Wayne State trains Detroit's next generation for stage and screen

Curtains up. Take a bow, Detroit. Encore, encore. The city's creative industries -- theater, film, dance, music, art, design -- are more than holding their own in a rapidly changing regional economy: they are taking a leadership role. One institution helping to move things along is Wayne State University's College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Department.

The academic and performance history runs deep at Wayne and its venues of international renowned -- the Hilberry, Bonstelle and Studio theaters. The college boasts equally stellar programs in music, art and dance and has a list of impressive alums to rival any school in the country. It makes perfect sense that WSU would be an ideal partner for the state's fledgling film industry, which has found talent galore creeping beneath the floorboards of historic Old Main and throughout its sprawling urban campus.

The roster of WSU alums in Hollywood is impressive. The list includes Tom Skerritt, Lily Tomlin, Jeffrey Tambor, and Ernie Hudson. S. Epatha Merkerson from the class of '76 is best known as Lt. Anita Van Buren in the long-running TV series "Law & Order." Merkerson won a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild award in 2005 for her work in fellow WSU alum Ruben Santiago-Hudson's HBO movie "Lakawanna Blues," which also featured Hudson.

To get a perspective on creative energy being generated on the WSU campus, we talked to Steve Peters, rofessor of theater and associate dean of academic affairs for the fine arts college -- which was established in 1986 and now serves over 2,500 students majoring in 16 undergraduate and 12 graduate programs. He is an arts administrator, theater educator, advocate and artist.

Nice to meet you, Steve. Can you break down for us why WSU's performing arts program plays such a key role in Detroit's creative community?
The college's sheer size and diversity make it a major force in the life of Wayne State University and the Detroit metro area. Its location offers students easy access to the very best of the cultural riches of the area: museums, galleries and professional performance venues. Students benefit from internship opportunities in industry, advertising, public relations and national broadcast network affiliates.

The public may have first been introduced to productions staged at the Hillberry and Bonstelle theaters. Touch on the history of these venues.
The Hilberry is the home of Wayne State's graduate theater program and is one of the oldest in the country to use the repertory theater model. In one week, an actor who played the lead role in "Hamlet" one night will be in a supporting role in a different play the following night, all while rehearsing a third play.

The Bonstelle, an old vaudeville theater, was created in the former home of Detroit's original Beth El Temple, designed by Albert Kahn. Undergraduate students test their talents in classical plays and musicals. The Studio Theatre (lower level at the Hilberry) offers a small, intimate theater experience where grad students direct most productions.

WSU has held workshops, boot camps and other events partnering with the Michigan film industry. How is this relationship going?  
We've cultivated a healthy relationship with the Detroit and Philadelphia branches of the Screen Actors Guild. Through SAG's contacts, we've been able to hire professional actors and artists in the region to conduct workshops for people interested in the film industry. WSU has sponsored three master classes and a series of four workshops, and we are looking forward to other projects and workshops in the future.

Is there something about local talent that gives it a certain edge when it comes to creative industries, a "Detroit" vibe, something intangible that helps push artists here to do very distinctive work?
I think there is an indigenous spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in Detroit that draws from all the cultural heritage of the region. Education is an engine that drives Detroit's creative industries.

Want to attend upcoming productions at the Bonstelle, Hilberry or Studio theaters? We know you do. Click here for tickets and info.

Walter Wasacz is FilterD editor for Model D and metromode. Send feedback here.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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