Mix Studio Theater: Rethinking Retail Space

At 500 square feet, the Mix Studio Theater is only about the size of a studio apartment. But for Tim Henning, that's enough.
"In any big city, people would kill for that space," says Henning, artistic director of the Mix's resident theater company, Emergent Arts. "There are a lot of theaters in Chicago and New York that are just that size."
The theater exists mostly because of some unconventional thinking on the part of its owners, who also own the Mix clothing boutique right next door. Four years ago, Bonnie Penet and her three business partners opened Mix in downtown Ypsilanti. The store was then in a smaller space at 128 W. Michigan Ave., but Penet and her partners had more in mind for their business than just selling garments.
"We were all into having events," Penet says. "We'd roll the racks of clothes back and borrow chairs to have concerts."
About a year and a half later, Penet and her partners found a new way to realize their aspirations of creating a performance space within their retail operation. They expanded to a corner storefront at 130 W. Michigan Ave., the former home of the What Is That gallery. Mix also inherited an attached space just around the corner on 8 N. Washington, the former pottery studio of What Is That owner David Austin. The space was small and still filled with left-behind pottery equipment, but members of Threefold Productions and the now-defunct New Theatre Project saw a diamond in the rough. Members of the companies asked Mix's owners if they could use the space for their readings, rehearsals and shows.
"We're artists, all of us four partners," Penet says. "I love young people, I love creativity and it was a great fit for us. To make our store available to people after hours and introduce our store to people who came in to see the event just made great business sense."
The companies paid what Penet describes as "a nominal rent" and did most of the work of transforming the space themselves. The pottery studio became a black box theater, with room for about 40 people to sit close enough to touch the actors.
"They just worked at it night and day," Penet says. "We were real impressed with what they did in a very short amount of time."
Henning, who took over renting the space this fall, says the intimacy of the Mix is ideal. He's staged several shows there, in addition to hosting former "Tonight Show" writer Chili Challis' Comedy Dojo classes and weekly UnClub open mic night.
"Anywhere else, you get five or six people at an open mic and you might feel like you're playing to a canyon," Henning says. "But in a small house that really feels like a lot. You get 30 or 35 people in there and it's rockin'."
While the flexible use of the Mix space might seem unusual, Henning says it shouldn't be. Having lived in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, he says creative use of space is the norm there.
"Any space there is at a premium," he says. "It's not unusual to go into a place and there's some little odd theater space. If you're a theater and you don't have a whole bunch of money, you have to use whatever you can."
Henning envisions micro-galleries and -theaters taking up Mix's entire block of Washington and beyond. From the sound of it, Penet would be on board with that idea. After two and a half years of running a theater-cum-clothing store, she expresses no reservations about encouraging her fellow local business owners to rethink their spaces in similar ways
"We have had just tremendous success," she says. "I'd highly recommend it." 

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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