Love Makes the World Go ‘Round for Tony Caselli

Williamston Theatre Artistic Director Tony Caselli (right) with Theatre Apprentice Monica Tanner. Photograph by Williamston Theatre Apprentice Rebecca McCreery.

By Candace Platt

How many people can honestly say, “I’m living the life I want and loving every minute of it.”? It’s clear that Chelsea’s Tony Caselli means every word.

Doing things he loves with people he loves is how Caselli prioritizes his life these days. Especially since he considers himself living “extra innings” after a brush with death in 2014. In January of that year, Caselli was feeling ill and was taken to the hospital ER. The next memory he has is of waking up in March from an induced coma. A life and death battle with bacterial meningitis and various complications kept him in the hospital until April, and on dialysis for months afterward.

Anyone who knew Caselli before that event knows that he’s always been a positive force in the community, but now he speaks freely of his love for family, work, friends, and the community. When asked about his life and work today, Caselli said, “I’m grateful for every minute of my life, and my focus is on things that matter, the people and things I love.”

Caselli’s first love is his family: wife Jeanne, a long-time fifth grade teacher at Chelsea’s Beach Middle School; daughter Maggie, a college student whose focus is global studies and musical theatre; and son Max, a talented composer who is currently a Chelsea High School senior. “Jeanne and I frequently say that our top priority these days is QFT – quality family time,” said Caselli, “so we find ways share time with each other and our children.”

Williamston Theatre in Downtown Williamston, Michigan. Photograph by Williamston Theatre Apprentice Rebecca McCreery.

Since 2005 Caselli has been Artistic Director of the Williamston Theatre, a professional theatre about 35 miles north of Chelsea. It’s a job he loves. Much of his time is spent with fellow founders of the theatre, John Lepard (Executive Director), Chris Purchis (Managing Director), and Emily Sutton-Smith (Development Director). “I’m doing work I love with people I love,” said Caselli.

Caselli grew up in New Boston, Michigan, and after seeing his first play, a production of Fiddler on the Roof, knew he wanted to make theatre his life’s work. He participated in high school and community theatre, and then earned a degree from Eastern Michigan University’s Theatre Arts Department. During his senior year at EMU, he had the opportunity to work at Chelsea’s then-new Purple Rose Theatre. “I learned a ton at the Purple Rose,” Caselli said. “Jeff (Daniels) spoke a lot about the importance of sharing stories relating to where you live; his focus was on the Midwest. Ultimately, my time at the Purple Rose inspired me to want to start another theatre to reflect the lives of the people here in Michigan.”

After college, Caselli was hired as House Manager for the Purple Rose Theatre Company. He continued working there for twelve years, spending the last few years as Assistant Artistic Director. It was at the Purple Rose that he met the three people he would eventually join in founding the Williamston Theatre. “It was John Lepard’s idea to start a new theatre. The time was right to provide another place for Michigan’s theatre professionals to work. And it was a chance to bring more great theatre to our local communities as we continued to make our voices heard.”

Williamston Theatre is now in its twelfth season, and provides roughly 70 jobs a year for actors, directors, stage managers, and other production personnel, while serving over 11,500 theatre-goers annually. According to Caselli, “Our goal is to provide an eclectic mix of plays over the course of a season, from meat to dessert, with not too much of one thing. We want there to be something for everyone in our community to enjoy.”

Caselli said, “The community we serve is made up of the people who support us: Ingram County, Washtenaw County, Livingston County, and Wayne County. The I-96 corridor provides easy access, and we have patrons from Lansing all the way to Detroit.”

Over the years, Caselli has directed about 70 productions, not only for Williamston Theatre and the Purple Rose Theatre, but for other area theatres including Meadow Brook Theatre, Tipping Point Theatre, Performance Network Theatre, The Gem Theatre, Jewish Ensemble Theatre, and The City Theatre (Detroit), as well as theatres farther afield such as Studio Arena Theatre (Buffalo) and Urban Stages (Manhattan). He is an award-winning director-producer, and has sometimes been seen on stage as well.

“I love coming to work,” said Caselli. “By managing our own theatre, we get to pick the people we invite into our house. And those I work with are people of great character as well as talent. I love working with them. A big gift for me is the quality of the people I work with.”

The team at Williamston finds a variety of ways to serve the community and make it easier for theatre-goers to afford to see their shows.

To increase audience participation and enjoyment, theatre patrons are invited to join in a feedback session after one performance during each run. This event is dubbed, “Conversation Sunday.” Those attending are encouraged to ask questions, make comments, and join in a good chat with those who have gathered to represent the theatre: the director, the producer, cast members, the playwright, the designer, or perhaps someone who is an expert about a subject in the play.

Another way to serve audience members is to provide discounted tickets to seniors and students, as well as to active and retired military personnel. In addition to these discounts, Williamston Theatre participates in the Blue Star Arts program offered through Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Blue Star Theatres seek to build a stronger connection between theatres, military families, and their communities. As a Blue Star Theatre, Williamston offers a Military Matinee on the first Saturday of each production. This matinee is designated as Pay-What-You-Can for members of the military and their families. Williamston Theatre hopes that more military families will become aware of the program and take advantage of the opportunity to see their productions.

Through the University Resident Theatre Association (URTA), Williamston Theatre has developed a wonderful relationship with Michigan State University’s Theatre Department. Each season, MSU theatre students work backstage or as understudies, and a lucky few have the opportunity to appear on stage in major acting roles. Out of 25 roles cast this year, five are MSU students. Two of those are in the play currently being rehearsed. Working with a professional theater allows students to earn union membership points as they gain experience; and Williamston Theatre gets an infusion of energy and fresh perspectives from the young people participating.

“As a producer in a small theatre, one program I treasure is NNPN (National New Play Network),” said Caselli. “NNPN is revolutionizing the way playwrights, directors, and producers function.” Williamston is the only Michigan theatre that’s a member of NNPN at this time.

NNPN’s Rolling World Premiere (RWP) program gives playwrights and theaters the rare opportunity to bring a play from development to production in multiple locations across the country. Several theaters choose to mount the same new play within a 12-month period. The playwright works on the script and makes adjustments based on what is learned from each production.

Williamston’s latest production, Doublewide by Stephen Spotswood, is part of the RWP program. Caselli is directing the play, which opens this month. As part of the RWP format, Doublewide is being produced this year at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers, FL, Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, FL, and Vermont Stage in Burlington, VT, as well as at Williamston Theatre.

“I love this play so much,” said Caselli. “It brings to mind how we treat each other and how important love is in our lives. It’s a very real story with very real people that Michigan audiences can relate to.” The characters in Doublewide are Big Jim Starkey (Joey Albright) and his wife Sharon (Emily Sutton-Smith), daughter Loralai, (MSU student Katelyn Christine Hodge), Loralai’s tutor Chuck (MSU student Sean McKeon), and Jim’s retiree mother Coral (Brenda Lane).

The play tells the story of the struggle working American’s face in pursuing their version of the American dream. Big Jim simply wants to build a home on his one-acre plot of land and replace his doublewide trailer with something that he and Sharon can leave for Lorelai to inherit. When a highway expansion project shatters their plans, Jim and Sharon have differing plans on how to make their dreams come true, and Lorelai has to consider what kind of future to build for herself. Doublewide is a heartfelt and funny exploration of how far one family will go to hold on to their dreams… and each other.

Caselli said, “This is a very touching story about the attempts the protagonists make to provide for themselves and their children. The play itself is realistic, but we use theatrical ways of telling the story.” He also said, “Theatre does not have the reality of film and TV, so we need to let theatre be theatre. What makes theatre work is the audience members using their imagination. We have a patchwork carpet on the stage, and in one scene the carpet is a diner floor, but in another scene it is the grass and dirt of a front yard. When all the people in the audience use their imaginations to embrace that reality together, that’s what theatre is about.”

It’s clear that Caselli is passionate about theatre and Doublewide, especially. He said, “I’ve mentioned that the heart of what I want to do in theatre is make people laugh and cry and call the people they love. That’s why I love Doublewide: it does all three. You fall in love with these people and their stories, and laugh with them, and cry with them. You see the struggles they’re facing and ask yourself how we are treating each other. You question yourself, ‘Am I helping? Do I give enough love to people around me?’ It’s a lovely play that people need to see.”

Support for the Williamston Theatre comes from many sources. Major sponsors this season include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and such local corporate sponsors as ASAP Printing and Cardinal Fabricating. In addition to funding, sponsors provide materials and supply audience members for designated productions. One additional thing the theatre is always looking for is space. Rehearsals may be held in the theatre performance area, but having access to a separate location for the actors to rehearse would be helpful. Even more important would be to have technical space: a place where the production team can set up shop and build sets for an upcoming play. Caselli and the team at Williamston Theatre would appreciate hearing from anyone who has a spare building or barn or meeting room to donate.

With good friends at Williamston Theater, and a loving family in Chelsea, Caselli is happy with his life. “Every day, I get up and do what I want. I’m so lucky. I know my Dad was proud that I was able to pursue a life I love,” Caselli said. “What I want is to create theatre that’s relevant to the lives of our community and to make that work here in Michigan. It’s important to do something that is worthwhile.”

Since 2014, Caselli has cut back on his time at work. He might like to travel, see the world, visit with people. But most important to him is his family and others that he loves. Caselli said, “All we have is a bit of time and the people we around us. So it’s important to surround ourselves with people we love. I work with people I love and spend lots of quality time with my family. It’s the best life in the world.”


Doublewide by Stephen Spotswood

Directed by Tony Caselli

March 22 – April 22, 2018

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 3 p.m. (beginning March 31)
Sundays at 2 p.m.

Military Matinee: Saturday, March 31
Conversation Sunday: April 15, 2018

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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