Death by Saltines has an unusual flavor, but on stage, it’s all palatable. PJ-clad thespian Jamie Richards ponders this notion during his 18-tune solo performance in “Songs from an Unmade Bed”, a musical about a gay New Yorker’s by-turns comedic and wistful ruminations on sex and romance in the big city.
The audience is nearly within arm’s reach of Richards’ rumpled bed in the maroon-walled, intimate quarters of the Ringwald Theatre — Ferndale’s first live-performance venue, an office-to-stage conversion at the junction of 9 Mile and Woodward. The partners of the experimental Who Wants Cake? Theatre Company –Joe Bailey, Jamie Warrow, Joe Plambeck, Jamie Richards, and Missy Beckwith– started out by rehabbing the former computer office space, knocking out walls and building sets. Two years later, along with directing a troupe of regular cast and crew members, the quintet still assumes nearly every position in the house: from acting and art direction to box office and promotion to costume design and mood lighting.
Who Wants Cake? — the moniker is derived from an episode of the Amy Sedaris sitcom Strangers With Candy — knocks out shows four days a week, year-round, with a different program each month. Avant-garde shows, including the 2009 Wilde Award-nominated Love and Human Remains –a whirl with a dominatrix and a death stalker– and clever riffs on the silver screen, like Steel MAN-golias and Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy have filled its playbill.
“We do theater that, when people leave, they will have something to talk about,” Warrow explains. “And we are designed to change people’s minds. We want people not to just come in and have a good time, which they do, but whether it’s a comedy or something a little bit more serious, we want them to be challenged mentally as well as emotionally.”
The partners chose to open their doors in the anti-‘burb of Ferndale, long since evolved from blue-collar roots to what is, arguably, a haven for Metro Detroit’s hippest and most gay-friendly populace. Young and talented resident artists and musicians live on leafy streets lined with bitty-sized vintage brick bungalows. Its boho-chic downtown, home to cool bizzes like the Flytrap Diner (of Food Network fame), the celeb-frequented Mother Fletcher’s vintage store, and happy-face cupcakes and gelato at the Pinwheel Bakery, is the perfect backdrop for fringe theater to rise and thrive.
In keeping with Ferndale’s polyglot persona, the theater’s production schedule is, well, hard to typecast. It features gender themes, drug abuse, gay sex, straight sex, murdering minds, intrigue, naked bods, cheerleaders, the Christmas Grotto… call it provocative and call it fun.
“We cater to an eclectic and diverse crowd. We’ve been called a theater that caters to a gay population, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Warrow posits. “Wherever there’s [a community of theater supporters] in southeast Michigan, we’ve been pulling crowds.” Patrons travel from as far as Lansing and Toledo, “so there’s gotta be something about what we’re offering that makes people want to travel.”
Admission is cheap, typically $10 to $20 a head, and support comes from investor loans and private donations; Warrow is looking to expand the donor base by converting to non-profit status. This economical entertainment outlet has held its own in the economy, but “keeping the theater viable is probably just the biggest challenge,” she observes. Bailey agrees, and also cites the constant reel of stage productions.
“What’s always a challenge is you successfully finish one show and you have another one beating down the door,” he says, “and then once the new one starts you’re really starting back at square one every single time. So you don’t know, again, you’re rolling the dice and hoping for the best, and it is like that at the start of every new production that opens.”
In particular, the company’s irreverent, pop culture-based shows have been real crowd-pleasers, says Joe Bailey, the theater’s artistic director. “The Facts of Life: the Lost Episode just drew people from all walks of life. Remembering the TV show, people who liked the campy element of men performing in dresses, and Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, I think people were really titillated, like a ‘How are they going to do that?’ sort of thing,” he recalls.
Bailey, aka Mrs. Garrett, the housemother in The Facts of Life show, is an Oakland University graduate and former artistic director of Loft Productions in Pontiac. A stage career in Los Angeles and New York and national touring followed, but he eventually tired of living out of a suitcase. “I wanted to start a theater company here in Michigan, and then I ran into Ms. Warrow at Starbucks one morning and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Warrow, a lawyer, holds a BFA in theater from Wayne State University, directs, and acts, appearing most recently in the highly popular and “audacious” Killer Joe, also a 2009 Wilde Award nominee.
The company has yet to create a performance from an original script, but that is a goal, Bailey says. Programming consists of material previously produced around the country, plus he digests plays, magazines, and keeps a finger on current events.
“We force Joe to read a lot!” Warrow offers.
General auditions for the 2009-2010 season, where 150 actors will vie for parts at the Ringwald and four other local theaters, are full, Warrow says. The theater generally culls talent from a local acting pool, but go on the right night, and you may see the mayors of Ferndale and Royal Oak walking the dais. Craig Covey, Ferndale’s openly gay mayor, played a patient in last year’s special engagement, The Normal Hearts, an award-winning drama about HIV and AIDS.
“In my real life, I run an HIV/AIDS agency, so there are multiple layers of irony there,” Covey notes. “Really, I was just thrilled to be invited to be part of it and I don’t know whether I was there as a mayor or as a person who runs an HIV/AIDS agency, but it doesn’t matter.”
He’s also taken the stage, twice, at Ferndale’s Go Comedy! Improv Theater. “There’s so much talent in Ferndale. Ferndale itself, being a tiny city, has more than its share of artists and actors, creative types, and we have a lot of folks in town that are what we call the creative class,” he observes.
Covey calls the Ringwald a “natural fit” for Ferndale. Known for its nightlife, he describes a city where, name your block, and you’ll find a biker bar, a yuppie martini bar, a gay bar, a disco ’70s club, and a place to grab a beer, a shot, and a hamburger. The theater, he says, is “small, it’s community, it’s grass-roots, popular, and it fills a niche. It isn’t designed to be a giant hall where thousands of people would come and see a play, but it’s absolutely popular and accepted and there’s been not a hint of any kind of criticism or dissonance.”
Many new performing arts companies spring up, but they tend to rent space from existing theaters, only very rarely opening their own spaces, Bailey explains. “I think opening our doors was huge, and two years later, we’re still here, we’re still viable and we still matter. I think that’s a huge testament to the five of us who worked our fingers to the bone on this project every day of our lives.”
So after two seasons, any stage fright? Nah, that’s not even written in the script.
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