Charles Fortenbacher wanted to direct his own theater productions after graduating from Grand Valley in 2010, but knew he would have difficulty finding a job in the Grand Rapids theater scene as a recent graduate.
“Community theater in this town is a fairly exclusive club and it’s rare that jobs open up,” said Fortenbacher. “So, my theory was that if I could not find the opportunity I wanted to have, I would make my own.”
And Fortenbacher did just that, leading to the creation of the University Wits in 2012, a nonprofit organization that provides local theater enthusiasts an opportunity to learn and grow in the craft of performing arts.
Kyle Walker, a 2009 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in theater, is a founding member and former president of the group. He said the name “University Wits” was actually inspired by a history lesson learned through Grand Valley’s theater program.
“The original University Wits were Shakespeare’s contemporaries who came together during their college years to create new and innovative theater,” said Walker. “We weren’t anywhere close to a Shakespeare contemporary, but we like to think we came together for the same reason.”
Over the years, members of University Wits have written and performed numerous original plays, like “Boardwalk Blues,” written by Fortenbacher and Emily Parr and loosely based on real events that followed characters mixed up in the Atlantic City mafia scene. “In a Single Bound” was a parody play written and directed by Walker based on all things related to Superman.
Chris Kotcher, ’10, was one of the first alumni recruited by the founding team. He said he enjoys the DIY-style productions the group produces.
“When folks pitch titles, I like that it always feels like a bucket-list mentality, a ‘You know what I’ve always wanted to do’ mindset,” said Kotcher. “The thought behind that is if we’re making the shows we want to see, there’s likely an audience out there who’s into it as well.”
During his time with the group, Kotcher has filled the roles of performer, technician and more. He puts his Grand Valley film and video education to good use by documenting shows to help promote the group and to also help the cast and crew improve.
Kotcher said almost everyone involved has the potential to wear many hats.
“The thought behind that is if we’re making the shows we want to see, there’s likely an audience out there who’s into it as well.”Chris Kotcher, ’10
“In one production, you may see someone performing and, in the next, that same person may be running lights, writing, directing or even running the box office,” said Kotcher. “I think it’s a great incubator for artists to get involved, learn from the talent in our local community, and sharpen their own tools for whatever craft they wish to pursue.”
The group also has performed adaptations of well-known, published productions over the years.
“I told everybody I wanted to direct ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ first and they told me I was crazy and it couldn’t be done,” said Fortenbacher. “I did it anyway, and it was probably one of the best shows I worked on.”
The ensemble produces three-to-five shows per year and the venue of choice throughout its history has been and continues to be Dog Story Theater, a downtown Grand Rapids space geared toward providing a stage in Grand Rapids for smaller local groups and individual performers.
“Dog Story Theater seemed to be the perfect fit for the Wits because it’s a small, intimate, cost-effective and multi-functional space,” said Walker. “Many of our board members throughout the years have also served on the venue’s board, so we ended up creating a great partnership.”
Walker said participating in University Wits has helped him expand on his Grand Valley education.
“At the end of my GVSU career, I had become interested in writing and directing theater, but didn’t have a chance to explore it before I graduated,” Walker recalled. “Through the Wits, I was given a chance to work on those two skills and they ended up being the focus of my theatrical career to this day.”
JJ Lindke, current University Wits president, graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in art education. He said he’s been able to use his Grand Valley experience in a unique way since joining the group in 2016, especially considering he wasn’t involved with theater as an undergraduate student.
“My art education background gives me a keen eye and passion for working with people from all walks of life,” he said. “Grand Valley taught me that there are so many unique individuals and stories that can be told in creative ways. I hope that we convey how much we love what we do in every show.”