Thursday, February 25, 2016

What a debut: Kickshaw kicks ass

New theaters seem to spring up like wild flowers; some wither almost immediately, while others enjoy a very long and fruitful existence. So when word first got out early last year that a new Equity theater was planned for Ann Arbor, I greeted the news with an equal mix of skepticism, interest and curiosity.

On the plus side, Kickshaw Theatre seemed to be a promising addition to the community. Founders Lynn Lammers and Julia Glander (and their management team) seemed to be taking a careful and deliberate approach to building their company, and since the women involved all enjoyed sterling reputations and noteworthy track records, their likelihood of creating a successful endeavor seemed far greater than many others that came (and disappeared) before them.

Plus, their stated goal - wanting to be known for "uncommon stories and stylistic daring" - intrigued me. (Pleasant memories of innovative shows staged at the long-defunct Zeitgeist Theatre and the early days of Performance Network came flooding back to me.)

But then I asked myself, "Is Ann Arbor able and willing to support yet another theater?" Are there enough patrons, donors and funders to go around, I wondered, when the town is already home to Performance Network, Theatre Nova, Arbor Opera, The Penny Seats and the University Musical Society? And the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, and the various theater programs at the University of Michigan? And with the nearby Purple Rose Theatre and The Encore Musical Theatre soaking up dollars from the community?

Only time will tell, of course. But more on that later.

For its initial offering, Kickshaw chose "The Electric Baby," an odd-duck of a script that certainly meets the company's goal of telling unusual stories. Perfectly described in a press release as "a dark and fantastical comedy about sad endings, strange beginnings and the unlikely people that get you from one place to the next," playwright Stephanie Zadravec starts out by introducing the audience to what looks like a series of unrelated characters and random events. But the beauty of the script is how she weaves together a young, fourth-wall-breaking Romanian mother, a lottery ticket-loving Nigerian cab driver and two couples of differing ages and worldly experiences having a bad night into a powerful journey that questions the randomness of life and how the unexpected and unpredictable interactions of strangers can impact each other's lives and futures.

It's a unique script, to be sure, filled with folktales and legends and a baby that glows like the moon. It's also one that lesser directors could surely mess up in its transition to the stage - but not Lammers, who kept the show grounded and focused, tight and balanced. Right from the opening moments - which I'll discuss later - Lammers drew her audience into the story and never let them go.

And for good reason: Her eye for casting the appropriate actor for each role couldn't have been better.

This is a production in which every character was carefully drawn and fully realized, even when the playwright gave the artists little to work with. The result, then, were characters and situations we could relate to, even when the plot and specific circumstances might feel otherwise.

(How convincing were they, you might be wondering? The show opens with Natalia (the young Romanian immigrant and mother) talking to her baby. Played by the superb and always-delightful Vanessa Sawson, Natalia acknowledges our presence, asks us to turn off our cell phones, and strongly, but sweetly, in that all-knowing, motherly way, urges us to resist coughing during the play so that we don't irritate our neighbors. And guess what? Her request, recommendation, or perceived threat worked, as I don't recall a single cough throughout the entire performance. Even I stifled one out of fear of the repercussions...)

All-in-all, when you mix the fine performances by Sawson, Julia Glander, Peter Carey, William Bryson, Mary Dilworth and Michael Lopetrone (who plays three roles) with the excellent work of technical director Charlie Gaidica and his team of craftspeople, the result is one of the best opening productions by a new company I've ever seen.

So what does that mean long term?

If Kickshaw's opening production is any indication, the company has already accomplished two important things:
  1. It has quickly staked out its niche within Southeast Michigan's professional theater community; and
  2. It has already mastered the art of creating excellent, thought-provoking theater, something new companies often (if not usually) struggle with over the course of several shows.
With the recent demise of Performance Network, Kickshaw is now Ann Arbor's sole producer of Equity theater. (The CRLT Players at the University of Michigan also operates under an Equity contract, but it functions as an educational arm of the university for workshops and consultations.) And with Theatre Nova, the two are now the town's dominant non-profit, professional producers of live theater.

But there's still work to be done.

In this not-so-humble critic's opinion, what Kickshaw needs to do in order to become a permanent fixture in the community is to develop a broad and loyal group of patrons and donors that would enable the company to grow and prosper. But that won't happen without a permanent facility to call home.

As other theaters have learned the hard way over the past few decades, it's difficult to retain and build an audience when you move from one location to another for each show. People (and patrons) are creatures of habit; change is difficult - even for something as simple a concept as this. Although Kickshaw has been searching for a permanent facility for quite some time, that should be their primary focus before staging another show. Hoping and praying for a miracle - that your audience will follow you wherever you go - isn't the worth the risk when a great future looms before you.

 So welcome, Kickshaw, and congratulations on a great opening! I look forward to the exciting times ahead for you!

The Bottom Line: Although "The Electric Baby" is now closed, here are a handful of reviews for you to check out:

Jenn McKee's review:

Patty Nolan's review:

Daniel Skora's review: It's All Theatre

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Enticing young people into the theater: How Slipstream is doing it

One of many things many (if not most) producers are struggling with today is this: How do we get young people into our theaters? As traditional audiences disappear - whether because of age, infirmities, death, relocation or other reason - seats are not being filled in equal numbers by the next generation of patrons.

Why that's so has many theories:

  • The stories told by our theaters aren't of interest to a younger, more diverse audience;
  • Theaters are clinging to traditional modes of communication instead of embracing social media, which is where young people today get their information;
  • Young people in their 20s and 30s are busy with their lives - jobs, careers, marriage, children, etc. - and don't have time to attend theater; and
  • Tickets cost too much.

Each - or any combination thereof - is likely true, at least in part. But in my humble opinion, the problem is much deeper than any of them.

As I've said in prior posts, columns, interviews and personal discussions, the problem stretches back to the American educational system that - for the most part - no longer values the arts, particularly live theater. As such, children are not being exposed at an early age to the magic of this unique art form and the memories it creates. Therefore, they develop no taste for it, which further means they won't seek it out when they become adult consumers in charge of their own entertainment options.

It's been my experience that when you ask people ages 50 and above what drew them to either attend or work in the theater, most say it was their exposure to it while they were growing up. In my case, that's certainly true - and my story is similar to what countless others have told me.

Back when I was in grade school (we're talking about the early-to-mid 1960s here; yes, I'm a dinosaur), it was common for schools to take students on field trips to see plays that somehow tied into the curriculum. In Detroit, it was popular for teachers to take their students to the Detroit Institute of Arts or Greenfield Village for plays such as "Young Thomas Edison" or another on Abe Lincoln.

Later, as school budgets tightened, transportation became far too expensive and theaters stopped providing such opportunities, companies popped up to take shows into the schools. (I spent about 26 years in that business, from acting to producing to consulting.) But even that had its ups and downs, as budgets further tightened, show prices went up, and curriculum requirements left little time for "entertainment."

Even the opportunities to take kids to weekend performances disappeared, as parents and families changed their priorities, and fewer theaters, recreation centers and libraries offered family-friendly theater programs to their patrons.

In other words, young people have experienced the wonderment of live theater far less in recent decades than they used to in previous times. And that's having a serious impact on the industry.

Producers across the industry are struggling to respond, some more successfully than others. But so far, there's no magic formula that seems to work for everyone.

Meanwhile, longtime patrons continue to disappear. And the question remains: Who will producers get to replace them?

Into the mix comes Slipstream

Not every theater is struggling with an aging audience, of course. Improv and original comedies, for example, seem to attract a younger crowd. So do certain plays and musicals. ("Rent" - among the handful shows I avoid for various reasons - is especially popular.)

But one theater has particularly impressed me with its efforts to reach out to and draw in young audiences to its plays.

Ferndale-based Slipstream Theatre Initiative has a mission statement that clearly outlines its goal: to create original works and re-imagine classics for a current-minded audience. And since its launch in 2014, it has certainly accomplished what it set out to do.

It helps, of course, that the leadership of Slipstream is part of the generation they are trying to reach. But it's the brilliance of their work both on stage and behind the scenes that should have other producers sit up and take notice.

With an understanding that the attention span of its target market is short and their basic level of appreciation of classic works is likely small to non-existent, Slipstream will take a script by Shakespeare, for example, and strip it to its essentials. Gone, then, are various subplots and characters; what's left is tweaked and adjusted to help audiences comprehend the story. And then around the plot is wrapped an engaging concept designed to pull theatergoers into the action.

Add to that an aggressive campaign on social media, and what do you get? An intimate performance space that's more often than not filled with teenagers and young adults.

I observed that first hand last fall with Slipstream's 80-minute (or so) production of "Twelfth Night." There I was, likely the elder statesman in the audience. Next to me was likely the youngest, a young man around 16 years of age. Experiencing "Twelfth Night" with him was quite a treat, as his excitement was palpable and his enthusiasm was infectious. Like other young people around me, his focus on the action never wavered, and he bubbled with joy when the show was over.

So what made this particular production speak to its young audience? I suspect it was the judicious editing mixed with an innovative concept that was carried throughout the production by an energetic and youthful cast. Since the actors were having a blast, so too did the audience. (Read Martin F. Kohn's excellent review HERE.) And unlike some productions of Shakespeare I've seen foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, it was obvious everyone in the cast understood the meaning of their lines - which makes a major difference in whether or not an audience can follow the story.

Slipstream's approach works on other types of productions, as well. And depending on the subject matter, patrons may find themselves sitting among a wide range of theatergoers.

A prime example of this is its current production of "Hedda Gabler," also a trimmed down, 80-minute affair. With a unique approach to the title character, the production succeeds quite nicely thanks to a clear focus and tight execution by its actors and director. And who was sitting in the audience with me at this production? An interesting mix, I must say: primarily women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, several of whom were mothers with their daughters. (Since my thoughts about "Hedda" are in total agreement with critic Jenn McKee who reviewed it for, I won't say more about it - you can read her superb review HERE - but I strongly recommend it to those who love innovative interpretations of classic theater.)

Even a modern-day coming-of-age story can get the Slipstream treatment. In "BFs!" by critic Frank Anthony Polito, two teenage boys discover their sexuality in the 1980s - and guess what? Director (and co-founding artistic director) Bailey Boudreau hired two age-appropriate actors to play the roles, and then he allowed them the intimacy in which to present their story. My surprise on the night I attended? That the audience was a mix of gay and straight couples, young and not-so-young, and a 30-something couple who walked in not knowing a thing about the subject matter, but showed up because they'd heard such good things about the company. Based upon their reactions, I suspect they'll be back. (Here's what I wrote about the show last September.)

So what's the lesson?

While what works for one theater may not work for another - and there's a host of reasons why that is - Slipstream Theatre Initiative has excelled at developing shows that appeal to young people, and their efforts to reach them via social media have been quite successful. That their appeal also reaches into a much broader demographic of theatergoer is an added bonus, which gives them a solid customer base upon which to build a strong and long-term existence.

But times and tastes change. So the questions becomes these: Is Boudreau and his team nimble enough to respond to the ever-morphing fickleness of the marketplace? Will their quality remain high? Will they eventually run out of unique ideas upon which to build their shows?

The fact that Boudreau and company are willing to experiment and take risks - and are small enough to do so without jeopardizing vast sums of investment dollars - is refreshing. And that they've been rewarded with both glowing reviews and their desired customer base are signs Slipstream is on the right path.

Throughout my 40-plus years in and around the industry, I've seen the formation of many a new theater company that showed great promise. Some quickly failed and disappeared, while others took root and prospered. We're currently in an era in which several exciting new companies have appeared, all with different goals and philosophies. Several seem to have what it takes to run the long race.

With insightful planning, judicious budgeting and carefully managed growth, I suspect Slipstream Theatre Initiative will be among them.

The bottom line: There are only three performances of "Hedda Gabler" left. Click HERE for complete schedule information.

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 for details - and then catch it if you can for an amazing evening of live theater!