Tuesday, February 2, 2016

He is woman - and the audience roared

"I knew it was him. But I didn't see him."

The "him" veteran actress Henrietta Hermelin was referring to was Joe Bailey, whose performance we were discussing last night after the closing performance of "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers" at the The Ringwald Theatre. And the major compliment she gave him was 100-percent correct.

Joe, you see - billed only as J. Bailey in the program to further the illusion - played Sue Mengers, Hollywood's most powerful agent during the late 1960s through the early '80s. The well-researched script by John Logan takes place in 1981 at a pivotal point in the downswing of her career, on the night she is expecting a call from her number one client, Barbra Streisand. Streisand, you see, has just left Sue for another agency, and the super-agent, a longtime friend, wants to know why.

And so the show opens with the caftan-clad Sue parked on her couch, conversing with friends (the audience) while anticipating a call she does and does not want to receive. There she remains for the next 80 minutes or so, regaling us with juicy tidbits of her long and successful career - with us hanging on to each and every delicious morsel she tosses our way.

The concept of Joe wearing a dress is nothing new, of course; many of The Ringwald's most popular shows over the past eight years have featured him thusly clad. But here's what's different: Previous appearances in feminine attire have been in spoofs and satires, or in gender-bending productions in which the winks and nods between actor and audience acknowledge we're all in on the joke.

But that's not the case with "I'll Eat You Last." Logan's one-woman script is just that: a script written for a woman to portray its protagonist. (Its original run on Broadway featured Bette Midler as Sue.) And so with director Jamie Richards guiding from behind the scenes, Joe's goal was to develop a fully realized and realistic woman, thereby creating a believable character that would do justice to both the role and the person upon whom it is based.

To say he achieved his goal would be a major understatement.

As someone who has followed Joe's career since we first met at an interview more than a dozen years ago, it's safe for me to say that Joe sits among the "A-List" of actors whose work appears on area stages, having earned 13 Wilde Awards nominations since 2007. (He's tied for fourth place in total nominations received over the course of the awards' history.)

But here's what made this performance stand out: If you didn't know J. Bailey was a man, you would have believed a woman lived underneath the wig and makeup. And since Sue's legendary size kept her mostly home bound later in life, Joe had to keep us totally engaged while never leaving the couch.

Which he did. (He had a similar Herculean task earlier this season in "The Whale," a co-production with the UDM Theatre Company, which I thought couldn't be topped - until now.)

From start to finish, Joe's superb storytelling skills and creative instincts kept us hanging on Sue's every word. Based on my research, he seems to have fully grasped her colorful, larger-than-life personality - which he brought to life with carefully executed gestures and facial expressions. Every movement, every line and every expression - no matter how small or seemingly insignificant - was thoughtfully planned, fitting the character like a tight glove. As a result, we felt Sue's every emotion  - and by show's end, we wished our visit would last longer. Much longer.

So, yes: Henrietta's comment was correct. We didn't see Joe in the role; we only saw Sue. And that's a testament to the excellent work of Joe Bailey.

The Bottom Line: Rumor has it that "I'll Eat You Last" might return for a short run sometime soon. Keep watching EncoreMichigan.com for details - and then catch it if you can for an amazing evening of live theater!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

How'd she do it?
(Tying up loose ends, Part 2)

(This is the second of two commentaries in which the cranky critic catches up on shows he attended this past December, but for various reasons didn't get around to writing about till now. He hopes to do better in 2016.)

It was an unofficial team-up.

Its backstory was a long time in the making. Since its establishment in 1997, Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre has had a succession of artistic directors, each of whom had (or, currently, has) a unique vision for the popular venue. And since its founding in 2000, The Abreact has produced its shows in a handful of performance spaces throughout the Downtown, Greektown and Corktown neighborhoods of Detroit. Both, at times, shared similar visions, and it wasn't unusual to find some of the same artists working at both places.

So when the powers-that-be at The Abreact decided last year it was time to leave its most recent home and look for a new location, it made total sense that artistic director Chuck Reynolds would use his downtime to direct a show at Planet Ant. It also didn't surprise me that the show would feel equally at home at Planet Ant as it would have on the stage of The Abreact - and that many of the actors would be familiar to longtime patrons of each theater.

In short, "Orson's Shadow" had the vibe of an Abreact production and a Planet Ant production, and the result was one of my most favorite shows so far this season.

In his review of the play for EncoreMichigan.com, critic Frank Anthony Polito described "Orson’s Shadow" as "the behind-the-scene story of the time when Orson Welles took on the challenge of directing Sir Laurence Oliver and his soon-to-be bride Joan Plowright in a production of Ionesco’s 'Rhinoceros' in London’s West End in 1960. As one might imagine, the clashing of egos between Welles and Olivier is enough fodder to make for a compelling drama. Throw in Olivier’s fanatical actress wife, a chain-smoking theater reviewer, and a stoic stagehand and the most serious of scenarios becomes a laugh-riot."

He couldn't have summarized it better.

Such a script has plenty of pitfalls, however, since its main characters are - or were - familiar faces to the movie-going public. How do you get audiences to shake their memories of Welles and Olivier? Can any local actor believably fill their costumes?

Yes, and Reynolds pulled it off because of tight, intense directing and a team of skilled actors who fully invested themselves in their roles.

Few actors came to mind for the role of Welles when Chuck first told me about the show many, many months ago - and the one whom I first thought of indeed played the character. Joel Mitchell dominates whatever stage he crosses - as did Welles - so while little physical similarities exist between the two, Mitchell had no problem erasing the image of the larger-than-life Welles from my mind; the power of his performance left no doubt who he was.

I was a bit concerned about the choice for Olivier, however. While the other actors were age-appropriate for their roles, handsome Jonathan Davidson was much too young. But here's yet another case of a young actor stepping up to the challenge, as Davidson - with theatrical magic to add years to his look - kept up with Mitchell (which is not an easy task) and convinced me Reynold's choice was a solid one.

Fine performances were also given by the always excellent Dax Anderson as the theater critic, TM Rawlins as Vivian Leigh, and Bryan Spangler as the Irish stagehand.

In all honesty, though, much of my attention was focused on Kelly Rossi, whose Joan Plowright quietly, but strongly maintained control of the men around her. Most impressive was a segment in which she was sitting mere inches from - and looking stoically towards, but not directly at - the audience. From what I could tell - and I watched closely - her focus never wavered, never once accidentally making eye contact with anyone sitting near her. Nor did her eyes ever dart away, even for a second. How she did that, I'll never know.

What helped, I'm sure, was the blanket of quietness and calm that had descended upon the audience as they sat riveted to the action unfolding before them. The intimacy of the space and our desire to focus on the story brought us into the action as unseen participants. Rarely was a cough or a candy wrapper heard from the utterance of the first line to the very last.

That, my dear readers, is a sign of an excellent production!

CLICK HERE to read the review from EncoreMichigan.com

CLICK HERE to read John Monaghan's review in the Detroit Free Press

Sunday, January 10, 2016

And then there were none...

History was made last week with the downsizing of journalist Jenn McKee from her job at The Ann Arbor News. Part of the MLive media empire here in Michigan, Jenn was one of 29 content providers from across the state to lose their jobs - including, it's rumored, Jeffrey Kaczmarczak of The Grand Rapids Press. And that means - to the best of my knowledge - there are no longer any experienced staff journalists at a major city newspaper anywhere in the state covering live theater as their primary beat.

Think about that for minute.

If theater is to get any coverage at all from the state's daily newspapers (which, yes, is a misnomer these days due to publishing cutbacks, but you get the point), it will be by freelance writers. When space and budgets permit, of course.

And since theaters are not significant purchasers of advertising in these publications, guess what that means?

So why did Jenn get laid off, you might be wondering? Trust me: it's not because of the quality of her work.

In her time at the paper, Jenn grew into becoming a trusted voice and fearless arts advocate, whose work was appreciated - even by those who sometimes disagreed with her. (The sign of a good critic is one who says what she believes and doesn't back down for fear of a backlash from vocal opposition. And that certainly describes Jenn, who sometimes took a beating, but didn't allow it to intimidate her from doing her job to the best of her ability!)

The reason for her departure, then, can be summed up in one word - a word that dominates discussions throughout the media here and elsewhere: clicks.

Before we chat about clicks, however, let's step into the WABAC Machine to get some historical perspective on the situation.

(Remember, though: What I'm about to lay out is a very basic description of the newspaper/media business as it existed in the 20th and early 21st centuries. As such, there are exceptions to every rule, and the devil is always in the details!)

How we got to where we are today

Back in the good ol' days before many of my readers were born, pretty much every major city in America had at least two daily newspapers - often more. (Detroit had three when I was young, and in earlier times, a few more. But I digress.) These papers were - more often than not in the beginning - locally owned and managed, with the owners having deep business and/or political roots within the communities they served.

They were also a highly competitive bunch, always looking for ways to build their circulation - which meant they offered their readers a wide variety of content in order to appeal to the broadest range of interests as possible. (The business of signing up comic strips was especially cutthroat, for example!)

As a result, covering arts and culture were very important to their publishing plans. So much so, that many papers had staff journalists who specialized in music, opera, fine arts and theater - often with multiple critics covering the same discipline. And many spent decades in their position, honing their craft and building solid reputations for their work. (Lawrence DeVine, for example, spent 30 years as a theater critic for the Detroit Free Press; he retired in 1998.)

But times and technologies change.

Although radio and television nibbled away at their circulation and advertising dollars - thanks in part to the expansion of  local and national TV newscasts from 15-minute shows to 30 and beyond -  the three media co-existed side by side rather peacefully for many years. (One reason for that was the limited number of broadcast outlets in each market. Up until the mid to late '60s, most markets had only three TV stations to choose from - not including an "educational station," which in the pre-PBS days was often affiliated with a school district . We in Detroit had four, thanks to Windsor's CKLW, plus the non-commercial WTVS, which early on was programmed by the Detroit Public Schools and the Archdiocese of Detroit.)

As such, the advertising "pie" remained fairly consistent for many years. That is, until the expansion of UHF and FM stations caused a shift to where advertising dollars were allocated.

But the biggest changes were yet to come.

Beginning with the rise of radio in the late 1920s and early '30s, much public debate centered around the concept of "public interest" - that is, what is the role of the broadcaster (and the media in general) when it comes to serving the best interests of the public. After much debate and lobbying - nothing changes much, you see - the newly instituted Federal Communications Commission declared in 1934 that "it would not be in the public’s interest for a single entity to hold more than one broadcast license in the same community." Why? Because "(t)he view was that the public would benefit from a diverse array of owners because it would lead to a diverse array of program and service viewpoints."

In the ensuing decades, ownership rules were modified multiple times - eventually limiting the number of broadcast stations an entity could own. And newspapers were prohibited from owning a broadcast station in its market. (That 1975 law forced The Detroit News to divest itself of what was then WWJ-TV, for example.)

As such, robust competition was the rule of the day. And that meant that by limiting ownership in major markets, a multitude of voices would be heard.

That all changed, however, beginning in 1985 when fervor over media deregulation hit Capitol Hill and, later that decade, with the introduction of the World Wide Web, which helped expand our access to faraway media resources. Add to the already volatile mix the rise of commercial cable television (which began in 1950 and slowly morphed into the behemoth it is today), and what was once a fairly stable and profitable industry was primed for a major shakeup - which happened in 1996, when new FCC ownership rules blew the doors and windows wide open, ultimately allowing a handful of mega-companies to scoop up media outlets across the country.

Now, few voices are heard. And the economic model that served the industry - and us - rather well was forever shattered.

Media basics in the twenty teens

So what's all this have to do with Jenn's job disappearing, you're likely wondering? Keep reading.

With more and more media outlets and online publications fighting for a limited pool of advertising dollars - and a younger generation that avoids newspapers like the plague - times are tough for newspaper publishers all over the country, including here in Michigan.

Today, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News operate under a federally approved Joint Operating Agreement, and both have seen their circulations plunge to unimaginable levels. According to a story by journalist and educator Jack Lessenberry, who once was national editor of The Detroit News, daily circulation of each paper once topped 600,000.  Today, the Free Press sells less than 200,000 copies, while The News has sunk below 100,000. Equally disastrous is the Sunday circulation.

Such is the story nationwide, as newspapers have gone out of business, merged with other publications, or cut the number of days they distribute to newsstands.

Equally disconcerting is the small number corporations that now own our media outlets.

The Free Press is now owned by Gannett, which also scooped up the Observer & Eccentric chain of local newspapers, along with the Lansing State Journal, the Battle Creek Enquirer, The Times Herald, and the Livingston Daily. (They also own USA Today.) The Detroit News is owned by Digital First Media, which also owns The Oakland Press, the Daily Tribune, The Macomb Daily and Heritage Newspapers, which publishes various weeklies in Metro Detroit.

Statewide, MLive has a presence in 10 cities throughout the state: The Ann Arbor News, The Bay City Times, The Flint Journal, The Grand Rapids Press, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Muskegon Chronicle, The Saginaw News, and online-only portals in Detroit and Lansing.

Detroit's TV network affiliates are owned by Fox, CBS, Scripps and Graham - all national entities. Ownership of our radio stations are dominated by Cumulus, Birach, Clear Channel and CBS.

Fewer owners, fewer voices, fewer choices.

The biggest change, however, is the industry's move to a digital world, as a greater emphasis is now placed on the web-based portals every media outlet maintains. That's especially true of the newspaper industry, which - after we dinosaurs become extinct - will one day cease publishing print editions and exist only in the online world.

One obstacle is in the way, however: Absolutely none of the publishers have figured out how to make money in this newfangled environment.

Why? With so much free content available to anyone with a computer, potential subscribers have been hesitant to pay for content behind a firewall - especially at prices they feel are too high for the quality and perceived value of the content. And readers are frustrated by poorly designed web portals, pop-up ads and other visual and content distractions that make the reading experience somewhat painful.

Plus - still - available advertising dollars remain limited. And advertisers are demanding high volumes of eyeballs on their ads before they'll commit to a contract.

And therein lies the problem - and the reason Jenn is now unemployed.

About those damn clicks

Clicks, you see, is the metric by which every story posted on a media website is judged.

In the pre-internet days, a financially successful newspaper was one in which the daily and Sunday circulations were high enough to turn a profit for the owner. All the number-crunchers knew were the total circulation figures; without any additional research, they had no clue what parts of their newspapers their patrons were actually reading. (Feedback is generally not helpful, as editors and publishers are more likely to hear complaints than compliments.) As such, it was deemed just as likely that theater reviews were as popular as anything else that appeared in print.

Plus - remember - in the old days, publishers wanted to be as all-encompassing as possible in their coverage to attract the broadest readership possible. So as long as they made a profit, there was no reason to discontinue coverage of any particular segment of the paper.

Unfortunately, that world doesn't exist any longer.

Today, technology has been both a boon and a curse. Now, editors and publishers can see with exact precision how many readers have "clicked" on a story. Or to put it another way, every single story now has its own circulation number.

No longer is there any guessing involved regarding which stories are of interest to the readers and which aren't. Now we know.

And it's apparently not good news for the theater industry. (The metrics include additional information about the readers that advertisers cherish, but we won't go into that for now.)

The realization that theater coverage was going the way of the dodo was becoming apparent these past several years, as newspapers throughout the state began downsizing their staffs and several noted critics accepted retirement offers or left via other options - and weren't replaced except by freelancers. (Martin F. Kohn and Sue Merrill are two examples.)

Ongoing discussions within the industry itself further revealed that metrics were becoming more and more important to editors and journalists alike, as number crunchers were having far more pull in the newsroom than ever before.

And what did we begin seeing less and less of as the current decade marched onward? You got it: theater coverage.

The importance of metrics became clear to me in my previous position as editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, a web-based media company I co-created to fill the gap created by the ever-decreasing coverage of professional theater by the news media. (I tracked them faithfully as well!)

One day an idea occurred to me. One way to expose our brand to a wide range of potential readers, I thought, was to become a content provider to other publishers. Two signed on: CBS Detroit and MLive. (We also shared content with our then-owner, Pride Source Media Group.) As such, we'd provide them with our reviews and the occasional preview free of charge in exchange for links directing traffic back to our site.

The result was of benefit to all involved: CBS Detroit and MLive got free content (which meant they didn't have to pay staff or freelancers to do the work), we got some extra traffic, and readers of MLive and CBS Detroit were provided with stories they otherwise would have missed. And, of course, our theaters were also winners, as they obtained additional exposure that otherwise wouldn't have happened.

Our relationships were strong and cordial, and all of my contacts seemed pleased with our arrangement. We had, I thought, a win-win-win-win situation for all involved!

But highers-up in their food chains - the number crunchers - seemingly prevailed, and our services were no longer required.

So was I surprised when Jenn McKee was laid off last week? Nope; actually, I was surprised it took them so long to let her go.

The future

With Jenn's departure from The Ann Arbor News, theater coverage from our mainstream media is at its lowest point in decades. What coverage there is will be primarily by freelance writers - and it will be at the whim of editors who are under the gun to generate the highest number of clicks possible.

In other words, unless they advertise with them or generate clicks above a certain threshold, theaters shouldn't count on getting much coverage for their shows. (I hope I'm wrong with this; but only time will tell.)

And Jenn? She'll bounce back quickly, I suspect. As one of her former editors, I can attest to the quality of her work. Plus, her reputation is strong, and she'll add immediate value to whichever employer is smart enough to sign her up.

In short, her future is bright.

But this discussion isn't over. Coming soon - once I finish up some unfinished business - we'll chat about the future of Michigan's professional theater industry. It's a subject that launched recently as an argument on Facebook, and it's one that merits some in-depth examination.

* * * * * * * * * *
For more on the subject of clicks:

From The New York Times

From the BBC

From the Columbia Journalism Review

From the Royal Economic Society

From Wharton University of Pennsylvania

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

'I Have to Hang Up Now'
(Tying Up Loose Ends, Pt. 1)

It was pretty easy to read the mind of Megan Buckley-Ball moments into her curtain speech at the final performance of "The Velocity of Autumn" at Matrix Theatre in Southwest Detroit.

Buckley-Ball, the theater's artistic director, had just walked onto the stage to welcome the sold-out crowd to Matrix. After she greeted the audience, she did what has now become standard operating procedure at every theater I attend: She asked people to take out their cell phones and turn them off. Not silent them, but turn them off.

Before she could continue her speech, however, I heard a very loud stage whisper coming from somewhere to my left. (I was seated in the second row on the far right side of the theater.) "I have to hang up now," the voice said. "They're telling us to turn off our cellphones."

I quickly zeroed in on the culprit. And surprisingly enough, it was an older woman sitting directly in front of Buckley-Ball - so close, in fact, that Megan could have reached out and snatched the phone away from the woman if she wanted to. But she didn't.

Buckley-Ball stared at the woman for a few seconds with an expression that said, "Really? You're having a conversation now?"

With the entire house now focused on her, wouldn't you think the woman would be embarrassed enough that she'd quickly end the conversation? Well, she didn't. Apparently, she'd rather be rude to several dozen people waiting for the show to begin than whomever it was she was talking to on the phone, because the conversation continued for what seemed to be an eternity. (In actuality, it probably lasted less than another 30 seconds, but it seemed longer.)

If my phone wasn't turned off, I would have shot some video or snapped a few photos to capture the expression on Buckley-Ball's face. It was priceless, as her smile slid from bemusement to "I can't believe she's still talking on the %$^&*$# phone!" And for a second, I though I saw a flash of "If I could kill the %#$@ and get away with it I would; we have a show to get moving here!"

But Buckley-Ball - who's doing a great job re-invigorating Matrix since the retirement of founder Shaun S. Nethercott, by the way - gracefully smiled and looked at the audience as if to say, "Can you believe this?" until the call ended. Which it finally did, and the phone was stored away. (Notice what I didn't say; stay tuned!)

Shortly thereafter, the show began.

"The Velocity of Autumn" by Eric Coble is a story many of us with aging parents can relate to - that of an aging woman whose children believe she can no longer care for herself. After living for decades in her Brooklyn apartment, Alexandra's children want to uproot her and force her into an assisted living type of arrangement. Fiercely independent, Alexandra wants to remain in her own home - and to prove her point, threatens to burn the place down should they forcibly try to evict her.

At their wits' end, two of her children call in the reserves for help - meaning her long-estranged son, Chris, to talk some sense into her.

The result was quite an amazing afternoon of live theater - so much so, that nary a peep was heard from the audience throughout its 90-minute, intermission-free running time.

Until, that is, during one of the most critical moments of the show, a muffled buzzing could be heard. Not once. Not twice. Rather, someone's phone buzzed for upwards of a minute - and based upon the reactions from around the audience, I suspect I know where it was coming from. And no, no attempt was made to turn it off.

Surprisingly - given the fact that the buzzing was mere inches away from them - actors Jane MacFarlane and Chris Korte didn't miss a beat; if it impacted their focus, they didn't let it show.

But that didn't surprise me, as the pair (and director David Wolber) had an earlier crisis to overcome, which they also accomplished quite well. A week or so before the show opened, MacFarlane broke a kneecap. But since the show must go on, it was decided to put Alexandra in a wheelchair, which would add new depth to the character (and which made sense, given the plot of the story). And so the staging was reblocked, and few - including critics - gave it a second thought.

All three should be proud of their work.

And Matrix Theatre's 25th anniversary season is certainly one to remember!

Monday, December 21, 2015

A lesson to be learned: Gone, but not forgotten

By now, it's likely word has spread far and wide that Michigan's most honored non-profit professional theater has closed its doors - for good this time.

Yes, despite the shedding of much blood, sweat and tears these past 17 months, Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre metaphorically lowered its curtain for the last time yesterday afternoon following a bittersweet performance of "Dickens: An A Capella Carol," never to be raised again. And no, a third act - yet another chance at revival - is not likely waiting in the wings.

And that's a damn shame. A closure such as this is a major loss - not just to the community of artists who depended on the Network for work, but also to the broader community who attended their shows, sold them products used to create their art and manage their business, and to the area parking lots, restaurants and shops that were visited by the Network's patrons. The impact is significant and will be felt for weeks, months and years to come.

Reactions to the closing have been mostly ones of sadness and regret. Facebook has been filled with many recollections from appreciative patrons and artists who worked there over its 34-year history, recalling highlights of favorite shows, careers that were launched there, and relationships that were forged while creating memorable art. And it was those tight bonds that drew a sold-out crowd of past patrons and artists to the final performance who wanted to be there to console one another and celebrate the past.

(It must also be noted that unlike the Network's shocking closure in 2014, there's been little snark, vitriol and glee expressed in public forums this time around, which are often a by-product of controversial and hotly debated events such as this. If there's a high point with this closure, I think that's it!)

With a strong and loyal fan base, a quality product, and significant recognition for its accomplishments, Performance Network was envied by many of its peers for much of its existence. It was also the place where artists both new and experienced wanted to work, as the environment there fostered creativity far more often than not - and having a credit from the Network on your resume seemed to have cache in the outside world.

But that's over now; all that's left are the memories. Performance Network has now been added to the ever-increasing list of once-important theaters that have been swept into the dustbin of history. The Attic Theatre? Gone! Actor's Alliance Theatre Company? Gone! Actors' Renaissance? Gone. Fourth Street Playhouse? Gone. BoarsHead Theater? Likewise. The list goes on and on.

So what went wrong - and what can we learn from it?

To lose a major institution such as this after more than three decades of quality programming is truly sad - especially when much of the cause was seemingly self inflicted. (For complete details regarding the closure, read Jenn McKee's story for MLive.)

I don't pretend to know all of the details, of course; I never worked there. But numerous off-the-record conversations I've had and media interviews make it pretty clear that the death march of Performance Network Theatre began long before the most recent management team took control, and was primarily the result of two things: (a) a board of directors that was asleep at the wheel and failed in its responsibilities to keep the Network financially healthy and stable; and (b) the initially believed debt of $250,000 (which grew to be nearly double that thanks in part to the May 2014 closure) leads one to believe one or more administrators over the years were one or more of the following: incompetent, malfeasant or misguided. (It's safe to assume that one neither accumulates nor hides such a mountain of debt, fails to file required annual reports, and doesn't bring such matters to the immediate attention of the board by accident. But I could be wrong.) *

The devil is in the details, of course, and proving one way or the other who to blame is neither my intent nor desire. Rather, it's to use what happened at Performance Network as an important lesson to both those currently running a professional theater company and those planning to open one of their own sometime in the future. To forget the past dooms one to repeat it, and there's much to learn from the Network's closure.

So - as one former non-profit theater executive to another - here's what you may want to consider as you dive into the wonderful world of theater management:

  • When putting together a board of directors - especially if it's your initial board - make sure you include a CPA and an attorney familiar with corporate or business law (not a divorce attorney, a family attorney, an estate lawyer, a personal injury lawyer - you get the point; you want a specialist familiar with the minutia of running a business). These two roles are very important in keeping your company out of legal and financial trouble - especially since they'll have a vested interest in it!
  • When choosing board members, make sure they are fully aware that their primary role and responsibility is financial - that they are required to raise the funds required to keep the organization running (or donate it themselves; it's their choice).
  • While it's tempting to do so, a board made up of your friends will likely cause you more problems and troubles than they're worth. Your goal is to have a diverse group of people with a diversity of skills and assets - and you want at least one or two (or more) who aren't afraid to ask you the tough questions when they are needed.
  • And it should be made quite clear that the board is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of the organization. Instead, they are the goal setters, and they hire the management team to implement those goals. Then, they hold that team's feet to the fire to make sure those goals are met! (In other words, they shouldn't be picking your shows or poking their noses into the artistic areas of the business.)
  • For the day-to-day administrators, one law supersedes all others: Federal, state and local taxes are to be paid first; everything and everyone else comes next. Why? Because Uncle Sam and his cohorts expect and demand to be paid first, no matter how big or small your organization may be - and they have the power to shut you down and fine the hell out of you should the mood strike them! Trust me: The doom clock begins ticking with your first missed payment!
  • Also not to be missed are the various federal and state filings that are required of your organization. Remember: Theater may be fun, but running a business is complicated and full of necessary evils. Forget one of these, and you may find your organization unintentionally dissolved!
  • Hire the right people for the right jobs. People who don't like working with numbers - or don't like spreadsheets - shouldn't be in charge of the books. (I've often said - based on what I've observed over the past 40+ years in the business - that artists should never be given the keys to the checkbook. In such cases, when it comes to deciding which to pay when money is tight - the IRS or Home Depot for the paintbrush needed to complete the set - Home Depot almost always wins. And therein begins the slippery slope to extinction!)
  • Always use standard accounting practices for keeping your books; everything you do should be above board and audit proof (meaning that every expense should be track-able and explainable so that audits can be passed with little fuss).
  • Should your company find itself in trouble, don't cover it up, lie about it, or hide (and hope it goes away). Instead, communicate with your various constituencies - and communicate often and in as much detail as you possibly (and legally) can. It's best to stay in front of the story instead of reacting to the narrative someone else puts out first!
  • Finally: Issue and analyze financial reports monthly. Yes, that's a royal pain, but it's well worth the effort - especially when money is tight. This allows you to quickly identify and track potential problems, which can then be discussed with the board president so that a joint plan can be put into place to ensure the long-term survival of the organization. (It pays to have a good working relationship with the board president!)

A toast to the artists who made the Network great

No matter who or what is responsible for the Network's downfall, one thought should always be first and foremost in any future discussion: The level of work produced by its many artists was of the highest quality. Sure, the theater produced a handful of shows throughout its 34 years that everyone would rather forget - which happens at every theater, of course - but the overall success rate cannot be disputed. Nor can the long list of awards that were bestowed upon it.

And so I want to acknowledge the hard work put forth by artistic directors Johanna Broughton-Walker, Carla Milarch and David Wolber, whose passions ignited the flame that burned so brightly on stage for much of the theater's existence. The many memories they shepherded will long be remembered.

Not many people would gladly walk into a situation as dire as it was at Performance Network in July 2014, but that's what John Manfredi and Suzi Regan did. Little did they know, however, the situation would be far worse than anyone realized at the time. Yet work hard they did - their recent "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" was a masterpiece - but the listing ship was too deep under water to be rescued. Kudos to them (and the board) for knowing when to pull the plug for the final time.

And I salute the hundreds of actors, directors, designers, technicians and others who pulled together to create magic night after night, season after season. Your hard work and dedication is duly noted, and the results of your fine efforts are now a major part of our industry's collective memory and heritage.

In short, then, everyone involved in the creation and execution of work that appeared on the Performance Network stage should be proud of their accomplishments. It was a job well done!

So what happens now?

Will John and Suzi move on to other projects and endeavors now that Performance Network is reduced to nothing more than a mark on their resumes? Of course they will; their resumes speak for themselves.

Will area actors, designers, technicians and directors be able to find work elsewhere? Yes, but the number of opportunities long term is now reduced. And many who committed themselves to projects now canceled may have limited or no opportunities till next summer or fall.

Will someone else - another producer, troupe or young thespian with an itch to create his or her own work - appear and fill the void left by the Network's closure? Maybe; new companies pop up all the time.

And if that happens, will the Ann Arbor community - patrons, donors and funders alike - be willing to step up and support such a venture when the city already is home to Theatre Nova, Pointless Brewery & Theatre, Kickshaw Theatre, UMS, the University of Michigan's graduate and undergraduate theater programs, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, Arbor Opera Company, The Penny Seats Theatre Company and Wild Swan Theater - and with The Purple Rose Theatre, The Encore Musical Theatre and The Dio - Dining & Entertainment all within spitting distance? It's doubtful, I think. But only time will tell.

If nothing else, change is constant. And that's what keeps life interesting.

(* paragraph updated for clarification purposes Dec. 22 at 6:56 a.m.)

* * * * * * * * * *

The Wilde Awards

Since its inception in 2002, the theater with the most Wilde Awards is Performance Network. Here is a complete list of winners through 2015:

Best Local Professional Production – COMEDY
Carla Milarch, director
Special Relativity 
Best Performer in a Local Professional Production – DRAMA
Michelle Murphy
 Stop Kiss 
Favorite Local Professional Production – MUSICAL / MUSICAL REVUE
Malcolm Tulip, director
Man of La Mancha
Favorite Performer in a Local Professional Production – MUSICAL
Robert Grossman
Man of La Mancha
Favorite Local Professional Production with LGBT Themes or Characters
James Posante, director
The Home Team
Favorite Male Performer in a Local Professional Production – COMEDY
David Wolber
The Home Team
Favorite Performer in a Local Professional Production – MUSICAL
Rochelle Rosenthal
The Threepenny Opera
Best Female Performer in a Local Professional Production – COMEDY
Gillian Eaton
Humble Boy
Best Supporting Female Performer in a Local Professional Production – COMEDY
Laurel Hufano
Boston Marriage
Best Lead Actor – DRAMA
Ray Schultz
Take Me Out
Best Lead Actress – DRAMA
Carmen Decker
Best Supporting Actor – DRAMA
Darrell Glasgow
Take Me Out
Favorite Local Professional Production – COMEDY
Tony Caselli, director
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol
Favorite Local Professional Production with LGBT Themes or Characters
Jim Posante & Tony Caselli, directors
Take Me Out
Best Actor – DRAMA
Malcolm Tulip
Best Local Professional DRAMA
Malcolm Tulip, director
Best Local Professional Production with LGBT Themes or Characters
Gillian Eaton, director
I Am My Own Wife
Best Actor – DRAMA
Jon Bennett
Best Actress – DRAMA
Jan Radcliff
Carla Milarch
Dirty Blonde
Best Local Professional DRAMA
John Seibert, director
Best Local Professional Production with LGBT Themes or Characters
Jim Posante, director
Dirty Blonde
Best Technical Design - Set
Monika Essen
The Baker’s Wife
Best Actress – Drama
Inga Wilson
A Feminine Ending
Best Improv, Cabaret or Original Production
Malcolm Tulip, director
The Day Everything Went Wrong
Best Performer – Play with LGBT Themes or Characters
Roxanne Wellington
The Little Dog Laughed
Best Production with LGBT Themes or Characters
Ray Schultz
The Little Dog Laughed
Best Actor - Comedy
Jacob Hodgson
It Came From Mars
Best Actress - Comedy
Suzi Regan
The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead
Best Design - Lights
Andrew Hungerford
Best Design - Props
Charles Sutherland
It Came From Mars
Best Drama
Tim Edward Rhoze, director
Best Musical
Carla Milarch, director
Little Shop of Horrors
Best Production of a New Script
Tony Caselli, director
It Came From Mars
Best Support - Musical
Aaron T. Moore
Little Shop of Horrors
Best Teamwork
James Bowen & John Michael Manfredi
Best Comedy
John Seibert, director
Circle Mirror Transformation
Best New Script
Kim Carney
The War Since Eve
Best Performance, Actor - Musical
Phil Powers
The Drowsy Chaperone
Best Design - Sets
Monika Essen
Best New Script
Joseph Zettelmaier
Dead Man's Shoes
Best Music Direction
R. MacKenzie Lewis
A Little Night Music
Best Musical
Phil Simmons, director
A Little Night Music
Best Performance, Actor - Comedy
John Seibert
In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play
Best Performance, Actor – Musical
John Seibert
A Little Night Music
Best Performance, Actress – Musical
Naz Edwards
A Little Night Music
Best Performance, Actor - Drama
John Manfredi
An Iliad
Best Performance, Actress - Comedy
Maggie Meyer
Venus in Fur