Detroit's independent theater companies keep the drama alive

While they have suffered the loss of varied degrees of support, Detroit theaters have survived to tell their stories. And some are even thriving.

According to Encore Michigan, an e-zine dedicated to the theater business statewide, what could have been a disastrous 2008-2009 season "was anything but, as theater executives quickly replaced dramas with comedies, dropped large cast shows for smaller ones, slashed ticket prices, reduced staff salaries, cut production schedules and created numerous incentives to lure patrons into their seats" -- everything but benefit from a government bailout.

Three small Detroit companies in particular -- Matrix Theatre Company, PuppetART Detroit Puppet Theater, and Plowshares Theater Company --  launched the 2009-2010 season on an optimistic note. Even a new theater -- Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company -- has been established.

Well into the new seasons, theater managers are cautiously optimistic that their endurance will pay off.

The 'knife's edge'

"In general, small arts organizations live on the knife's edge," says Shaun Nethercott, executive director and co-founder of Matrix Theatre Company in Southwest Detroit. "In order to survive in an extraordinarily marginal business, you have to make sure that you're managing your income and outcomes constantly and keeping your costs really tight to your income."

After surviving a fiscal crisis two years ago, Matrix, now in its 18th season, reorganized its finances and has maintained a lean debt-free operation. Revenue from the Matrix School of Theatre covers staff salaries, while theater performances are paid for through ticket sales. About 70 percent of its underwriting comes from foundations, of which the Skillman Foundation is a major donor.

Despite its fiscal challenges, Matrix didn't alter its diverse artistic and community-oriented mission. This season's roster included Samuel Beckett drama "Happy Days." "Vanished," an original work reflecting the modern immigrant experience in Detroit, launches in March.

New direction for Plowshares

The economy forced Plowshares to cancel all but one show last season, but the downtime gave co-founder and artistic director Gary Anderson time to rethink its operating model.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Plowshares has instituted a radical change in its structure, but one that will allow it to survive. Plowshares has become an ensemble theater. Over the next couple years, the theater company, which performs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, will recruit an ensemble of actors, directors, and playwrights to create and perform its productions. "They will have as much voice in the artistic vision going forward as I do now," says Anderson. Also, Plowshares will emphasize developing new work.

Some arts organizations become frozen in their creative identity, Anderson says. "They won't make any changes. They won't grow. They won't breathe." Anderson wants to create an environment that nurtures new theatrical talent. By stepping aside as the visual image of Plowshares and establishing an ensemble, he believes the company will thrive and grow.  "One of the things that Plowshares was founded on was being a place where new talent could emerge," he says.

Performances this season include Anderson originals, "Praisefest" and "Jazz: Birth of the Cool," as well as "Order My Steps," by Tracey Scott Wilson. The next show is "Wedding Band," by Alice Childress, running Feb. 11-March 14.

Artists will find a way

In some ways, Detroit Puppet Theater and PuppetART Center, founded in 1998 by Gozman and a troupe from the former Soviet Union, has survived the economic downturn through a miracle. Donations haven't fallen and his foundation support has remained constant.

However, his major source of business -- school field trips -- has declined significantly, as schools have eliminated arts programs. One bright spot: Grants from the Community Foundation and Target Foundation have underwritten 40 performances for five schools this season. Students receive a workshop, tour of the puppet museum, orientation for teachers, and a performance. "One of the objectives of this program is to give teachers this powerful tool to use in the classroom. It's not only children who learn about puppetry, it's teachers."

Unlike Matrix and Plowshares, which offer more contemporary fare, Gozman is a traditionalist. This season offers "Firebird," "The Sleeping Beauty," as well as Russian, Japanese, and West African folk tales. While some puppeteers are going virtual, using computer graphics to reach new audiences, puppetry for Gozman is a classic art form, meant to be performed live: no virtual experimentation.

Stage in a virtual age

Detroit theaters are, however, using social media to market, demonstrating that they can not only overcome a bad economy but also fill their theaters in a virtual age. Matrix employs social media to generate excitement about its shows and programs. Still, in the end, it's about the actual human experience of theater. "There's a need for human interchange, an actual experience that can be shared and digested," Nethercott says. "If something goes viral, at the core of it, something happened. You think of virtual communities not being interactive in a living way, but what fires them is live interaction."

Whether to innovate or preserve tradition, theater will thrive because of its inherent "artistic nature," even in a tough economy, says Gozman. "It doesn't matter what's going on around you. Artists will always do what artists are supposed to do."

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit resident and contributor to Model D. Send feedback here.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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