When professional actors based in New York City started coming to Dexter to perform musicals, some wondered: why? After eighteen months, the answer seems clear: the Encore Theatre is something like a cultural exchange program. The pros from the big city come to flyover country to kick back and earn steady money. And locals make connections that give them a taste of the Big Apple—and find out if it’s as tasty as they’d imagined.
Encore co-founder and executive director Dan Cooney enjoys being a big fish in a small pond—it’s more rewarding to him than swimming in the big pond. After graduating from John Glenn High School in Westland (his co-founders Anne and Paul Koch were classmates) and attending the Yale School of Drama, he has built a successful theater career, appearing next in Bonnie and Clyde, slated to open on Broadway next February.
But New York didn’t feed his creative juices.
“In New York, you’re just another guy on the treadmill of actors chasing down the next gig,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy you have to put in just to stay in Broadway or the film community. When they are casting a show in New York, they don’t care about my opinions. This is a chance to use my education and build something. Otherwise I’m just sitting in an apartment in New York waiting for the next audition call.”
In Dexter, he’s not sitting around—he’s busy putting on shows while enjoying small-town life. Cooney and his wife, Jessica Grove, also a Broadway actress, split time between their apartment on 89th Street in Manhattan and the house the theater rents on Grand Street in Dexter, where all the principals are welcome to stay during a show.
“At this point in my life, I prefer Dexter—maybe not in the winter, but I love the summers here,” says Cooney, with a laugh. “My mom and dad and younger brother are all here, and we camp and fish. It’s wonderful.”
Like Cooney, Lisa Henstock, who played Maria in Encore’s August production of The Sound of Music, likes coming home to visit family and friends. Raised in Rochester Hills, Henstock is a 2001 graduate of the University of Michigan. Shortly after graduation, she toured for four and a half years as Cosette in the national Broadway production of Les Misérables, as well as other major productions.
Encore can be a two-way street—it’s also been a springboard for locals to get to New York. “There are at least five people from our shows who are now auditioning for big national tours or seriously thinking about moving to New York,” says Barb Cullen, a regional theater veteran based in Louisville who has directed and choreographed many Encore productions.
Thirteen-year-old Madison Deadman of Howell has been a fixture at Encore since its beginning, appearing in Evita, Sweeney Todd, and Annie. She’s landed an agent with the help of a New York actress she met in an Encore show.
“I learn a lot from all the actors who come in from New York and other places and just try to absorb their technique,” says Deadman.
Still, Cooney hesitates to call the theater an incubator.
“We’re not selling pipe dreams. What we are doing is providing an opportunity to work side by side with Broadway-caliber professionals and see how someone at that level works,” he says. And, he stresses, that experience doesn’t have to lead to Broadway to be valuable: an acting background can make you more confident in any profession.
Henstock agrees: “Working with some of these kids in the show—I don’t want to discourage them, but there is a harsh reality. I am constantly trying to find work.” To support herself, Henstock works as office manager at a small theater in New York and babysits for fellow actors.
Nevertheless, the professionals tell the local actors and children to keep taking classes and auditioning for shows. Luckily, the musicals at Encore provide numerous opportunities for local talent.
“The acting pool here in Dexter is great, especially in singing and acting,” says Cullen.
Paul Kerr, another regional theater actor who played Captain Von Trapp in Encore’s The Sound of Music, believes there is a responsibility in being in a show with children.
“As a lead in the show, it is important to set the right tone for the other actors. They are looking at you to see your work ethic—are you taking yourself so seriously that you can’t have fun or having so much fun you can’t do the work?” For some of the professional actors, the Encore is a recurring stop on the regional theater circuit. They are flown in, paid union rates under the theater’s Equity contract, and put up in the actors’ house. It beats waiting for a casting call in an expensive Manhattan apartment, as Cooney has.
“After taxes and agent fees, the only way to make money in New York is to leave New York,” says Henstock. “Regional theater is a chance to get ahead financially, as well as take more risks artistically without the pressure of New York critics.”
As it approaches its second birthday, the Encore is still a work in progress. Most shows sell out on weekend dates. But some staff members have been working full-time as volunteers. The next step for Cooney will be focusing on fund-raising.
“We have definitely created a value,” says Cooney, “and I think there are many local people who wouldn’t want to lose us.” Cooney, his father, and the Kochs put up the money to rebuild the theater, but they’ve since benefitted from a number of gifts from the community, including a $40,000 heating and cooling unit that was donated and installed for a minimal cost.
“It sounds so cliché, but I love that everybody knows your name here,” Cooney says. “I head over to the coffee shop in the morning for a coffee, or grab a beer at the Dexter Pub, and everyone will say, ‘Oh, I loved the last show,’ and ask me what we’re doing next. It’s middle America in all the best ways.”