The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s new home, a restored historic schoolhouse in downtown Dexter, hosts its first theatrical production this month with Smokey Joe’s Cafe on September 23. Flexible seating at the Maas Theatre allows Encore to seat about twice as many patrons as before and to control audience size and configuration as CDC guidelines change. And, says producing artistic director Dan Cooney, “it will give Encore artists the opportunity to more fully realize their creative ideas, with rehearsal areas, wing space, backstage area, a scenic shop, and two stories of height.”
Cooney’s co-founder, producing managing director Anne Koch, worked behind the scenes, going over databases of loyal supporters and setting up meetings for Cooney with supporters. “We began strategizing and laying out goals and levels of giving that we would need to tackle this major purchase and renovation,” Koch says. “The database of supporters has grown! There is a wonderful buzz and energy, and I must say, love, that is surrounding the Encore and our mission … The Benard L. Maas Foundation initiated our giving with our first large gift of $500,000.”
The theater’s board was also involved in fundraising. A consulting/marketing firm refreshed Encore’s website and helped develop marketing materials. The team applied for grants successfully and are now more than halfway past a goal of $2.5 million dollars. Koch’s husband, Paul Koch, organized the renovation through his employer, the McFate Group.
“I honestly was nervous about moving to our new space,” she confides. “I did not want to lose the charm that I love about the Encore. And now that we are in our newly, beautifully renovated building, I feel that we brought the old Encore along with us and have the same charm and feel that we had on Broad St., in a much more conducive and functional Encore.”
Encore launched a concert series over the summer and sold out at half capacity to provide distancing. After Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Broadway designer Tony Walton will return to Encore in February to design and direct Guys and Dolls–he did an exquisite production of My Fair Lady in the old space in 2016.
While the Encore changes venues, University Productions will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Power Center. Students en route to careers on Broadway and Hollywood will perform at the Arthur Miller Theatre on North Campus as well. Its season opens September 30 when Malcolm Tulip directs Nora: A Doll’s House, an adaptation of Ibsen’s play that explores women’s issues, past and present. Plays and musicals dealing with America’s financial crisis (The Golden Age of Debt), global responsibility (Hair), obedience to the state vs to one’s own conscience (Sophocles’ Antigone), and teenage homelessness (Somebody’s Children) are slated along with a Shakespeare comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and a musical set during Prohibition (The Wild Party).
The U will offer a flexible exchange policy, so anyone who doesn’t feel well can get tickets for a different night or to a later show. Staff will study the latest guidelines and consult with university experts to make the spaces as safe as possible.
Theatre NOVA will return to the Yellow Barn on the west side of downtown on September 17 with the Michigan premiere of the comedy The Lifespan of a Fact. Later in the season, founding artistic director Carla Milarch will direct her husband, Phil Powers, in the Michigan premiere of Relativity, an exploration of the personal life of Albert Einstein.
Milarch says the theater isn’t making a comeback–it never stopped working. In addition to presenting plays virtually, NOVA staff has been writing grant proposals and launching fundraisers to keep NOVA open through the shutdown. It will continue to offer affordable tickets, with pay-what-you-can tickets available for every show. Participating artists and staff must be vaccinated, and patrons must be masked or able to show proof of vaccination
UMS will mix digital events with live performances of visiting companies. Ali Chahrour’s Layl (Night), part of a series focused on the Arab world and its diaspora, and a semi-staged concert version of Fiddler on the Roof will both be on stage in February. HOME, canceled last year, will follow in April. Travel and visa restrictions place limits on offerings, but marketing VP Sara Billman says when shows come here, they will be opening to full capacity, unless state or university guidelines change.
Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre Company has been restructuring positions in anticipation of its return to in-person production in January 2022, when Lynch Travis will direct the world premiere of Jeffry Chastang’s Under Ceege. Meanwhile, the Rose will continue doing virtual play readings in association with the Chelsea District library. “It’s very exciting to be ramping up to reopening,” says managing director Katie Hubbard.
Since the Penny Seats Theatre Company’s usual summer venue, the West Park Band Shell, wasn’t available, it performed a concert version of a jukebox musical, Summer of Love, in Burns Park last month. Its indoor season at the Stone Chalet on Washtenaw begins in October with Ripper, by Jacob Marx Rice, followed in December by The Winter Wolf, a new work by artistic director Joseph Zettelmaier. Executive director Lauren London says they’ll also draw works from the virtual play reading series they did last year.
Most area theaters and presenters survived this season of our discontents. They are keeping close watch on Delta, though, and are ready to adjust their plans to reopen, if needed.
For now, Encore’s Dan Cooney speaks for them all: “We are thrilled to be back in production.”