By Dezimon Alicea, Gary Crusader
The work of carpentry was loud as I proceeded to speak with Mark Spencer, director of the West Side Theatre Guild in Gary, IN. He stepped out of the noise to spend some time over the phone chatting with me. For any resident of Gary, and Northwest Indiana for that matter, the West Side Theatre Guild has become this enormous, larger than life escape. It’s an escape from the mundaneness of life into the arts, history, live entertainment and community involvement. At the helm of it all, is Mark Spencer.
Over the course of 20 years, the Theatre Guild has seen the likes of Dr. Cornell West, gospel legend Shirley Caesar, Tye Tribbett, Ossie Davis, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott-King and Bill Cosby just to name a few. Not to mention the countless productions that have graced the theatre’s main stage. Spencer will admit that 20 years ago, this was all a dream and a thought for an Emerson graduate back in 1992. That’s where it all started.
Spencer was in the first graduating class of Emerson Visual and Performing Arts School here in Gary, and recalls it being a very strict program. With encouragement from his mother and his love for the community he grew up in, Spencer would go on to graduate and serve as an instructor in the same school system that nurtured him. After his tenure in the classroom, Spencer took a step of faith and started the West Side Theatre Guild. Under an entirely different name at that time, the West Side Stage Club, Spencer put on his first Lyrics production called Lyrics for Living.
In those early days of the Theatre Guild, Spencer was passionate about the students and citizens of his city and he still is today. The Theatre Guild’s current production, “The Wiz” stars a plethora of Gary residents. And according to Spencer, that was done intentionally. “We have dynamite people here, that do dynamite things,” Spencer said about shining a light on the city and it’s people. Dwayne Coleman plays “The Wiz.” Twenty years ago, Coleman was one of the first students, who emerged from Spencer’s vocational work in the West Side auditorium. Taylor Iman, plays Dorothy; Iman was a part of Spencer’s productions in the past as well.
Putting this production together was not an overnight idea. It was a bucket list item, according to Spencer and he felt as if now was the right time to pull it together. Time has been an aid to Spencer and the West Side Theatre Guild, over the past 20 years a lot of students have gone on to do great things, as graduates of the West Side Theatre Guild. “It’s cool to hear that your students are doing work with Anthony Hamilton, the NBC production of “The Wiz,” Alvin Ailey; it’s a feeling of accomplishment,” said Spencer.
Spencer plans to build on the foundation, which was built two decades ago. His intention moving forward is to maximize the vision of the architects and the board of the Gary school system from the 60s with the West Side Theatre Guild. Also, he hopes to make a dent in the movement of cultural advancement. When speaking of the current Gary Community School System, Spencer had nothing but positive things to say. As times change, the theatre changes. “If you see a production in the smaller theatre, it’s not a lack of quality, but it’s to meet the times as they change.” Spencer counts himself blessed to work with citizens and a school board that have supported him and have been good to him over the years.
If you ask Mark Spencer what he wants to leave behind when he’s taken his final bow on the stage, he hopes to leave behind a physical plant, well stocked with technology where people can use and also learn how to work on their skills. “A place to call our own to do live performances.”
“The Wiz” will be performed during the 20th Season of the West Side Theatre Guild April 26th through the 29th, and May 3rd through the 6th at 7 p.m.; April 30th and May 7th at 4 p.m. For ticket information call 219-390-9784.