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Theater community rallies to save beloved playhouse

The Performance Network Theater

Michigan’s theater community took a hit a few weeks ago, when an iconic professional theater in Ann Arbor suddenly shut down.

Audiences showed up for the evening performance only to find a note on the door, saying everything was canceled indefinitely.

In a panic, the theater community rushed to come up with a plan, any plan, that could save it.

“When the locksmith showed up, the writing was on the wall.”

May was a busy month for Carla Milarch.

She was the Performance Network Theater's artistic director, and she was starring in Shakespeare's "Richard III,” as Richard.

But just a few hours before show time, she got a phone call from a coworker.

"You need to get to the theater right now," he told her. "The board of directors is having an emergency meeting, and they just brought in a locksmith."

“When the locksmith showed up, we all sort of figured the writing was on the wall,” Milarch says.

"The board members said, we're suspending operations indefinitely, you are all not employees of performance network anymore."

“The board members said, 'We’re suspending operations indefinitely, you are all not employees of performance network anymore.'”

Everybody knew the theater was in rough shape financially.

“We were not making payroll,” says board member Ron Maurer, "and we didn’t have the money to pay the actors to go on stage Thursday night.”

But Maurer says nobody actually knew how bad it was, until they stopped performances and really sat down with the books.

“The obligations were in excess of $400,000. That’s a lot of money for a theater. ”

A ragtag group of showbiz lovers pull together to save the theater!

So things did not look so good for the Performance Network Theater.

Credit The Performance Network Theater
A recent performance of "Venus in Fur."

But you know those moments in old show business movies, where Mickey Rooney turns to all the ragtag theater kids with a plan to save the day?


Yeah, it was kind of like that.

"Word started getting around about save-the-theater meetings," says Milarch.

"There was this strong sense of this is too important, we can't let this die."

“People sort of came over and grieved and talked and brainstormed and you know, there was this strong sense of this is too important, we can’t let this die,” she says.

Pretty soon Milarch had 100 people on a volunteer list and about $1,000 in seed money raised online.

And the plan they presented to the board? It basically boiled down to cuts, cuts, and more cuts.

“Just scaling it down to a mom and pop shop,” she says. Less staff, smaller shows, reduced salaries across the board.

The most anyone at the theater would be making was about $30,000 – not that they were getting rich before, she stresses.

The twist in Act II

But the day the board announced their final decision, they didn’t take Milarch’s plan.

Instead, they went with this guy:

Credit The Performance Network Theater
John Manfredi, starring in a recent production at the Performance Network Theater. He is heading up the new management team.

“My name is John Manfredi, I am the new producing artistic director at the Performance Network Theater in Ann Arbor.”

Manfredi has been around the Michigan theater community for more than 30 years and has his own production company.

And he pitched the board a proposal that didn’t just have big cuts – it also had a big vision: 300 nights of the year, that theater would be in use, whether it was outside events, play readings, workshops, or efforts to bring in a younger crowd.

“Later in the evening there’ll be a cabaret performance. There’ll be a much expanded theater for young audiences,” he says.

For Carla Milarch, it’s been a rough few days. But she’s doing alright.

“Ultimately the goal of all this effort was that Performance Network not be closed," she says, sitting on a porch swing Sunday night.

A dozen or so of the theater’s actors, managers and supporters have gathered for a subdued cook out to talk about the changes underway.  

As of now, Milarch and her artistic team are out of work, and she feels like she’s walking away from a theater that’s been her home for 15 years.

But maybe,  she says, when things settle down a bit, she'll audition for the Performance Network Theater again.

"Artists have a place to work, and audiences have a place to come and see great theater. And as long as that continues on, I mean I certainly hope to be a part of it."

The Performance Network Theater is planning to reopen around late August.  

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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