The Empire Arts Center is returning the Backstage Project to Grand Forks for the summer by bringing in local musicians to put on shows for the public.
Jim Popejoy will perform on a jazz vibraphone at 8 p.m. Friday and the jazz duo Hunter Cushing and Elijah Gray will follow. On Saturday, Mike Blake will perform at 2 p.m., and at 8 p.m., Seth Cline and Therese Kulas will be singing show tunes.
Kulas has been involved with the company for many years, and regular Empire Arts Center attendees may recognize her as Penny from “Hairspray” or Cinderella from “Into the Woods.”
“It’s fun to do a concert on our own,” Kulas said. “We’re kind of just having fun and sharing our love of Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are considered the forerunners of the “golden age” of musical theater, creating shows such as “The Sound of Music,” “Carousel” and “The King and I.”
“I haven’t had the chance to be in a Rodgers and Hammerstein show,” Kulas said. “It’s good that I finally get to let it out.”
Kulas and her longtime friends, Cline and Max Pickett, are putting a unique twist on the songbook by singing through it backwards and gender-bending some of the roles. Cline will be singing “I Cain't Say No,” for example, which Kulas expects will bring lots of laughs.
“I’m going to be singing things I’ll never get to sing again in a performance setting,” Kulas said. “Who can’t be happy when listening to that glorious music?
Unlike the evening performances, which will take place in the backstage area of the Empire Arts Center, Blake’s jazz vibraphone performance will take place in the alleyway directly behind the building, weather permitting. Blake’s performance will also be free while the other performances cost $10.
The Empire Arts Center received a grant from the Emerging Cities Champions program which provides money to local entities that want to utilize public spaces, and the center will use the grant to bring art to the public for free, said Emily Montgomery, the executive director of the center.
“The landscape of downtown is changing so we wanted to be part of it in a new and unique way,” Montgomery said.
Initially, the center planned to use the grant for an outside art installation, but construction changed these plans, Montgomery said. Now, the center will use them for several smaller events, including Blake’s Backstage Project performance.
“It (the grant) forced us to rethink what’s going on in the public sphere,” Montgomery said. “It’s a good question to ask — how we can bring art to new people without putting the onus on them to come to us.”
The cover charge for the evening performances was raised by $5 from the previous cover charge so the center can pay performers more. The grant will be used to compensate Blake.
There are not many locations in Grand Forks for new and local artists to play in a paid gig, Montgomery said.