Theater From Scratch
Leaving the nest can be a tough process. Jobs must be secured, income determined, tenable living situations established, home fronts left behind. But the option to stay close to the home front (or just the alma mater
) bristles with its own challenges - especially for those dedicated to working in the performing arts. Ann Arbor may have some cachet as a cultural center, but its allure to those who dream of widespread critical attention, regular paychecks, and a future of sold-out houses has its limitations. In short, most young thespians, playwrights, directors, and their ilk don't typically think "Ann Arbor" in the long term.
Yet, fledgling company The New Theater Project
is proving that Ann Arbor can be a new stage of sorts for creative expression, and that it's worth sticking around to see why.
"I don't do pretentious theater," says Keith Medelis, a Albion College graduate and creator of The New Theater Project. "I do truthful theater." After all, he says, that's the objective of art: "To create truth. The New Theater Project strives to create truth derived from local people for the community to enjoy."
It's quite a vision. But then, Medelis has shown that he has the chops to back it: He's already succeeded in creating this theater-of-local-truth via "a non-hierarchical structure" in which he is not the sole decision-maker, but a team member on equal footing with his cast and crew.
The model, in which every actor participates in the formation of the script and its
performance, premiered last April as The Spring Awakening Project
. Critical choices are made by and within the group, giving the final product an inherently distinctive flavor. Indeed, during rehearsal the play's initial narrative becomes entangled with the lives and stories of the individuals chosen to work with it. The results couldn't be replicated. "I knew we wanted to take the people involved in our project and integrate their talent and their identity – what resulted couldn't exist without those people who were cast," Medelis says. For that reason, although he is technically owner and founder, Medelis shares credit for The New Theater Project with his collaborators. To stay or not to stay, that is the question
One such collaborator is Ben Stange, a recent graduate of the theater school at the University of Michigan who put off leaving (for a time) to start The New Theater Project with Medelis. In addition to acting, Stange is directing a couple of shows for the upcoming season. "It's an experience I wouldn't necessarily have in New York – starting a theater company," he says. "In larger cities with an established scene you have to fit into what's already going on for a while before you have any opportunity to start your own thing." When he does move, and he thinks that some day he will have to, Stange knows he'll take a "ton of real world experience to translate."
There are some who plan to stay in Ann Arbor indefinitely. One such is University of Michigan graduate and late-20-something Janine Woods Thoma, technical director of the Performance Network Theater
and The New Theater Project. Having trained as a scenic and lighting designer in college, Wood-Thoma stayed in Ann Arbor not for the work, but primarily for a loved one. She soon landed a coveted position at Ann Arbor's Performance Network, where she met Medelis.
"The New Theater Project doesn't have enough yet to be a full-time position," she explains, "but where else would I have opportunities to make a clear, valuable impact on a creative work – especially this early in my career?"
Medelis agrees with Stange and Wood-Thoma that larger cities offer the established entertainment industries, as well as the population density to support theater projects and all the workers that go into making them succeed.
"We have a highly reputable theater program and musical theater here in Ann Arbor – all those people really belong in New York and that's where they'll end up getting money and making jobs," says Medelis. "It's a natural process. I'm a huge proponent of Ann Arbor and working in Ann Arbor – but it's just not realistic for everyone."
"For me, it's the town I live in and love and know how to create theater in," says Medelis. But like Stange, he's not sure that Ann Arbor is where he'll stay forever. "If it works, it works, if not, I'll find somewhere else."
Although much of his team is made up of current or recent students at one of the area's theater schools, Medelis doesn't restrict his search to them. "I'm way more interested in working with non-theater artists – those that bring a unique talent. I want interesting people – not seasoned actors."Start-up Theater
Medelis didn't set out to form his own company: the process began with a simple desire to pilot his own dramatic project while he was working for the Performance Network of Ann Arbor. "I wanted to do work that I thought was unique in a way I hadn't seen theater be created before," he says.
With that in mind, he approached the Performance Network's director about his dream. What followed was a memorable process by which Medelis, a talented local writer (with plans to leave town for more fertile job prospects in the near future) and six actors worked together to incorporate their own experiences into a shortened adaptation of The Spring Awakening Project
"We meshed the new and old to create something new and truthful. That was the structure – how we found the story," says Medelis. Initially intended to run for a single weekend, The Spring Awakening Project
was going so well that three-quarters of the way through rehearsals Medelis decided to start his own theater company for future projects.
A theater endeavor "is not as hard as you might think," says Medelis. "It's way easier than starting a non-profit. I just sent a check for $50 to the state and now I'm a limited liability company." As he explores the process of becoming a non-profit, Medelis is learning what others that have gone before know all too well: that non-profits are notoriously difficult to establish, particularly with the Internal Revenue Service. For the time being, The New Theater Project is content to receive no tax incentives.Money makes the play go round
As for funding, "I have spent every dime on this," he laughs, explaining that additional funding comes from independent sources and, gratifyingly, ticket sales. He is currently planning a fundraiser as well. Indeed, the company made all of its funding back to pay cast and crew "and then some" for The Spring Awakening Project
Payment of talent is determined by a percentage of ticket sales, a model that plays into the collaborative spirit of The New Theater Project. "You don't get paid X regardless of how good the production is," says Medelis. "This model creates incentive for our cast and crew to want to get people to come see it."
The opening weekend of The Spring Awakening Project
, says Medelis, was "lame." The second was "less lame." But by the third, spring
had sprung: The performance hall, a converted warehouse owned by The Pot and Box, a flower shop, had sold out. Word-of-mouth and social media like Facebook
were the primary marketing vehicles.
The New Theater Project depends on local talent to make its projects come to life, and it looks to its community to support it. Yet Medelis also tries to engage the community with affordable access. He and his team occasionally use "pay-as-you-can" admission pricing, a model that works surprisingly well. Indeed, New Theater Project goers so far seem to be willing to pay generously to encourage this new breed of creative risk-taking.
There are advantages to having experimental theater in a community, Medelis insists, and indeed, any area with enough creative talent and diversity to produce rogue projects like this is one that has talent to spare – a prerequisite for any successful, dynamic community to attract even more talent, youth, and commerce. Success on the fringe?
Now entering its second performance season, The New Theater Project will be putting on experimental versions of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children
, with the next show taking place on September 19. Future plans call for a project featuring the lives and experiences of local sex workers (The Dance of the Seven Veils
Along with Ann Arbor's modest successful fringe theater company, The
Medelis and his troupe make clear: there is a great deal of nascent talent waiting in Ann Arbor's wings. Still, Medelis admits that their endeavor is an experimental one; Ann Arbor's art-going community will determine whether it is willing and able to support a new creative font. If not, there's a big world out there, with many cities ready to embrace a new generation of work.
Leia Menlove is an Ann Arbor-based writer. She is buying her ticket for the fall show now and hopes to see a few familiar faces. Her previous article was Wheeling And Dealing: Bike-Based Businesses Hit the Road.Send your comments hereAll photos by Doug