Fifteen years ago, East Peoria high school student Micah Spayer was performing in productions for Eastlight Theatre. Since then, he has moved to New York City and founded an experimental company named Uncle Mia Productions, a tribute to his nephews’ pet name for him from when they were toddlers. This summer, Spayer returned to the Peoria area and is preparing to direct and star in a production of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” at the scene of his early theatrical endeavors: Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria.
“I was asked to direct this musical because I’ve known Steve Cordle, the executive director of Eastlight Theatre, since I was a freshman in high school,” said Spayer. “He heard I’d come to the area to do a production in Chicago. He asked me if I’d direct 'Tommy.' I just wanted to direct, just help with the production, then sit in the audience and enjoy it. But then casting became an issue. I filled all the other roles beautifully, but I couldn’t find the right person to play Tommy. I was familiar with the show and knew the songs, so I took it myself.”
Spayer moved to New York in 2009, after graduating from Western Illinois University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in musical theater. He returns to the Peoria area to visit his family twice a year, but has become sufficiently acclimated to a fast-paced New York lifestyle that visits to central Illinois hold at least a modicum of culture shock.
It’s surreal to be back in East Peoria,” Spayer said. “It’s taken some time to adjust to a lot of different factors. The people and the pace are different. The water is cleaner, the pace is slower and the people are nicer. I couldn’t have come back five years ago. My ego was just way too big. But now, I’ve learned a lot. I feel like I can come back and give back to the community that enriched me by shaping me into the performer I am. My mother, Carol, is actually going to be the musical director for this show. She was a musical director in the 1980s but stopped after she had kids. I asked her to come out of retirement. So, you might say the thing that took her out of theater brought her back in.”
During his salad days as a teenaged local theater performer, Spayer was a keen observer. He credits listening and watching what was happening around him with preparing him for not only performing theater but for producing and directing.
“After I’d been in a few productions, I started paying attention to what was going on behind me and getting a feel for the nuts and bolts of theater, and who is working so diligently on the technical aspect, and the music for the product we were all working together to put out,” he said. “I started to think I wanted my own control over productions, so I started listening and watching. Then, I started doing productions myself and found that I like it and have a knack for it.”
“Tommy,” a rock musical that tells the story of a blind, deaf, and dumb boy, his life experiences, and his relationship with his family, is a piece of what Spayer termed avant-garde theater. It is unconventional because it addresses topics that traditional musicals would probably shun, including drug use, murder and aberrant sexual practices.
“I would encourage people to come and see this production because the talent pool for it is incredible,” said Spayer. “Also, Steve Cordle has rigged up the theater so we can have some amazing effects. He’s installed extra lights and lighting panels that will create the effect of a rock concert. If you want to hear the music and basically treat it as a concert, you can do that, or you can come and see a musical that’s off its hinges.”
“Tommy” will open on Aug. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Byron Moore Auditorium at East Peoria High School. that will be followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance on Aug. 5, a 2 p.m. matinee on Aug. 6 and 7:30 p.m. shows from Aug. 9 until 12. To purchase tickets or for more information, contact Eastlight Theatre at 309-699-7469 or visit eastlighttheatre.com.