Mark Spencer, founder of Gary’s West Side Theatre Guild, has seen the fruits of his company’s labor blossom through the years.
Over the course of the past two decades, West Side alumni have gone on to work with the likes of fellow hometown heroes the Jacksons, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Mary J. Blige.
“That sort of lets us know that West Side is some kind of barometer, or test, and we have achieved that goal of excellence,” Spencer said. “And we have also provided a marketable skill that these young people and community members can take elsewhere.”
The theater is located in Gary at 900 W. Gerry St. Spencer formed West Side in 1996, shortly after graduating from Indiana University Northwest with a BA in Arts and Theater and joining the staff of Gary’s West Side Leadership Academy.
Right off the bat, West Side struck a chord with students. More than 100 high schoolers turned out to participate in the inaugural production, the musical “Lyrics for Living.”
In the years that have followed, West Side has provided a place for local youths to thrive. Notable alumni include Ryan Williams, who has shared the stage with the Jacksons and Blige, Marcus Heffner, who lent his skills to tours of Beverly/Maza and R. Kelly and Luis Garcia, who has worked with the acclaimed Chicago-based Black Ensemble Theater and the annual Ebony Fashion Fair.
West Side also has brought productions ranging from annual plays by iconic, thought provoking playwright August Wilson, family-friendly fare such as “The Wiz” and musical revues such as the “Lyrics” series.
“There is a maturity and an expectation from our ensembles and a great expectation from our audiences,” Spencer said. “We like to present and to offer as professional and as polished projects as possible, and we want to exude excellence constantly. And I can see the steady growth from that."
West Side Theatre Guild’s 21st season kicked off Oct. 19 with “The Meeting,” which depicts a fictional summit between Martin Luther King and Malcom X. “The Meeting” is scheduled to run through Oct. 29.
The musical “Lyrics: Rebirth,” a performance from the MPAACT Theatre of Chicago and “High School Musical” rounds out West Side’s current season.
"Its an eclectic mix of cultural offerings,” Spencer said of his 2017-18 season.”It's all over the place and it's something for everyone."
For more on West Side Theatre Guild, call (219) 390-9784 or visit wstgonline.com.