A couple of conversations I had in recent days reminded me I have a backlog of topics to discuss and questions to answer, and so now that I've filed my 2015 income tax return - always a laborious pain in the neck - it's time to get back to chatting about what's important to readers of this blog: what's happening in Michigan's professional theaters.
So what were those questions, you may be wondering? Although they were similar, the two were asked by different people during separate conversations.
"Is there really a lot of very good theater happening around town, or are you and the other critics just making it sound like there is?"
That's a question I get quite often, actually. And my answer these days is always pretty much the same: Yes, there is a lot of very good work being staged in our professional theaters this season - and it's happening in theaters both large and small, new and long established.
In fact, of the 35 productions I've seen so far this season, only one was underwhelming and disappointed me - and my review for EncoreMichigan.com reflected that. (I suspect the theater involved wasn't pleased with my crankiness, however.)
Of the other 34, several were spectacular (none of which I'll name, since they might be recommended for possible 2016 Wilde Awards nominations), while the rest were very enjoyable and worth my time. In short, the hits far outweighed the misses, thanks to the hard work and dedication put forth by some of the best talent to be found on stage anywhere in the country.
The second question - which has come up a handful of times this season, actually - asked for my opinion regarding the onslaught of new companies that have popped up recently. My answer somewhat varied depending on the context in which the question was asked, but here's my overall observation and opinion on the subject:
- The fact that we have so many new companies around town is a sign that we have a healthy and vibrant professional theater community here in Southeast Michigan. It shows that we have an energetic and creative population of young artists who want to put down roots and earn a living here, despite the many obstacles they face.
Personally, I welcome their efforts and wish them the best; we're blessed and lucky to have them here at a time when so many young people flee the state for supposedly greener pastures.
- What I find fascinating about the new companies is the fact that each is seeking to carve out a unique niche for itself. The Detroit Public Theatre, for example, is determined to become a major artistic force in the rebirth of the Motor City, and its founders have charted a course that seems very likely to succeed. Others, however, seem content to expand the existing theatrical pie by taking risks on productions and subject matters their larger counterparts would never tackle, or by locating themselves in cities in which theater is not a destination spot. (Southgate and Marine City, for example) And then there are those that simply want to shake up existing paradigms and test boundaries.
So now we have theater in cities where few or none have been before, and patrons have choices they've never had before. To me, that sounds like a win-win situation, wouldn't you agree?
- What's even more fascinating is how the word "competition" doesn't seem to come into play with these new companies. Instead, they've replaced it with "cooperation." Unlike in earlier days when theater executives seemed quite concerned that new or established companies would steal away their customers, we're seeing far more cross pollination than ever before - whether it be actors and directors working at multiple venues, or cross promoting shows in programs and other promotional materials. Co-locations have also been on the rise, with Puzzle Piece Theatre sharing the space owned by Slipstream Theatre Initiative, while Two Muses Theatre is about to produce its first show at Monster Box Theatre.
Gone are the days, it seems, when producers viewed every competitor as a threat to their existence. (Or at least it's getting that way!) So if the industry is to survive and thrive, working together to grow and prosper makes total sense.
- If I had to choose a term for what is happening these days, I'd say what we're seeing is a theatrical renaissance - a time in which theatergoers across Southeast Michigan are blessed with more choices and opportunities than ever before, and at prices to fit everyone's budget.
I've observed such periods several times throughout my 40-plus years in and around the local industry - but this feels different. This time, the theatrical bloom is not in response to something - such as the economy or a war. Instead, it appears to be a confluence of people and their shared goal of creating theatrical magic - to tell their stories, to engage their peers in conversations about things that matter to them. And to tell their stories their way. I find that quite exciting.
I also recognize that their stories may not be my stories. And they're not necessarily meant for me. I'm perfectly fine with that, too.
- But I have to wonder: Is the market able to support the explosion of professional theater we're experiencing? Are their enough patrons to go around? Enough grant and support money? Can theaters with a maximum of 30 or 40 seats sustain themselves in the long run? Or will these new theaters be able to accomplish what the industry has been concerned about for several years now - and that is to bring new faces and customers into their venues - especially younger folk?
Only time will tell, of course. But from what I've observed during my visits to some of our newest theaters, this current renaissance might be one for the record books!
COMING SOON: A brief return to my roots; a project I've been thinking about for quite some time; and the perils of change.