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Shushing, stripping, and directing

It seems there’s much more to local actor Michael Ackerman than meets the eye. Not only is he a librarian by day and an actor who bares it all by night, but he’s also one of the founders of the young Spirit Gum Theatre Company. Ackerman most recently appeared in Yes! Weekly for his role as Spike in Twin City Vanya, Sonia, Masha as Spike in Twin City Stage’s production of Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike, a comedy in which he performed in his boxer briefs for the majority of the time. He also made his mark giving quite the hilarious “reverse strip tease” on the theater’s stage.

About two years ago, Ackerman and his friends Caitlin Stafford and Rene Walek- Shepard founded a theatre company.

“We were very eager to work together on a project, so instead of crossing our fingers and hoping the right show would come along, we decided to create the opportunity and put on a play ourselves,” Ackerman said.

The theater’s first production was a two-woman comedy, A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking by John Ford Noonan, starring Stafford and Walek-Shepard, and directed by Ackerman.

“Since it was just the three of us, with Rene’s husband, Chris, serving as our technical director, we had to keep things relatively simple,” Ackerman said.

“We staged it in a cramped little conference room on the lower level of Community Arts Café. There was a fair turnout and the folks who came were enthusiastic to see more.”

Now in its second season, the theatre has performed Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood and Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron. The final show for this season, Stop Kiss, will open this week at Theatre Alliance of Winston-Salem.

The drama is about two young women from very different backgrounds who unexpectedly fall in love in New York City. Since this is the first homosexual relationship for both of them, each have a hard time admitting their feelings and coming out to their friends and family. After their first kiss, they’re hit with a violent attack, leaving one of them in a coma and the other struggling to come to terms with the relationship.

“We chose this script because it’s both a powerfully-compelling drama and a beautiful love story,” Ackerman said. “It’s told in an unconventional manner, too. Diana Son chopped the story into short, cinematic clips that bounce forward and backward in time, alternating between before and after the attack. One minute the audience is watching Callie and Sara shyly court each other, the next they see what happens in the aftermath of this vicious assault, and back again.”

Although the play features a lesbian relationship, Ackerman says that audiences will be able to relate to the play, regardless of their sexual orientation. “Everyone on the planet knows how scary it can be to admit your feelings for someone else,” he said. “To go out on a limb and ask someone out, ask someone to dance. It takes a lot of guts to open your heart that way.”

“In the end, that’s what this play is really about,” he continued. “It’s not about this horrible gay bashing, nor gay rights, though the members of Spirit Gum are all adamantly in support of them. It’s about the courage it takes to fall in love.” Being able to produce lesser-known or challenging shows like Stop Kiss is part of what Ackerman loves about operating a theatre company.

“My favorite thing about Spirit Gum is the freedom to choose projects that we’re passionate about,” Ackerman said. “Other more-established theatre groups in town are under a lot of pressure to do the classics, to do surefire hits that appeal to the broadest possible swath of the population. But we’re free to pick older obscure shows, brand-new untested shows, and anything in-between.”

“We can take on the play scripts that speak to us and inspire us, take on the projects that challenge us to grow as performers and directors. For instance, Sarah Jenkins and Becky Hill McLaughlin, the lead actresses in Stop Kiss, have incredibly demanding roles. This play puts the both of them through the emotional wringer. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m awestruck by what they’ve accomplished and at how they’ve risen to the challenge.” !

WANNA go?

Stop Kiss performs at Theatre Alliance, 1047 W. Northwest Blvd., July 31-August 2. Tickets are $10. Visit spiritgumtheatre.com for advance tickets and more information. Play not suitable for 12 and under.

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