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Rebuilding Michigan's theatre legacy one artist at a time

Sep 10, 2015

The Next Idea

Theatre has immense power to build community, although its power is often overlooked.

As a live art form, theatrical storytelling relies on the presence and engagement of both performers and spectators — a rarity in today’s media-saturated world. The immediacy of theatre provides us with intimate human connection and a subjective experience that cannot be replicated. You walk into a theatre, settle in your seat, and as the lights begin to dim, you realize you are about to be transported into another world.

A more robust theatre scene in Michigan could help build community in cities across the state, say Rachel Sussman and Katherine Carter.
Credit flickr user Lee Carson / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Michigan has a great theatrical legacy. The Nederlander Organization, one of three commercial Broadway theatre owners, was founded in 1912 when David T. Nederlander began a 99-year lease on the original Detroit Opera House. The organization continues to operate the Fisher Theatre downtown, where Broadway hits such as Hello Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity, and Golden Boy premiered before moving to New York (commonly referred to as an “out-of-town tryout”). In its heyday, the Detroit Theatre District was nationally renowned.

Today, Michigan’s theatre industry doesn’t have quite the same allure. Yes, people grow up loving theatre and some even attend the top-tier drama programs at our state universities, but how many of these young people decide to stay in Michigan past college to pursue careers in the field?

Take us:  We are two young theatre professionals who grew up in metro Detroit where our passion for theatre was nurtured (we met in a Bloomfield Township youth repertory theatre company in 2001), but we had to move to New York to become fully-formed artists. Opportunities in Michigan were limited, and here our artistic pursuits would have been regarded as hobbies to the “real jobs” we would need to obtain. If there had been a thriving professional theatre scene in Michigan, this might have been different. If not for us, then perhaps for some of the countless others who left to pursue careers in New York, Chicago, and other major theatre cities.

As Jeff DeGraff and others have argued in The Next Idea, art and art education are crucial to creating the innovative mindset and culture Michigan needs for the 21st century.

There has also been a great deal of discussions about how divided Michigan is – regionally, politically, racially, to name a few.

Furthermore, everyone from the governor to the Michigan Municipal League (MML), to local economic development organizations are looking for new ways to attract more talent to Michigan and to make our cities more “livable.” The MML describes this concept of “placemaking" as “capitalizing on the distinctive assets of a community to integrate a mixture of uses that connect people and places on a human scale.”

If we delve deeper into this concept to explore the more specific notion of “creative placemaking", emphasizing how artistic intervention contributes to community outcomes (as defined by ArtPlace America), it becomes evident that theatre has a role to play in easing Michigan’s prevailing divisions.

So whats the Next Idea?

It seems to us like the current artistic renaissance of Detroit may be just the catalyst for reversing Michigan’s theatrical plight.

There are many professional theater organizations, both old and new, that we’ve met with and learned are seeking new work, but they don’t have a wide pool of Michigan artists from which to choose. There is a strong desire to keep artistic talent at home, however that desire has yet to manifest into much action.

Since 2011, we have been ruminating on the question: How is the theatrical art form cultivating the next generation of artists?

There is a strong desire to keep artistic talent at home, however that desire has yet to manifest into much action.

As an early career artist of any kind (be it playwright, composer, choreographer, director), it’s difficult to find not only success, but mere recognition in major cities when so many other young people are trying to do the same.

New York City in particular is over-saturated with emerging artists and budding theatre collectives — it’s nearly impossible to sift through all the projects to discover what is compelling and deserving of more life.

Conversely, we found that the Michigan community is, on a whole, supportive of the professional theatre that exists, there just hasn’t been a wealth of early career theatre artists creating it here (although there definitely are some). We sought a solution to both problems and thus founded The MITTEN Lab.

The MITTEN Lab (A Michigan Incubator for Theatre Talent Emerging Now) is a new artist residency located on 60 acres of land in northern Michigan aimed at giving emerging theatre artists the time, space, and support to develop new works. Artists from across the country may attend, though the Lab will be committed to supporting at least one Michigan-based artist per year when we launch in Bear Lake in 2016.

In the long-term, we plan to present informal workshops of pieces in development at both The MITTEN Lab as well as at various venues in Detroit and, eventually, across the state, giving the public access to new work for a pay-what-you-can admission fee.

While there are a number of theatre residencies in the U.S., few emphasize the development of truly emerging artists who have yet to reach any significant level of public acclaim. The Lab will help fill this void.

It will allow Michigan theatre organizations the chance to encounter new talent and work, which could lead to meaningful collaboration with emerging artists as well as meaningful partnerships with neighboring organizations. These theatres will also be able to send their commissioned artists to the Lab to develop work that they can then premiere.

Ultimately, the MITTEN Lab intends to funnel new stories with diverse perspectives into the Michigan theatre pipeline and help establish Michigan as a fertile and sustainable ground for bold, dynamic theatrical work.

If we, as a state, don’t put more effort into fostering these emerging artists, we will lose touch with our theatrical history and risk turning our theatre organizations into siloed institutions without a clear bridge between them or beyond them.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ll miss a real opportunity to harness the theatre’s capacity to strengthen community and make Michigan a richer, more deeply connected place for everyone to live. Michigan is brimming with the potential to inspire this change — now we just need to rise to the occasion.

Originally from metro Detroit, Rachel Sussman and Katherine Carter are co-founders of the MITTEN Lab and theatre professionals based in New York City.

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