Why the Ann Arbor area's newest theater companies aren't in Ann Arbor

One of the Ann Arbor area's oldest and most distinguished theaters, Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre, closed its doors in December after 34 years in business. But multiple smaller theater companies in the area have found considerable success in recent years by moving away from the traditional cultural center of Ann Arbor.
Recent years have seen the arrival of new companies in smaller communities like Milan, Dexter, and Pinckney – places where the local arts marketplace is less crowded, rent and/or building prices are affordable, and a tight-knit community feels a sense of cultural pride and ownership. What's more, these theaters often bring people (and their wallets) to their communities' downtowns, making professional theaters a more appealing economic engine. In this unusual moment for local theater, we took a look at how several new area theater companies are choosing where to put down stakes in hopes of long-term success.
The Dio: Dinner and a show
Steve DeBruyne originally planned to start his theater company, the Dio, in bustling Brighton. But he ended up finding success in a community with one-third the population: Pinckney.
"Pinckney reached out and says, 'Hey, we know we're not as large as Brighton, but we'd love to work with you to get this to happen,' whereas it felt like Brighton was not so much interested in working with us," says DeBruyne, who lives in Pinckney himself.
The Dio's space on Pinckney's Main Street originally opened in the 1800s as a vaudeville theater and opera house, and was most recently occupied by a sports bar. When the Dio opened three years ago DeBruyne decided to take advantage of the kitchen facilities by offering dinner before Dio productions, often served by performers who take the stage later in the night. Dio actors aren't required to be part of the food service – it's voluntary, and they must have some restaurant experience – but both the audience members and the performers seem to like interacting before the show.
"[Patrons] feel like they know somebody up there, so they're more invested in the performers," DeBruyne says. "So even though this wasn't my initial idea, it really works well."
Right now, far more non-Pinckney residents see shows at the Dio than do locals, but DeBruyne remains hopeful.
"One problem is that the people who live here are so used to going away to do the stuff they want to do," DeBruyne says. "They're usually not looking at their own community, their own downtown, whereas people in Ann Arbor or Brighton are more willing to experiment. They're used to having things at their fingertips, but they also don't mind a scenic drive to try something new. It feels like their little secret, and that's working for us right now."
Encore Musical Theatre Company: Spreading the arts virus
Chuck Colby, marketing and development director for Dexter's Encore Musical Theatre Company, says his company's success is all about location.
"I think we're in what you might call an area of infection," Colby says. "We're close enough to Ann Arbor that an interest in the arts has been like a spreading virus … and a family living in Dexter now is more likely to be professionals who want things like a theater in their town."
Encore launched in 2009 after Broadway veteran Dan Cooney (Encore's producing artistic director) reconnected with friend and former classmate Anne Koch (Encore's producing managing director), a Dexter resident who dreamed of opening a local performance space dedicated to staging musical theater. The company recently wrapped its sold-out production of "My Fair Lady," which Colby says brought many non-Dexter residents both to the Encore and other downtown Dexter establishments.
"With 'My Fair Lady,' 40 percent of the 10,000 or so ticket buyers were brand new to us, while 27 percent of the ticket buyers were from Dexter," he says. "Obviously, we're drawing in people from out of town, and they're eating at our restaurants downtown. … It's a great opportunity for retailers, and they're just now really embracing that."
The Encore is also connecting with the Dexter community and continuing to raise its local profile through its "Encore Junior" productions and week-long summer camps for kids.
"It was such a blessing to have theater [in Midland] where I grew up," Colby says. "The Encore's so accessible, and it provides such an easy way to see all these great shows on a regular basis. That's why I wanted to help and be part of it: to make it possible for my own kids to have that experience, too."
Williamston Theatre: Purple Rose-inspired
After spending 12 years working at the great-granddaddy of small-town Washtenaw County theaters, Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre Company, Tony Caselli wanted to found a new theater company – but he also wanted to stay in a small town.
With a population of 3,832, Williamston certainly qualifies. The city was initially scouted as a potential new home for the now-defunct, Lansing-based Boar's Head Theatre. When the Boar's Head stayed put, Wiliamston resident and theater artist John Lepard approached the town's mayor about the possibility of establishing an entirely new theater company. After receiving an enthusiastic response, Lepard, Caselli, Christine Purchis, and Emily Sutton-Smith founded the Williamston Theatre in 2006.
"It started out slowly, no question," says Caselli.
But a local residential developer offered space to the company for a low price, figuring that having a theater in town would be mutually beneficial. The theater's team scheduled play readings in local businesses around town, so residents could see professional actors in action and learn more about the theater's plans. Caselli says the team even bussed some Williamston government officials, business owners, and other community stakeholders to a Purple Rose performance in order to demonstrate the power of theater as an economic driver.
That work has paid off. Caselli says an arts studio and a few restaurants have opened in Williamston since the theater opened its doors, and local restaurant owners have told the theater's team that business goes way up on show nights. Last year, the theater's board managed to purchase its building outright.
"I think it takes a commitment to finding a place where people are anxious to have a theater and where you're not working so hard to bend them to your will, but instead finding out what they want and collaborating with them," Caselli says. "I do think that part of what helps us is that the rent and cost of living are cheaper here. We'd never be able to own this building in Ann Arbor."
Roustabout Theatre Troupe: Starting small
After the Performance Network closed for good, local theater artists Joey Albright and Joseph Zettelmaier chewed on an idea (and burgers) at Ypsilanti's Sidetrack Bar and Grill. The two had long discussed the possibility of launching a theater company together, but the Network's demise suddenly lent greater urgency to the conversation.
Not that Albright and Zettelmaier needed the work. The Redford-based Albright is an accomplished director and actor in the Michigan theater community, and Milan-based Zettelmaier is a multi-award-winning playwright whose work is regularly produced. But their belief in revitalizing local economies through the arts and giving theater artists a new place to work prompted them to found the Roustabout Theatre Troupe, with co-founder Anna Simmons as managing director, Albright as artistic director, and Zettelmaier as executive director.
Although Roustabout's guiding vision involves taking theater on the road to different places – hence the company's name – its first home has been the small town of Milan. Roustabout's recently concluded inaugural two-day event, the Crooked Tree Play Festival, featured staged readings of several new plays by Michigan writers in Milan's Tolan Square. For now, the troupe is only planning special events and readings to build buzz before attempting to stage full-on productions.
"We don't want to commit to a season until we're financially able to do so," Zettelmaier says. "We want to be responsible about this. But in Milan the response so far has been really positive, so we hope to ride that for as long as we can."
While Roustabout's mobility is central to its vision, its founding trio hopes to find and make a home somewhere in a few years – possibly in Milan. Zettelmaier says Milan's civic leaders have been welcoming, inspired by the successes of companies like the Purple Rose, the Encore, and the Williamston.
"They didn't need to see a breakdown of how a theater can help a community economically," he says. "When something new happens in a smaller town like this, people pay attention, while in a town like Ann Arbor, it's harder to get on the radar. … I was born in Ann Arbor, and I adore that town, but part of why I adore it is that there's always so much to do. And that can be a double-edged sword."

Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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