His EncoreMichigan.com shines a spotlight on theaters struggling for attention and respect.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the May, 2019 issue
"I'm one of the state's biggest advocates for professional theater," says David Kiley.
A veteran journalist and marketer, Kiley, fifty-five, is an online cheerleader for Michigan's seventy-some professional theaters (which he defines "as a theater that pays its actors").
Kiley took over EncoreMichigan.com (no connection to Dexter's Encore Theatre) from Pride Source Media four years ago. It was, he says, "in desperate need of upgrading, funding, and relevance." He redesigned it, adding a calendar and links for ticket purchases. In mid-March, the site listed more than two dozen shows, from Hamilton at Detroit's Fisher Theatre to The Glass Menagerie at the Flint Repertory Theatre.
"Michigan is rich with theatergoing opportunities!" Kiley says. And Encore Michigan has thrown a spotlight on theaters desperate for attention and respect.
Leah Smith, marketing and development director at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, points out that Encore Michigan is now the only statewide source for reviews and awards.
"The Detroit Free Press was the last newspaper publishing reviews, and they no longer offer them," Smith says. "Reviews are incredibly important to theaters and theatergoers. They remind us of the importance of the theater world and can generate interest and attendance."
Encore Michigan also sponsors the Wilde Awards--named after British playwright Oscar--to recognize Michigan talent. The awards are "good for community-building, especially for the nonprofit community theaters when they're seeking fundraising backing," Smith says. "They give bragging rights."
A larger-than-life figure with a scarf knotted around his neck and a booming theatrical voice, Kiley is a New Jersey native of Welsh and Irish background. He first came to Michigan almost twenty years ago as Detroit bureau chief for USA Today. After four years he moved back to New York to work for Business Week, where his job included the auto beat.
He returned to Michigan to cover the industry for the online Huffington Post. Several years ago, he, his wife, and their son were driving down Main St. Excited by the town-gown
vibe, he announced, "This is where I belong." From 2016 to 2018 he was director of communications for the U-M's Ross School of Business.
Along with Encore Michigan, Kiley runs New Road Media, a one-man shop specializing in web content, social media, and marketing strategies. His office, he says, is "wherever I lay my laptop."
New Road Media is his livelihood; Kiley says Encore Michigan just breaks even financially. But he hopes to do better, seeking advertising and expanding the site's service to include "e-casting," where local actors can post clips and interviews, and directors can search for new talent.
Encore Michigan previewed and reviewed 245 performances last year. Kiley himself wrote fifty-five, with the rest divided among eight freelancers (unpaid except for free tickets). He estimates that he has written as many as 350 reviews since taking over the website and puts "25,000 miles on my car every year" driving to far-flung theaters.
Kiley acknowledges that balancing cheerleading and criticism can be a challenge. "I have never singled out an actor for a bad performance, but I've had to write negative reviews," he says. He won't name names but recalls a performance in Ann Arbor that's his benchmark for bad theater: "That was the most God-awful production--although the actors and director did their parts nobly. I felt badly giving it a terrible review because I know what goes into a production."
The disappointments are offset by happy discoveries like a play at the tiny Outvisible Theatre in Allen Park. On opening night, he was one of three people in the audience. Yet "I was completely knocked out by the brilliance of the play and the acting. If I hadn't been there to review it, the performance would have been lost--and that would have been a crime." A Human Being Died Last Night won a Wilde Award last year.
Kiley himself has taken to playwriting in recent years: I'll Be Seeing You premiered at the U-M's Arthur Miller Theatre in February. The musical is based on Writing the War: Chronicles of a World War II Correspondent, the story of his parents' wartime love affair, which he edited with his sister and brother-in-law.
Charles Kiley was a twenty-nine-year-old sportswriter-turned-sergeant reporting for the military paper Stars and Stripes. Billee Gray was a defense plant worker when they met, in early 1942, at Camp Croft, South Carolina. After three dates, when he was about to be shipped out for Europe, he proposed. The book and play are based on the 800 letters they exchanged during their four-year separation.
Kiley is writing another play based on his father's greatest coup: assigned to follow general (and future president) Dwight Eisenhower, he was the sole reporter present when the German high command negotiated the Nazi surrender in May 1945. V-E Day: the Day the War Ended will be performed next year at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Kiley himself will be onstage as Winston Churchill--a change for him, he says, since he's typically cast as "mean, egomaniacal, evil characters." In both the new play and a reprise of I'll Be Seeing You, "we'll be using the same typewriter his father used to file his reports from the schoolhouse in Reims."
He's a producer, too: last year, he founded the Michigan Celtic Repertory Theatre, which performed Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales at the Kerrytown Concert House and Conor O'Neill's. "I produced the show in the form of a radio play," he says. "It was a very successful way to get our feet wet." Next, he says, the company will perform a one-man show based on the life of the Irish monk St. Brendan of Clonfert, "whose life was filled with mystery and adventure."
"I love the theater because I love great stories," says Kiley. "The Irish have a long history of great storytellers and playwrights--not only [W.B.] Yeats, Sean O'Casey, [Eugene] O'Neill, [James] Joyce, and Oscar Wilde, but also lesser-known and new talent.
"We'll draw on those amazing talents. Michigan has a strong and vibrant Irish American population, and we have many Celtic enthusiasts here. There's even a Gaelic League and Michigan Irish Chamber of Commerce in Detroit. Corktown is connected to the Irish American history. I think I've got a ready-made audience."
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