Return to theater: Stateside's summer series
When Broadway went dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world jumped to action. Charities formed. Ghost lights illuminated darkened theaters. Zoom concerts were arranged, celebrating show tunes from Disney to Sondheim.
But what happened to theater outside of the Great White Way? In our 2021 summer series, Stateside hosted five theater companies from across Michigan to examine the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the dramatic arts – and to find out where we go from here.
Listen to our five conversations and read highlights below.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Detroit Public Theatre on hope and renewal in the wake of the pandemic
Most people set modest goals in the midst of the pandemic. Go on a walk once a day, call their parents more, maybe try out that old treadmill in the basement. But the Detroit Public Theatre acquired a new building and moved.
“We really, along with our board, kept our foot on the gas and said we want to build something that will be here for generations, a home for artists and a place where Detroiters can gather and tell stories,” explained Courtney Burkett, one of the co-founders and producing artistic directors of the Detroit Public Theatre (DPT).
The Detroit Public Theatre’s new location is more than just a building. For the first time, DPT will have its own home outside of their residency at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which opens up a whole new world of creative possibilities.
“We will be able to open our doors more often and have more supplementary programming around the production,” said Burkett. “So, opportunities for talkbacks, opportunities for conversations, opportunities for partnerships.”
“Our mission has been about bringing in as many voices as possible and shining a light on all of the beautiful talent that exists in Detroit and in our region, and sharing that talent with the world and the country,” added Sarah Winkler, another of DPT’s co-founders and producing artistic directors.
That mission – and the Detroit Public Theatre’s success – shows no signs of stopping. With acclaimed playwright Dominique Morriseau joining the organization as artistic director and the DPT’s first commissioned play Birthday Candles slated to premiere on Broadway, the theatre company is pulsing with adrenaline and hope for the future.
Winkler said, “There is so much joy, but there is also so much work ahead.”
Encore! A Dexter theatre company retakes the stage post-pandemic
“That’s an absolute dream come true: somebody calls you and says, ‘Hey, I think I have a spot somewhere in the country where people will support a theater company and there’s a need.’”
That phone call came to Dan Cooney, professional Broadway actor and now the artistic director of the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter. The new company is making waves in the Michigan theater scene by focusing exclusively on musical theatre.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, operations screeched to a halt. David Moan, professional actor and cast member at the Encore, noted that the company was forced to reinvent the way they did theater in the middle of their rehearsal process.
“Eventually, we all realized that that particular iteration of Guys and Dolls was not going to happen as we thought it would be, and that all of our creative energy had to kick in because we said goodbye to the theater world as we knew it,” said Moan.
For the Encore Musical Theatre Company, that reinvention also included relocation. In the middle of the pandemic, the Encore moved to a location four times the size of their original space.
And as the world awkwardly transitions into a new normal, both Cooney and Moan are ready to dive back into live theater on that brand new stage. With a summer of Broadway concerts and a full season planned for the fall, the prospects of live theater at the Encore look bright.
“I am back to what I love to do for the people that I love to do it for,” said Moan. “And there’s just such an energy and appreciation both on stage and off that I think is new and revitalized in a way, because we all had to give it up for a little while.”
Cooney added, “We have a new building. We’re still here. We’ll be back.”
Pandemic pushes Williamston Theatre to get creative with live performance
While many theaters adopted a virtual format in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one theater in Michigan opted for a more active route that got audience members off their couch and into the streets.
At the Williamston Theatre, husband and wife duo John Lepard and Emily Sutton-Smith created Strolling Stories, an entirely new form of theater where audience members download audio plays onto their devices and walk through the set. And the set was downtown Williamston.
“We created these pieces that you can come to Williamston and walk around town and listen to them, and it’s connecting it to the place where we exist,” explained Sutton-Smith, director of development at the theater.
Despite its innovations, the Williamston was severely impacted by the financial effects of COVID-19. How did it survive? The support of its patrons.
“We had to call each of [our season ticket holders] individually and say, listen, here are your choices. We can give you the money back or you can donate it,” recounted Lepard. “And almost everyone donated the rest of their pass’s money back, which saved us.”
“I didn’t think we would go under. But I did have existential moments where I thought, ‘Is theater going to be the same?’” added Sutton-Smith.
While that question is unclear, one thing is for certain: the Williamston Theatre isn’t going anywhere. Through the innovations of audio plays and repertory performances, Lepard and Sutton-Smith are making sure that theater persists.
“We are a creative sector. And I think that sometimes we do best and create the most vibrant and interesting cultural and artistic experiences when we’re given limitations. This is a limitation,” said Sutton-Smith. “I think we will come through and we’ll be better and we’ll connect people again. That’s what we do.”
Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre on using COVID adversity as inspiration
Most theater companies are anxiously awaiting the day that things return to normal. The Plowshares Theater Company is more interested in moving forward – in the arts and beyond.
Gary Anderson is the producing artistic director and co-founder of Plowshares Theatre Company, Michigan’s only professional Black theater. In his eyes, Plowshares is a place for new work to be cultivated, new voices heard, and new stories celebrated.
“We didn’t need necessarily another production of A Raisin in the Sun. We needed to provide a forum for the next Lorraine Hansberry, the next August Wilson,” said Anderson.
Plowshares’ broadcast theater performances maintained that emphasis on originality and artistic engagement, and they served as creative outlets in a time of social upheaval.
“Adversity actually creates a level of energy and spirit into most folks that they’ll have to have some kind of output, and we were looking for ways in which that output could be targeted towards something that would be mutually beneficial,” Anderson stated.
‘Beneficial’ wouldn’t be a word that most people use to describe the pandemic, but Anderson believes that it forced society to take a hard look at the social inequities experienced by minorities, including within the arts sector.
“It’s as if the tide went out and we saw all that was on the sea bed, all the garbage and challenges,” he explained. “So when we had a global pandemic, we saw that the arts community [...] had gross inequities in regards to the opportunities African American, Asian American, Latinx artists had to work.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, Plowshares is planning the New Griots Play Festival, which features three original plays written by Black women. But for Anderson, getting the lights back on isn’t the end goal: it’s the first step.
“It’s not just for me to say that I just want to get back up on the stage and put a show on and get an audience,” said Anderson. “It’s for me to say I want to help make this a better community by serving and presenting stories that reflect the topics of interest of the people around me.”
Community support and a little creativity helped historic Coldwater theater survive
The dramatic arts may be as old as time itself, but not many theaters in Michigan can boast being around for 139 years.
“The fact that Tibbets remains is what makes it so special,” said Christine Delaney, executive director of the Tibbits Opera Foundation and Arts Council.
Tibbits Opera House is a historic theater located in Coldwater, Michigan, and the second oldest operational theater in the state. This grand venue was built in 1882, saved by its community in the 1950s, and restored in the 2010s. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s strain on American theaters, Tibbits Opera House’s resilience streak kept on going.
“Throughout the whole thing, we felt an important need as Tibbits to be the light, to be the hope that as much as possible, we were still here. We are still advocating for the arts,” said Delaney.
Delaney and the team at Tibbits maintained an impressive performance schedule throughout the pandemic, utilizing outdoor venues, ‘bubbled’ casts, and reduced sets. However, Tibbits’ identity as a historic theater poses its own challenges year-round.
“There are a lot of idiosyncrasies of a historic building, from the stage and its lack of levelness to the lighting positions,” explained Delaney. “The building was built before we had electric lighting. It was gaslit. So there’s a lot of challenges.”
Delaney also serves on the board of directors of the League of Historic American Theaters, an organization devoted to keeping theaters like the Tibbits alive. Delaney credits their support, along with donations from the Coldwater community, for keeping the doors open.
“They did an absolutely amazing job of reaching out and being there for all of the theaters. They took a very active role in advocacy for the [Save Our Stages Act], all of that legislation and funding, and really advocated for these historic theaters,” Delaney said.
With the undying support of its community and a full season of shows ahead, the future of Tibbits Opera House looks bright. Delaney is confident that the theater’s purpose is what drives it – and Coldwater – forward.
“I cannot imagine what the community would be had this theater not been here for one hundred and thirty-nine years,” she said. “Having a theater here just opens up so many opportunities of exposure to things, just the opportunity to learn.”
This series was written and curated by Stateside production assistant Mary Claire Zauel.