Thursday, May 9, 2013

What? There's live theater in Detroit?

The following is my first column for The Metropolitan, a monthly newspaper distributed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and other select outlets. Publisher and editor Anthony Brancaleone contacted me a handful of months ago and asked for a regular column that would promote Metro Detroit's professional theaters to visitors to (and residents of) the region - and I gladly agreed.

For my initial column, I introduce the concept that there is indeed professional theater in Detroit - and lots of it - focusing on the producing and presenting theaters that have facilities of their own. You can probably guess the direction of future columns.

So here goes...



What? There's live theater in Detroit?
Yes, and plenty of it: A quick overview of professional theater venues in the Motor City
 
If someone asked you to name America's top cities to see a professional play or musical, the number one response would have to be New York – or Broadway, which to many people is the same thing. (Why else GO to New York?) The second would likely be Chicago, which is a popular destination spot for those in Middle America who are looking for quality shows at affordable prices. Theatrical connoisseurs might also identify Minneapolis, Louisville and Cleveland, each of which figures prominently in the national arts scene.

But Detroit? Really?

Yes, Detroit. Because within its 143 square miles sit not only two major Broadway touring houses, but also more than two dozen venues both large and small where theatergoers can experience live stage shows – most of which are home to dozens of non-profit producing theaters. So yes, one of the best kept secrets outside Southeast Michigan is that Detroit – known today mostly for its sports teams, auto companies and urban decay – has one of the largest theater districts in the country. And, we like to believe, one of the most creative.

The top dog on Detroit's theatrical food chain is the Fisher Theatre in the city's New Center neighborhood, managed by Broadway in Detroit. Part of the Nederlander empire, the Fisher Theatre opened as a movie and vaudeville house in 1928 and was remodeled in 1961 – and for 50-plus years has served as a major stop for national tours of hot Broadway shows.

Much of the city's theater activity, however, is found in three nearby neighborhoods.

A short drive (or a healthy walk) south of New Center is Midtown, home of the Hilberry Theatre (Wayne State University's acclaimed graduate theater program) and the impressive Masonic Temple (with more than 1,000 rooms, galleries and theaters).

But that's not all. Venues such as the General Motors Theatre inside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, The Furniture Factory, the Majestic, the Detroit Film Theatre inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Orchestra Hall (home of the internationally renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra) provide a valuable service by offering their facilities to numerous performance troupes that don't have a space of their own.

Take Woodward Avenue south a few miles – that's the main drag that theoretically divides the east and west sides of the city – and you'll encounter the Foxtown Entertainment District, where the gorgeous Fox Theatre reigns. Built in 1928 and beautifully restored in 1987-88 by new owners Michael and Marian Ilitch, the Fox Theatre anchors a neighborhood that includes the City Theatre (like the Fox, another Olympia Entertainment property), The Filmore (which books mostly music acts) and The Elizabeth Theater (a small, black box theater above the Park Bar).

But the heart of the city's theater district is found in a historic section of Downtown Detroit. Anchored by the Detroit Opera House (home of the internationally acclaimed Michigan Opera Theatre) and Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts (built in 1928 and the only Detroit venue built for the primary purpose of presenting live performances), this once-mostly neglected or abandoned neighborhood returned to life when local entrepreneur Chris Jaszczak moved onto Broadway Street in 1979 and opened a storefront black box theater space called 1515 Broadway in 1987. He was soon joined by Dr. David DiChiera of MOT, who led the charge to restore the neglected Grand Circus Theatre across the street. Purchased by MOT in 1986, the extensively restored opera house re-opened 10 years later. In 1997, the two were joined by The Gem and Century Theatres, which were moved five blocks (and set a Guinness Book world record in the process) when construction of Comerica Park threatened the 1903 complex with a date with the wrecking ball.

Since then, the district has expanded to include of The Marlene Boll Theatre inside the Boll Family YMCA.

Scattered around the rest of the city are Matrix Theatre Company in Southwest Detroit and The Abreact Performance Space on the edge of Detroit's Corktown District. But located in the geographic center of the city lives Michigan's oldest non-profit union theater, the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Established in 1957 and still led by most of its founders, the Rep has survived a riot, white and black flight, and neighborhood disintegration to earn a reputation for excellence and innovation in the field of theater.

And guess what? Our quick tour has only touched upon the depth of Detroit's professional theater community, nor have we addressed the excitement that occurs every week on stages throughout the city's suburbs.

So as you can see, professional theater in Detroit is alive and well – and second to none (with the exception of Broadway). And to find out what's happening in the city and elsewhere in Michigan, log on to www.encoremichigan.com for free, up-to-the-minute news, reviews and ticket information!


Monday, May 6, 2013

The end of the season is upon us

I don't know about you, but the 2012-13 theater season has flown by at record-breaking speeds. But here we are at the end of the season - at least as far as nominations for The 2013 Wilde Awards are concerned.

So be advised: The 2012-13 season ends this weekend - which means that shows that open on or after May 12 will be considered as part of the 2013-14 season for purposes of  The Wilde Awards.

When will the nominations be announced, you may be wondering? I'll have a better idea over the next few days, once I know when our team of critics is able to schedule our annual confab at which the nominations are determined. (It's not easy trying to find a date on which our West Michigan, Mid Michigan and Southeast Michigan critics can assemble in a convenient location!)

But we DO know when The 2013 Wilde Awards will be held: Monday, August 19! (Yes, we've transitioned back to a Monday night ceremony, which should be free of performance conflicts for the first time in more than a decade!)

So mark the date on your calendars! And watch this column for more details as they become available!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Everything comes in threes

A trifecta of theater news trickled out this week, each of which is significant in one way or other to Southeast Michigan's performing arts community - and one in particular sets up up an intriguing battle royale that will bear watching!

  1. Get ready for some intense competition when Comedysportz Detroit sets up shop at Michigan Actors Studio, just a few blocks east of Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Fashionable Ferndale.

    Promoted as "improvisational comedy played as a sport in many cities nationwide," Comedysportz seems quite similar to Go Comedy! - both offer shows, classes and a touring company. And while not a lot of details have been officially released yet, sources tell me Comedysportz is rumored to be open on identical nights as Go Comedy!, and they plan to have a liquor license - just like Go Comedy!

    One thing is for sure: Detroiters love improv. Second City Detroit helped establish the city as one of the country's top improv communities when it opened its doors at what is now the City Theatre inside the Hockeytown Cafe back in 1993. It later moved to Novi, and although the venerable troupe closed up shop in 2009, it left behind one of the most vibrant improv communities anywhere - starting with Planet Ant's Improv Colony and the Monday night shows that have run non-stop for more than a dozen years. The Ant spawned more improv troupes than you could ever count, but other than one-night shows in church basements and elsewhere, there was no other permanent venue available for them to regularly perform until Ann Arbor saw the opening - and closing - of the Improv Inferno. More improv troupes were birthed, but it wasn't until Go Comedy! opened its doors in 2008 that five-nights-a-week programming was available - and it wasn't long before Go Comedy! established itself as a creative juggernaut for improvisers and audience members alike.

    So what does it portend when a rival juggernaut saunters into town and settles down within a short walking distance? Can Ferndale - and Metro Detroit - support two improv theaters five nights a week? Especially two so close to one another?

    Only time will tell, of course. But if nothing else, the folks at Go Comedy! are a creative lot - and if war has been declared in their territory, I expect they'll show up prepared for battle, ready with as much munition as they can muster.

    Let the laughs begin when Comedysports opens in September! (And keep watching EncoreMichigan.com for all the latest developments!)

  2. Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit made a major announcement May 1 - that its new home will be at the new University Prep Science & Math Elementary School - Sidney D. Miller Campus - to be located in Detroit's Miller High School near Eastern Market.

    The facility has quite a history, which you can read here. (I seem to recall that's where my father attended in the mid 1920s.)

    I've been a big fan of the work founder Rick Sperling has put into developing this world-class organization, and I wish them great success in Mosaic's new home!

  3. After more than a year in development hell, Dionysus Theatre has also found a new home - as a dinner theater in the Livingston County community of Pinckney!

    It's been a long and frustrating battle for founders Steve DeBruyne and Matt Tomich, and I'm thrilled to hear that plans are afoot to open this July in what had been Bleachers Bar & Grille.

    WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THESE COMPANIES?
    Comedysportz Detroit
    Dionysus Theatre
    Go Comedy! Improv Theater
    Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit
    Planet Ant Theatre

Monday, April 29, 2013

What to do, what to do!

Have you been reading Carolyn Hayes' multi-part series on EncoreMichigan.com called "Through the fourth wall: A critic's adventures in actor-land?" If you don't know who she is, Carolyn is also known as the Rogue Critic, one of the area's most respected and beloved theater critics - and a recent addition to our excellent team at Encore.

The column is a fun and informative examination of Carolyn's journey from actor/improviser to critic - and back to actor for an upcoming production at Planet Ant Theatre this May. She explains the series' genesis in her first chapter, so I won't repeat it here except what you need to know for THIS discussion. (If you'd like to read her explanation, feel free to read it now - and then return to this page to continue the story!)

We have a rule at Encore that we enforce quite strongly - and that is we do not hire working actors (or anyone working in the industry) as theater critics. While some of them MAY have the writing chops to back up their theater experience, I personally don't believe it serves us, the industry, or the theaters any good by having friends (or bitter rivals) review their friends (or hated enemies). It's not fair to anyone involved, and it would open us up to challenges regarding our integrity - something we value quite highly at Encore.

So - to repeat myself - we have a policy that says we will not hire working industry personnel (even those who only dabble in it a few times or so each season) to review shows for us.

As such, Carolyn's return to the stage presented us with TWO challenges.

First, once we learned about her situation, what do we do about it? (And I think the solution we came up with was an excellent one - for us AND our readers.)

But now we're faced with a second - and this one has multiple parts: What do we do about reviewing the show she's in?

We HAVE to review the show, of course; it would be unfair to the other theater artists to do otherwise. So we will. But which of us will be there that night? And should we tell her?

Before I go on, let me regress for a moment. I've been asked dozens of times to reveal the secret of how we decide which critics reviews which shows. So here it is: Sometime during the third or fourth week of every month, I put together a spreadsheet that lists the details of every review on our schedule for the coming month - in chronological order based on opening nights. If I'm claiming "executive privilege" (which I rarely do), the sheet will go out with my name attached to a show I plan to review. Or sometimes the schedule will go out with a few pre-assignments, such as when Michigan Opera Theatre has an opening; Michael Margolin is our "go-to" guy for opera. But otherwise, I send the schedule to my team of critics who then sign up for the shows they'd like to review. Shows left unselected in the first round are later picked up by members of the team who tell me to "fill them into the schedule" where they are needed.

Given what I just described, Carolyn is part of the selection process. But SHOULD she be for May?

And the answer is: No, she won't. For starters, she's unavailable because, well, she's going to be on stage for most of the month. But in addition, she requested that she not know who will review the show until the lights go up on opening night. So I'll keep her in the dark till then.

Then there's this little dilemma: Once we review the show, how do we handle potential Wilde Awards nominations? Carolyn supplied the answer to that, as well: She's recused herself from any consideration. (And that's for the best, in order to protect the integrity of the process.)

And finally, how do we handle the discussion of ANY potential nominations for her show at our annual critics confab during which the nominations and winners are determined?

Let me regress again.

Every year, we critics come together in a deep, dark, locked room miles from nowhere where we yell, scream and throw things at each other until the nominations and winners are ironed out. (Actually, our meetings are among the most civil you'd ever attend.) Nominations are based on lengthy scorecards we complete after each show we review, and at the end of the season, I compile the results into a list that ranks the shows from highest overall score to lowest for each of the awards categories. During our annual confab, we discuss the top rated shows and performances, get input from fellow critics who may have seen the same shows, and ultimately come up with the nominations we can all agree with.

While Carolyn's onstage shenanigans will complicate the discussion this year, we'll simply ask her to leave the room when it comes time to discuss any category in which it appears her show will be nominated. And when it comes time to have the critics proofread the nominations before they are announced, I'll remove the categories in which her show is or could be nominated.

At least that's the plan at this very moment.

The bottom line, then, is that we want to ensure that we're being totally fair in how we handle this unique situation - and we think what I've outlined above will do just that.

But don't get any ideas, fellow critics: I'm working on a vaccination for the acting bug so this doesn't happen again!


Don

PS: What show is Carolyn in, you're probably wondering? Click here for details for "Brimstone and Treacle" at Planet Ant Theatre.

PPS: And to read the next two chapters in Carolyn's series, click here for Part 2 and click here for Part 3.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Digging through the data - Part 1 of an endless series

I'm a data wonk. I always have been. So one of things I do every day is look at the stats I receive on the traffic that to comes to EncoreMichigan.com.

It's fascinating stuff - at least to me it is. The first number I check is the number of pageviews the site recorded for the day before. And I'm happy to report that after a slow recovery following the December holidays - one of a handful of periods during the year when traffic often drops by half - April may turn out to be one of the busiest months ever on the site, likely surpassing by a significant amount last year's average of 8,400 pageviews per day.

However, when I see such large increases, my first question is this: Why? And the second is: Where's the traffic coming from?

Luckily, the report I get each day - which tracks the data for the prior 90 days - helps answer those questions. Not only can I see the number of views each posting receives, I can also see where the traffic comes from - meaning, the URLs that delivered the traffic to Encore. I can even see what search engine requests were delivered to us.

And when I combine this data with that I get from Google Analytics, a much more thorough picture develops.

So what have I learned in the past few days?

  1. For some reason, we've become quite popular in Russia - especially porn and prostitution sites. Why, I don't know. And I'm afraid to click on those URLs to find out. (To clarify, the vast majority of our traffic comes from within the USA; search engine requests seem to bring the international traffic to us.)
  2. Whenever people link to our reviews on Facebook, people click on them - and once they discover us for the first time, they seem to become regular readers. (So please spread around our reviews and other postings as much as you like!)
  3. A handful of websites around the world link to photos on our site - and a shot we have on the Fox Theatre's profile page is VERY popular.
  4. We have 57 pageviews from an art gallery (owned by a woman, if the gallery name is also the name of its owner), whose page refers to "little nudist boys." There's no way I'm clicking THAT one!
  5. Reviews are the most popular items on Encore (after the Industry Page that lists auditions and other industry news). And some theaters are far better at marketing our reviews than others. (The top referrer right now is What A Do Theatre in West Michigan.)
  6. Our media partner CBS Detroit brings us a nice amount of traffic with each of our postings on their site. And it seems that many of their readers become our readers as well.
Ultimately, however, nothing stands out as being an outlier - such as when we post nominations and winners of the annual Wilde Awards.

So what does this traffic gain mean? My guess is that more and more people are indeed finding us - and coming back. And Google Analytics seem to back me up. But as you can guess, I'll be keeping an eye on all the traffic trends.

Because I'm a data wonk. And I'm not afraid to admit it!

(If you like this sort of information, I plan to occasionally write about some of the other trends I observe - and also of some of the odder things I see on the "Real Time" metrics that I watch closely all day long. There are some head-scratchers there, trust me!)


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cancellations and returns

As everyone knows, the arts in general - and our theaters in particular - have been struggling for several years now to stay alive, thanks in large part to a decrease in grants and donations - and in some cases, a drop in attendance.

While I have no great insight into how well our theaters are managing their budgets these days, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that audience levels are slowly increasing. And the fact that very few theaters have permanently closed their doors is evidence that most have adapted to our troubled financial reality and are doing whatever is necessary to keep the lights on.

Does that mean the industry's crisis is over? Nope! Many theaters are still struggling to make ends meet, and a few are rumored to be closer to the end of the road than they'd like to admit.

But you know what? Based on the quality of the productions my team and I are seeing this season, you'd never know that budgets are still tight and producers are working whatever magic they can to increase their theaters' incomes. Thankfully, production values remain quite high, and producers haven't resorted to staging seasons of one and two-person shows to keep their budgets in check.

So two announcements last week took me by surprise.

First, I received official word that The Ringwald was closing its production of Sons of the Prophet - a Michigan premiere - half-way through its four-week run.

Then, rumors began circulating around Facebook that The Elizabeth Theater was shuttering Measure for Measure after last Saturday's performance. Although I never received official confirmation from anyone in authority, the fact that so many of the show's actors (and their friends) were announcing and discussing the closure pretty much told me the rumor was true - and so I updated EncoreMichigan.com and our calendar system accordingly.

Since early closings are few and far between, the fact that we had two occur at the same time was intriguing. Are we seeing yet another period when theatergoers are tightening their discretionary spending because of wonkiness in our country's economy, or tax law changes that were recently implemented?

Other thoughts crossed my mind as well. Was the $40 ticket price for Measure for Measure just too high for most people right now - despite its cast of thousands and high production values? (Or,were people not inclined to sit and watch three hours of Shakespeare?)

And what about Sons of the Prophet? Did people stay away because the show is an unknown entity? Or not a traditional "gay play" like others The Ringwald has had great success with?

Again, I have no great insights to offer - just questions and theories based  on years of experience as an industry observer.

So since I had planned to catch Sons of the Prophet later in its run, I decided to take a break from work Monday night and attend its final performance. And when I left the theater a couple of hours later, I felt bad for director Annette Madias and her hard-working cast who must've felt terrible after having the rug pulled out from under them so quickly. But with reportedly small houses its first weekend, one can't fault The Ringwald's producers for cutting their losses early - despite the very positive review from the Detroit Free Press last Friday. (The Monday night house was pretty decent - but many Mondays are, in my experience.)

One thing I DO know is that it wasn't the production team's fault the show closed early. Madias - one of the most astute and empathic directors working locally today - knows how to get fine performances out of her actors, and she did so with several in this production. As John Monaghan mentioned in his Free Press review, Lisa Melinn's over-the-top Gloria was indeed the perfect contrast to Sean McGettigan's low-key Joseph. Both are always fun to watch on stage - and McGettigan is the master of the understated performance. (His growth as an actor continues to impress me.)

Add to the mix the sweet Amy Probst, Richard Payton getting to play a sleazy news reporter whose drive to get the story is greater than his human decency, and the return to the stage of WWJ's Marty Bufalini - and the result was a very engaging night of theater that too few people were able to see. And that's a shame.

But my story doesn't end here. There's some GOOD news, too.

While at The Ringwald Monday evening, I heard yet another rumor - that The Elizabeth Theater was considering reinstating Measure for Measure to its original schedule. And yesterday I received official confirmation that the rumor was indeed true.

And yesterday on Facebook, I saw that The Ringwald is bringing back its successful Making Porn to fill the slots left vacant by Sons of the Prophet. But as of yet, no official word has been received from the theater.

So if there's a message here, it's this: Theater is alive and kicking these days - but you need a scorecard to keep track of who's doing what and when. If nothing else, it certainly helps keep me on my toes!

THURSDAY UPDATE: The Ringwald is indeed bring back Making Porn beginning this weekend. After reading the above post, The Ringwald's busy, but always-charming Joe Plambeck forwarded to me the press release that he sent out this past Monday. But another check of my e-mail showed no sign of it. (I retain all my sent and received e-mail - including spam - for a minimum of two months.) So thanks Joe!

And for those you interested in the show's details, check 'em out here: http://www.encoremichigan.com/article.html?article=7257!



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Cranky Critic returns - at long last!

Yes, after nearly two-and-a-half years, The Cranky Critic returns - albeit in a different location. So why the return? And why now?

For starters, I've had quite a few people request the return. And to be honest, there have been a number of things I've wanted to share over the years, but neither Facebook nor EncoreMichigan.com were the appropriate places on which to post them.

Hence - the return of The Cranky Critic.

So what will I be writing about this time around, you may be wondering?

Well, like I did before, I'll share my observations on what's going on in the state's professional theaters - although I'll be doing that not as the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, but as someone who's been connected to the industry for almost 40 years.

And because my blog is not an official extension of EncoreMichigan.com, you'll also find references to and postings about theaters that are not members of the site. (As an aside, I do hope that the handful of theaters who opted out of a membership reconsider and come back next season. But I'll talk more about that in a future post - just like I'll also address some of the misunderstandings regarding EncoreMichigan.com's relationship with META that keep cropping up.)

What else can you expect? How about some quick postings about shows I saw but didn't review? (I've been told readers of my Facebook page enjoy those posts - and the theaters appreciate them, too. Or at least so far they have, since they've all been positive up till now!) And I plan to introduce a series of reader surveys in the very near future, which hopefully will generate some interesting results that the industry and I can use to expand the market, improve our services, and/or answer some pesky questions that have evaded greater minds than ours over the years.

But most of all I want to stimulate a healthy, fun and open dialogue about Michigan's professional theaters. There's plenty to chat about, and maybe our conversations will help us figure out how to solve the mysteries and problems the industry faces day in and day out. Or maybe we'll just enjoy each other's company for a few minutes every few days or so. Either way is fine with me!


Don

(How do you like the graphic that appears at the top of my blog? It was designed by Kari Helm, a graphic artist I met several years ago at Between The Lines. I've always loved her work - and I'm thrilled she agreed to work with me on this. Thanks, Kari!)