company’s evolution, is that, five years in, the actors are now paid. Not a lot, but each year they inch toward what would be considered an “industry appropriate wage.” Some are even receiving union wage. And housing and food have improved a ton—sourcing directly from the grocery distributor no longer needed. As Hedwig actor Michael Norton says, “The house where I stayed at The Homestead was amazing.”

But still, for the people involved, it’s about the production, the performance, and the art. Norton says no to every other invitation he gets from the States, but he says yes to Parallel 45. “They take this kind of summer camp magic feel and on top of that layer this incredible base of talent and professionalism. And then the pace of the making. It’s such an incubator of creativity and positivity—there’s such high, high regard for one another, such respect. I’m always just so amazed at what can come from that. It’s some of the purest work I’ve been able to make. There’s practically a holiness to it, because you come out the other side with some kind of transformation. Maybe because it’s outside the eye of the critic. And the audiences want the work.”

Parallel 45 Theatre

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Erin Anderson Whiting and Kit McKay have known each other longer than they have not known each other. Anderson Whiting grew up in Elk Rapids. McKay grew up in Indianapolis and summered in Leland. They met at Interlochen Arts Academy, where Anderson Whiting studied creative writing and McKay studied theater. Anderson Whiting was 16, a year older than McKay. They didn’t really hang out together, but knew each other. Then Anderson Whiting went off to Sarah Lawrence College, and as she was about to enter her second year, she heard word that McKay was attending there as well. They connected right away. “And we have been inseparable ever since,” Anderson Whiting says.

After college, they rented an apartment in Queens with Katherine Dillingham Mazer, also a theater alum from Interlochen whom they’ve known longer than not known (she and Anderson Whiting met when they were just 14). “In New York, I was working with Penguin Putnam, Kit was directing in the city, and Kate was acting,” Anderson Whiting says. Eventually Anderson Whiting moved back to Northern Michigan and was a fundraiser for nonprofits, first the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and then for Interlochen Center for the Arts. “I wanted the experience of living in New York, but if you don’t want five roommates the rest of your life, you need more money than publishing provides. And I missed nature. I’m a big nature beauty person,” she says.

McKay moved on to direct theater in Chicago, and on a business trip to the Windy City, Anderson Whiting met McKay for dinner. They had a “someday” conversation. Anderson Whiting proposed, “Maybe someday we could make something like a professional theater company fly Up North.”

“I knew it was a good idea,” McKay says. The pair felt the area had a sophisticated, nuanced arts population, and people were flocking to complicated works—movies at the Traverse City Film Festival, for example. “There was this divide in my head, a belief that I could only do the work I want to do in D.C. or Chicago or New York, but that’s not true,” she says. And by then, McKay was also feeling a pull to make the Traverse region home. “I kept finding myself in the car pointed north. And I thought, why don’t I get to live in the beautiful place I want.”

They left the dinner, but neither could leave the conversation behind. A couple of days later, the two talked again. “We said, ‘What the hell are we talking about someday, let’s just figure it out,’ ” Anderson Whiting says. She agreed to be executive director. McKay became artistic director; she also figured she’d better learn more about theater administration, so headed to Yale for a second master’s degree (she already had one in directing from Northwestern University).

Parallel 45 Theatre

Photo by Michael Poehlman; Erin Anderson Whiting & Kit McKay

“Familiar stories for the adventurous mind.” That’s the positioning line that McKay and Anderson Whiting came up with for Parallel 45 Theatre. “Yes, it’s a positioning line, but it’s also truly the core reason for our being,” McKay says.

Expect stories you may know, but maybe you don’t know them in the way Parallel 45 will produce them. Case in point: the second play in the company’s 2015–16 season, Medea. The Greek tragedy by Euripides was first staged in 431 B.C., and has been fed to high school English students for generations. To bring the story forward and make it interesting to today’s audiences, the company commissioned an entirely original script from an innovative New York City playwright using the vernacular of today, modern language telling an ancient story, and helping people see the timeless, universal nature of human struggle.

The show sold O.K., possibly because of the grisly nature of the tragedy—a mom kills all of her own children—and possibly because it was advertised with a startling, bloody and graphic promotional poster, though there was no violence on stage, and no children in the cast. Was the production theme and the poster a step too far for Traverse City? “These are the questions we grapple with, but we analyze everything about every show,” Anderson Whiting says.

Parallel 45 Theatre

Photo by Melisa McKolay

Spring of 2016 arrives, and the company is launching the third and final production of the season, the classic American play A Streetcar Named Desire. The play is “Tennessee Williams’s epic story of a woman [Blanche DuBois] who undergoes a spectacular disintegration as she struggles to survive,” McKay wrote for promotion. Pre-run tickets are selling well, and despite the dark theme of the play, there’s a spring-fresh buzz in the InsideOut Gallery theater space as the cast and crew gather for a rehearsal a couple of days before opening. Katherine Dillingham Mazer, now living in Auburn, California, plays the lead role, Blanche. She is on the theater company’s board of directors and was in the company’s original production in 2010.

McKay staged the play in-the-round, and the set designer hung frames of old, weathered 6-pane windows around the perimeter of the set to elevate the audience’s sense of voyeurism, make them feel that they are somehow participating, truly peering through windows into a neighbor’s life in a dingy tenement of 1947 New Orleans French Quarter. As the actors work through some trickier scenes, McKay stands off set completely focused on the action. She wears knee-high boots, a thick sweater, a scarf, and her hair in a tight top bun.

McKay fixates her stare on the action as Blanche’s pregnant sister, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stanley, have a fight.

You drunk, drunk, animal thing!” Stella screams at him. He punches her. She falls to the floor. Blanche rushes over. “My sister is going to have a baby!” And now again. “You drunk, drunk animal thing! …” And now again… “You drunk, drunk animal thing!” … They run through it four or five more times, tweaking an arm motion, the duration of a hold, the angle of a wrist. McKay moves in and out of director mode. As the cast is about to perform the play from the top and do a complete run through, she asks, “Have you guys pre-set your props? Take a minute to check all of that. Make sure nothing is missing.” But then when McKay’s gaze lands on the vivid red heels worn by the actress playing neighbor Eunice, she says, “Ohhh, those shoes are so SWEET!” Off stage, the space has taken on the air of workspaces everywhere. Backpacks plop on seats. A table against a wall has a 9/10ths empty coffee pot, a dusting of Coffee-mate, a Pabst can, empty cups. A mini-fridge. Sweaters hang on the backs of chairs.

The woman who plays Stella, in from London, England, today in bib overalls, holds a script and leans back in a seat. She absentmindedly twists her hair as she reads. When the cast takes a break, she has to put on her fake pregnancy stomach. She asks Eunice for advice on how to act pregnant. “What are some crazy things I did when I was pregnant?” Eunice asks her husband, also an actor. “A lot of belly touching,” he says.

Stanley is kicked back in a chair, Googling stuff about the play. “Hey, Williams thought about calling it Blanche’s Chair on the Moon,” he says. They begin and move in starts and stops through the first complete performance of the play. But even with the many interruptions, the do-overs, the forgotten props, and the missed lines, the power of the play is undeniable, the genius of Williams’s dialog and pace are devastating and gorgeous all at once, and it’s all in such good hands here. The rehearsal wraps and everybody breaks character in a nanosecond. McKay says, “You are all so immensely talented, and I can’t believe how much we accomplished in such a short time.”

People mingle. Others drift away. Stage manager Caleb announces, “Check all your props! Clean up after yourselves!” Eunice takes off her red shoes. Stella grabs a broom and starts sweeping. Blanche—Mazer—sits and puts on her socks.

What keeps Mazer coming back for these intense three weeks, year after year? “So, this is nitty-gritty existential stuff, but the storytelling that Kit and Erin choose to do is so far from the business of the business of commercial storytelling. It is artistry, and it’s what I need to keep going in my own little universe. I don’t want to sound all arty, but it is a spirit connection. Their productions are about identity and choices and hope and transformation, and I’m so satisfied by acting in a way that I never was when I was in New York.”

Parallel 45 Theatre

Photo by Melisa McKolay

And when Streetcar opens to the public, and completes its six-show run, Parallel 45 celebrates a first, a milestone: every performance sold out.

As that was happening, as the ticket sales were piling up, Anderson Whiting and Fried kept refreshing the ticket-sales app they have on their phones. “We were like, ‘We sold four more tickets! We sold two more tickets!’” Anderson Whiting says.

And when it did happen, when that entire run of Streetcar actually did sell out … what then? “When you talk about something a really long time, and reference that day in the future, that day when we will sell these out, it becomes mythic,” Anderson Whiting says. “And when it does come, it takes a bit to sink in.”

She calls it a “validation” of all the work behind the scenes needed to achieve that. The production manager who starts two months before the show begins. The design, all done months ahead. The marketing. The fundraising. Finding places for people to stay and figuring how to pay them.

“The show is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the beautiful rewarding part of the iceberg,” she says. “So when it sells out, it’s all worth it, and you think, WE ARE NOT CRAZY! We can do this in a small town, and people will actually come!”

[publication mode=”thumb” name=”vg-traverse” align=”right” link=”viewnow”]

More Northern Michigan Theatre

Photo(s) by Michael Poehlman