Whole Art Theater
Formed in 1976, the experimental Whole Theater Company was established in Lawrence, Michigan by the Czech-born Werner Krieglstein, who wanted to expose rural audiences to the experience of theater. For more than three decades, Kalamazoo’s progressive theater community put to stage an eclectic collection of original and interpretive works of absurdist comedies, risque dramas and riotous musicals, as well as foundational classics like Oscar Wilde’s Salome, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and Luigi Perandello’s The Vice.
Krieglstein, a Fulbright scholar with a doctorate in humanities from the University of Chicago started the theater in 1976, opening it in the historical DeHaven Store building in downtown Lawrence. Envisioning the site as a multi-use environment that would be anchored by experimental theater, Krieglstein along with a handful of friends, sought to grow a more conscious and creative community through anti-commercial values and mind/body activities like art, yoga, gymnastics, meditation and improvisation. Krieglstein’s philosophy toward the arts was Brechtian in orientation, that they were to stimulate and provoke the audience rather than entertain and deaden.
He later moved the theater eastward to Kalamazoo in 1983, putting down roots at another historical site, the Whistle Stop building (aka the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Depot). Krieglstein was both theater director and part-time faculty at Western Michigan University, Nazareth College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, juggling both responsibilities while raising a family. In 1988, after more than a decade at the helm of the arts collective, he cited his reasons for leaving Kalamazoo for an academic position at the College of DuPage as a decision born out of financial instability, stating, “The struggle is too hard. With family obligations, to not know what every given year will bring—at my age, it’s just not possible.” While director, he staged theatrical versions of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Report to an Academy. In addition to his more avant-garde leanings, Krieglstein developed works for younger audiences as well, including Hansel and Gretel and Beauty and the Beast.
Despite the departure of Krieglstein, the Whole Art Theater continued to thrive and grow, filling a niche market for edgy performances that explored the intersecting dynamics of culture, sexuality, politics and identity. In addition to theater performances during the late 1980’s, Whole Art Theater also provided a venue for local and touring punk bands. Over the years, their headquarters moved from building to building, including stints at the Park Trades Building, The Common Market, and lastly at the north end of the Kalamazoo Mall (246 N. Kalamazoo Mall).
In 2010, the board of directors of the theater voted to dissolve the Whole Art Theater, citing a weak economy and financial stress as reasons.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, June 2022
“Whole Life, Art Theater and School Comes to Lawrence”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 June 1977, page A5, column 1
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 December 1981, page A7, column 1
“Avant-Garde Troup Finds a Home in Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 November 1986, page G1, column 1
“Whole Art’s Krieglstein Departing”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 May 1988, page D5, column 1
“Whole Art Theatre Dissolves; Performers Open New Studio”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 January 2010, page A1, column 2.