Barton Bund is a classic impresario: He eats, sleeps, and lives theater. On a recent day, he's reading a copy of The Great Gatsby in the back room of Sweetwaters downtown. The writer/composer/director is studying the landmark Fitzgerald novel with an eye to staging it with his Blackbird Theatre troupe. "I've had my head in the book for two years, trying to find a way to do it with the company. I gave a copy to everyone," he says.

Bund, 34, grew up in Ann Arbor and attended Greenhills School. He started college in Massachusetts, studying theatre. He graduated from Eastern Michigan University, where he met his wife, Dana Sutton, in a directing class. He founded The Blackbird Theatre around the same time, in 1998.

After a rough start in Ypsilanti (would-be patrons absconded with the proceeds of a major benefit performance), Sutton and Bund (aka Black Bag Productions) moved Blackbird to space shared with the Children's Creative Center on Pauline Boulevard near West Stadium (1600 Pauline Blvd.).

Bund is managing artistic director of The Blackbird Theatre. Sutton is business manager. Together they've become a well-oiled team that respects the talents of the other. Neither one can overrule the other at work, he explains. "She is my partner in life and in art. She's a great producer."

What if he didn't live in Ann Arbor? Far afield or close by? "I'd probably go back to Ypsi. I'm a dual citizen in Australia – there, I'd go to Sydney. The (US) East Coast is great. I love DC, Boston, Portland," he says.

Maybe it's that expansive view of geography that lead Bund to move his theater company out of its home and search for another. Blackbird left its 90-seat home on Pauline and launched a search for a larger replacement venue. Several candidate sites have made the cut, and all have come up short. The cry for affordable space in Ann Arbor is not a new one. The city offers few options in or near downtown.

"The new theater – it's a daily motivational talk you have to give yourself. One after another, we went through five spaces. We're going to keep looking," Bund says. "We're flexible – we can work in a number of different ways. It could be a house, or we could be in a garage. We've got a great real estate agent – Bill Milliken."

But it's important to keep the company together, Bund asserts. And as challenging as the change is, he admits he's enjoying the artistic freedom of not being bound to a specific venue. From April 8-10, Blackbird will present staged readings of three new plays by Michigan playwrights at sh-/aut Cabaret and Gallery (see below for details.)

In June, Blackbird Theatre will present an expanded version of Patty Hearst: The New Musical which had an earlier incarnation in a staged reading last year. The production will play for two weeks in Ann Arbor at the tiny sh-/aut Cabaret and Gallery, followed by a Detroit run at the Boll Family YMCA.

Bund wrote, composed, and directs the seemingly unlikely musical about a kidnapped media heiress and her captors. It's been reconfigured since the first production. "It's a little less intense, a little less scary. We've added physical elements and loud, loud music. We added songs, swapped out others with the existing score," he says.

"I've been into the story since Paul Schrader's 1988 film (Patty Hearst), based on her book (Every Secret Thing). Most of the characters in the show went underground of their own free will. They were middle-class – good people led far astray."

"Living in the Bush years, I came to understand some of the rage of the Nixon years,” Bund explains. "[That rage] is still very much there. That's what drove me to do this show."

While the company rehearsed the production last year, Obama took office. That changed the complexion of the piece, Bund says. "Some songs had expired. The country gained a more hopeful edge. The world had shifted like... (snaps his fingers.) The whole health care thing is wonderful. It's been an amazing process."

"Our company is made up of people who care deeply about each other," Bund says. "We can't pay them the same as other [theaters]. We're not an [Actors'] Equity house. We develop talent. We still have some of the same people from 12 years ago who appeared in our first production in Ypsilanti."

Bund would love to find more alternative spaces to produce his theater. "I'd like to take it to Briarwood. There are amazing new theaters being built in Allen Park. Allen Park made an incredible commitment [to the arts] after the new film studios built [facilities] there. Working there would help us build an audience," he says.

"It will really be cramming to put Patty Hearst in sh-/aut. I'd take the company back to Ypsi, but Dana says no."

This summer, Bund will also direct Two Gentlemen of Verona for Water Works Theatre Company's Shakespeare in the Park in Royal Oak. Blackbird did Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream) this season with only five actors. It's just one example of the company's different approach. "You'll see [a play] in a way that it hasn't been done. We do it our way while putting the polish on the production. Our productions are built on acting," Bund says.

The past season's production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending was a crazy venture because it required 17 actors. Patty has a 10-member cast, Bund says. He could have chosen to make the musical more epic, but decided to focus his story on "the family" instead.

Blackbird is more experimental than other local theater troupes, Bund says. "We've delved into some political issues. Other theater companies are not comfortable with that. There are elements of risk and danger in what we do. Other theaters aren't less bold or passionate, but what we do, sometimes it's going to be shocking."

But Bund sees Blackbird's role as complementary to other theaters in the region rather than competitive. "Each community, no matter what the size, needs a good balance between community arts, educational arts, and professional arts, " he explains. "You need one high school, one community theater, and one professional theater, and you can create jobs and art in any area. "

Despite the setbacks of finding a new location, Blackbird's fundraising is coming along. The company is halfway to its $50,000 target. The bad news that yet another location had fallen through actually gave Blackbird's fundraising a pop, he says. Longtime donors are supportive and a Facebook campaign is proving to be effective.

Upcoming Blackbird Theatre productions:

Raw Weekend, April 8-10, 8 pm at /SH/-Aut Gallery, $10 each at the door

Workshop productions of three new plays by Michigan authors:
Thurs, Apr 8 - The Sleeping Giant by Barton Bund is a hilarious look inside the world of competitive eating.
Fri, Apr 9 – Snowbound by Margaret Edwartowski is a taut thriller of the Old West.
Sat. Apr 10 – Elizabeth the Beautiful by Kim Carney is a new comedy about the 1978 reunion of violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Patty Hearst: A New Musical, June 3-12 at \SH\-AUT Gallery & June 17-26 at the Boll Family YMCA (1401 Broadway, Detroit) - Thurs-Sat at 8 pm, tickets $20/$15/$10.

The troupe's scorching new musical contains violence, harsh language, and sexuality for mature audiences only. No one under 17 admitted. For ticket information, call 734-332-3848.

Constance Crump is at-home in darkened theaters. She is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Rich Sheridan.

All photos by Dave Lewinski

All photos of Barton Bund taken at ShAut Gallery.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.