“We had a short period where we were stagnant,” recalls Dan Cooney. So last year, the New York-based actor sat down with his Encore Musical Theatre Company co-founder, Dexter resident Anne Koch, to consider the future of the institution they had launched in 2009. They asked, Cooney says, “Which way are we going to go? Are we just going to let it be what it is, a glorified community theater, or are we going to grow and expand … and commit to making it truly a professional company?”
They chose the more exciting but less certain path. Last year, they increased the board of directors from four to eight members and hired several part-time staffers to support Koch, the theater’s only full-time employee. The nonprofit, whose current operating budget is around $300,000, is working on a master plan for growth that it expects to make public in early 2016.
Encore also began to pay union rates to Equity actors and stipends to all actors eighteen and over. Production supervisor Tobin Hissong thinks that the changes, financed largely by more aggressive fundraising, have helped draw out the best of what he calls “a huge talent base of varying levels in this area.”
It’s still early to measure the impact of the new approach. But this past summer, Encore’s back-to-back productions of South Pacific and Into the Woods drew some of the biggest audiences in its history, including several sold-out performances.
It didn’t hurt that Cooney’s wife, Broadway actress Jessica Grove, played the witch in the much-praised Into the Woods. “It’s always amazing!” says Koch. “We’ll have a Broadway star on our stage with local professional actors–and round it out with children from our high school. They learn so much.”
Like musical theater itself, the Encore’s own story has an element of serendipity. Koch and Cooney sang in the choir together at John Glenn High School in Westland. Later, Cooney sang at Koch’s wedding. Settled in Dexter with her family, Koch came across Cooney’s name on a Broadway website. She emailed him: “We would love to have a musical theater in Dexter.”
Cooney was intrigued. He had family in Michigan, and he liked the idea of creating shows instead of just performing. Cooney and his dad, and Anne and her husband, Paul Koch, put up the money to renovate an old warehouse tucked away at the corner of Alpine and Broad streets.
The Encore occasionally does drama, but it’s mainly about musicals, lovable classics like Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. That distinguishes it from Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, whose forte is drama and comedy, particularly plays by Michigan playwrights, including its famous founder, actor Jeff Daniels. Says Koch, “We’ve always been very adamant about saying we complement each other.”
Neither Koch nor Cooney knows if Daniels has attended an Encore production, but Cooney was flattered when, in New York, the Purple Rose’s founder asked him out for a quick brunch. “He was very kind,” Cooney says, recalling that Daniels had offered suggestions about Encore. “‘Do this, do that. This is what the people love, this will draw traffic …’
“He offered me a ride in his black car to the theater because we were [performing] across the street from each other. I told him I had my own car. It was a moped.”
Cooney, Encore’s artistic director, acknowledges some nervousness in the presence of Daniels. He knows he himself has an effect when he arrives at the Encore for his (usually) monthly visits. “I’ve heard board members say, ‘When you’re here, it’s exciting. People get jazzed up in a certain way,'” says Cooney.
But emphasizing his contribution is, he says, “horribly insulting” to Koch and others in the Encore team, who keep Encore running while he’s off doing theater in New York. Both the creative crew and the Dexter community “expect something extraordinary that really supports the greater good. I quickly learned this isn’t just about having fun–and a big ego trip for me.”
Cooney owns a condo in Dexter, and last summer, he, Grove, and their four-year-old son, Gavin, spent nine weeks here while Jessica performed. They enjoy the change of pace, Cooney says–but Gavin is so stagestruck, it can be hard tearing him away from rehearsals. When invited to go fishing, Gavin insisted he’d rather watch a DVD of Into the Woods.
Encore’s production of The Wizard of Oz runs from November 27 through December 23.