After five years as the artistic director of a small theater company, Frannie Shepherd-Bates has found one rule to stick by: keep it weird.
“You have to be really in-tune with what people want to see,” Shepherd-Bates says. “If you’re doing a lot of bubblegum plays and that’s what your community wants to see, that’s fine. But we have found that the weirder we get, the more people come.”
Magenta Giraffe, the company Shepherd-Bates co-founded in 2008, is one of several “fringe” theater companies operating throughout metro Detroit. Their budgets and audiences are smaller, and some have no permanent home; Magenta Giraffe is temporarily taking the stage at the Abreact, another small Detroit theater. The material tends to be non-mainstream and sometimes difficult; Magenta Giraffe’s first show was Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential classic No Exit, and other shows have dealt with racism, sexuality and the legacy of the Vietnam War.
“We want not only to entertain people, but to engage them in discussion about the plays we produce,” Shepherd-Bates says. “We choose our plays specifically because we feel that the subject matter will be something that can spark a conversation that people aren’t having in this area.”
For Hal Soper, the key to a successful small theater company is keeping the audience on its toes in a slightly different way: mixing it up, from the weird to the traditional to a healthy helping of improv. Soper founded Hamtramck’s Planet Ant theater in 1996 with Margaret Edwartowski and Keegan-Michael Key (who’s since gone on to star on MADtv and Key and Peele.) The theater grew out of a coffee house of the same name, which presented entertainment, bands, and open mics (occasionally featuring a high school-aged Jack White) six nights a week. The same eclectic spirit has pervaded the Ant’s existence as a theater. It offers productions of classic works alongside local playwrights’ work and improv nights. Some original plays are improvised by committee in what Soper calls “the Ant process.”
“We have a connection between the comedy world and the traditional theater world, which is a unique place,” Soper says. “I don’t think any other theater in town does that.”
In the case of Ferndale’s Ringwald Theater, the riskiest option was to play things straight for a season. Originating in 2003 as Who Wants Cake?, the company established a permanent physical space, the Ringwald Theater, in 2007 and renamed the company after it.
“We are probably best known as the gay theater,” says artistic director Joe Bailey. “We do a lot of gay shows, a lot of campy parody stuff, a lot of boys in dresses.”
But, he says, the 2012-2013 season was a “risky” one for the company because it tried out some “quieter” material – most notably, Tracey Letts’ Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County.
“It was a great season for us and brought in a lot of people who had never heard of us,” Bailey says.
Of course, in the process of staging of all this unconventional dramaturgy, fringe theater owners have a constant challenge in finding enough money to keep it going.
“It’s always first and foremost,” Bailey says. “Money, money, money. Everything else sort of pales in comparison to that.”
In addition to fundraisers and renting out theater space, Bailey says the Ringwald produces as many shows as it can to keep things afloat.
“You just tapdance as fast as you can,” he says.
At Planet Ant, Soper is developing a couple of fresh ideas for keeping the theater and those involved with it in the black. The theater is now offering improv classes for a fee, and Soper is planning to introduce more traditional theater training soon. In addition, he’s working on turning the Ant into what he describes as a “conduit” between Detroit and Los Angeles. Co-founder Key now works in L.A., while Soper splits his time between the two cities.
“Keegan is not just starring in [Key and Peele], he’s producing it,” Soper says. “And he has access to people who can get things produced. Whether it’s a play or an idea for TV or an advertising campaign or something else, we want people here to have the opportunities to get those things made.”
The migration problem
While Soper still has roots firmly planted in Detroit, in many other cases the financial difficulty of a metro-area theater career drives talent away for good to New York, L.A. and other cities.
“In Detroit, the vast majority of theater and performing artists have to supplement their income with other things, or they’re doing a million different arts-related projects at once to pay the bills,” Shepherd-Bates says. “But if they have no opportunities here, they will leave.”
Keith Medelis is one of the latest players to join the Detroit theater expatriates’ club. Medelis was the artistic director of Ypsilanti’s New Theatre Project, which he founded in 2010. The company recently called it quits, with Medelis citing a lack of “artistic fulfillment” and his own decision to pursue an MSA in directing at Brooklyn College. He says leaving the metro area is essential to his career right now, but that’s no slight against Detroit or its theater scene.
“I don’t think people should move away because it’s Michigan,” Medelis says. “I think they should move away because they should get a taste for something else before they die. People really hate me for this opinion, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. There’s a chance that I’ll be back, but there’s a lot to be learned outside of Michigan.”
Medelis says one of the biggest advantages to doing fringe theater in metro Detroit is the community. Some of the people he met in his work, he says, are “just irreplaceable.” Shepherd-Bates says the relationships between local companies are rooted in collaboration.
“What’s kind of cool about the scene is I don’t feel like there is competition,” she says. “We really support each other. We promote each other’s shows, we do ad trades in our programs.”
And for artists, Soper says that sense of community is the finest thing Detroit’s fringe theater scene can offer.
“We’re like an extended family,” he says. “It keeps people excited about living here. If you cobble together Greenfield Village, auto shows, things like that, you can get commercial work as an artist here. But fringe theater is what’s going to keep your soul happy.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.