Surviving the pandemic while supporting local artists: Pontiac’s Little Art Theatre that could

When Robert Karazim and Karen Jorgensen, owners of K & R studios, resurrected a 150-year-old building in downtown Pontiac and built a community theater, they’d no idea how quickly the curtain would drop. 

When COVID-19 hit, Pontiac’s Little Arts Theatre (AKA the PLAT ), along with venues everywhere, shuttered. It’s anticipated plays, concerts, and movies—canceled, the rental calendar erased.  In March of 2020, the community venue was preparing to celebrate its second official birthday, after a massive historical rebuild took the 1868 property to its bones and back.

“It was enough to make you cry,” Karazim says about the closure as the theater was hitting its stride, hosting multiple events each week. “It all got canned. We went from almost $20,000 a month to zero.” 

He and Jorgensen and their business partner Lisa Mohler, who serves as operations manager at the PLAT, saw that to bolster the local art community now, they’d need new measures of creativity and support.

The team had experience making something out of nothing, Mohler included. She’d joined the restoration and design duo on their wild theater pitch back when the building boasted black mold, drop ceilings, shag carpet, and a leaking roof. She’d fallen in love with community acting at the age of five and “it’s a horrible habit you just can’t get out of,” she says.

Communities need the small, affordable performance venue to be able to do the creative things they love, says Mohler. Besides music and theater, the PLAT hosts dance recitals, art shows, movies, church services, weddings, and more.

Artist and Green Room Cafe chef Bruce Cobb with PLAT owners Karen Jorgensen and Lisa Mohler. Photo courtesy of the PLAT.

Local actor Steven Cunningham agrees. He’s part of Pontiac Theater IV, the city’s oldest company, presenting live theater to Pontiac and Oakland County since 1969. His group’s performed shows at the PLAT like, “The Bible, ‘Abridged,’ (comedy) and “A Time to Kill,” (drama). The company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was canceled last year, due to COVID-19, but is tentatively set to open at the PLAT this August. 

“This is one of the few places that actually gives the opportunity for amateur groups and community groups to get a space in Pontiac to work,” Cunningham says “It’s very versatile in how it can be set up, and they’re willing to work with people to get productions put on. We’re working right now with a contact they gave us to get financing for this show.”

What’s made the space at 47 N. Saginaw St. affordable to local artists and community groups is what’s keeping it open now. Designed by K & R Studios, the adaptive reuse project houses two 1500-square-foot high-end lofts above the PLAT. This was part of the studio's model on how to keep a community theater alive, Karazim says.  And man, it’s been salvation. 

“Those actually pay the mortgage and some of the utilities, which gives us the opportunity to support the arts, the neighborhood, and the people,” he says. There’s still plenty of bills, but, he adds, “at least we didn’t have to foreclose on ourselves.”

The second piece to continuing as an arts beacon has come from grants. Judy Wilson, a colleague with Karazim on the Pontiac Arts Commission, has written several, allowing the theater to pivot its offerings during COVID-19. Co-founder of The Art Experience, community art, and art therapy studio in Pontiac, Wilson says she’s eager to help the “high number of artists in the area, who are a best-kept secret that shouldn’t be anymore.”

The Green Room Cafe. Photo courtesy of the PLAT's Facebook page.During the pandemic, the PLAT’s connected with online audiences and highlighted dozens of artists through new digital equipment and support from the Pontiac Funders Collaborative. Small business grants from Oakland County and the state of Michigan allowed the owners to convert the theater’s former concessions stand into a new business, The Green Room Cafe.

Led by local artist and chef Bruce Cobb, the cafe serves a weekday menu of gourmet sandwiches, soups, pastries, and more. It’s worked in collaboration with Flagstar Bank, Main Street Pontiac, and Oakland, and surrounding restaurants to provide hundreds of meals to local senior centers, hospitals, and COVID-19 testing sites.

As a for-profit business, it barely breaks even, Karazim says, because not many people are coming out yet. But it serves the community and further connects the PLAT with those who are. 

Jorgenson connected with Cobb, a metro Detroit percussionist, in the park near the PLAT where he was playing the djembe, a West African hand drum. The artist had just lost his Beverly Hills sushi restaurant, Blu Bar Sushi, due to the pandemic. It was a learning lesson, he says, one that set him up to “fall into something fantastic.” At the cafe, he creates handmade selections steeped in detail and love and titled, “The Art of Food.”

Cobb was the first artist to perform in the PLAT’s Pontiac Performing Artist (PPA) project, made possible through the tech grant from the Pontiac Funders Collaborative, the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the Lisa Jorgensen Markevich Grant for the Arts. The project ran from Sept.- March and offered local artists a $50 stipend to create a short video featuring their talent.

The goal: engage dozens of local creatives, increase artist exposure through an online library of talents and put a little cash in the pockets of some people hardest hit by the pandemic.

“I think we were the only ones in the world trying to give money to artists,” says Karazim. “The grants said they had to do something for it, we couldn’t just hand out money. So we had them come spend 90 secs and I’ll pay you 50 bucks.”

He’s planning to invite the nearly 60 artists back this summer to perform on the PLAT’s new outdoor deck. Construction for the four-season gathering space on the front of the building is currently underway, and when it’s done, Karazim says there will be live entertainment, a large gazebo, booze (they have a liquor license coming), frozen custard, and food from the cafe.  

Current build of the PLAT's outdoor entertainment deck. Photo courtesy of the PLAT.

“The artists are absolutely dying to play,” he says. “They haven’t been inside a venue or played anywhere besides their garages in almost a year.”

There’s only been one indoor concert at the PLAT since the pandemic, a New Year’s Eve gala with jazz flutist, Alexander Zonjic. That evening, 60 guests (50 % capacity) had the rare pleasure of live entertainment. Though a midnight toast wasn’t allowed due to health restrictions, guests left with fancy desserts and a bottle of champagne. 

“People were just so happy to get out and do something again,” says Mohler. Since the new year, the PLAT’s resumed its Friday movies at 7:30 p.m. People are still so afraid to come out, she says, but even if it’s only a few in the audience, the show must go on. “We haven’t come this far to shut our doors again.”

The PLAT is working on ideas like Speak E-Z Nights, First Offender Videos, and The Spoken Word: Stories of Pontiac’s Yesteryear. Follow all happenings at plat.org and on Facebook @PontiacsLittleArtTheatre.

 
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