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New Effort Aims to Boost Michigan's Theatrical Community

by Lisa Diggs

Every once in a while an experience comes along that changes the course of your life, and sometimes even introduces you to people who want to take a similar journey. Such is the case with two Michigan girls who met at Rising Stars, a theatrical program in their hometown of Bloomfield Hills. Both went on to pursue their dreams in New York City, and now they have their sights set on nurturing new artists back in Michigan.

 

Katherine Carter was just 14 years old, while Rachel Sussman was only 12 years of age, when they first met at Rising Stars. The theatrical program for kids was run by Thomas Logan, who is now best known for productions at The Starlight Theater in Waterford. Both women acknowledge that their interest in theater was not necessarily born there, but their love of the art form surely was. Surrounded by friends and family, they learned the craft at all levels from costuming to set design to performance to direction. Access to all those different elements of a production made a career in the theater seem possible, even to a couple of young ladies living a fair distance away from the hallowed halls of Broadway.

 

Fast forward to 2015, and we find these childhood friends are now successful professionals in the field they both love, and still collaborating. Carter is a director and Sussman is a producer, and each has founded her own theater company in New York. Yet both feel a longing to take part in Michigan’s growing stage scene. They have also noticed an alarming trend in their industry that artists who are early on in their careers, don’t seem to get enough support. Residency programs in New York, and elsewhere in the country, often only go to people who already have a distinguished resume.

 

To tackle the issue of supporting emerging artists, the two are co-founding The Mitten Lab, an artist in residence program that will be set in Northern Michigan. Sussman describes such programs as “A place where a theater creator goes to have uninterrupted time to work on their craft.”

 

The initial goal of The Mitten Lab is to provide emerging artists a one-week residency to do just that. According to Carter, “We intend to assess what the artist needs and how we can facilitate that.” Ideally the program will grow to not only serve these individual artists, but the Michigan theatrical community as a whole. The pair envisions their project as a creative “hub,” wherein artists can work through their ideas, theaters can get a taste of new works, and connections can be made to bring more original plays and musicals to stages across Michigan, either in workshop form, or as full-scale productions.

 

The pair insists that sometimes the cost of doing a workshop is one of the barriers that prevents new works from making it to a theater. Workshops provide an opportunity for artists to see how their work is being received by an audience, while still at a point where collaborators can help tweak the production to get it to a more finalized stage. Different audiences composed of different demographics will often have different reactions. Thus, there would be inherent value in workshops around the state to see how a script plays in front of an audience in Traverse City versus Ann Arbor versus Detroit, for example.

 

The residency itself will take place amidst the serenity of Bear Lake, not far, in fact, from the state’s famed performing arts camp at Interlochen. The proximity may lead to additional collaborative opportunities as time goes on. While the quiet and stunning setting should provide an invigorating catalyst for creativity, the duo also desperately wants to tap into the deep theatrical roots and palpable resurgent energy of Detroit as well.

 

On September 13th they are kicking their effort off with a sort of celebration of Michigan theater taking place at the Detroit Opera House. Scheduled events include an exploration of what is meant by the term “emerging artist,” a discussion on the state of theatrical work in Michigan, a reading of the new play, Blind Crest by Monet Hurst-Mendoza, and an evening reception featuring selections from the new musical, Rezoning by Matthew Dean Marsh. The all-day event is free and open to the public (with a suggested donation of $5 per event or $20 for the day). Space is limited, so reservations are highly encouraged.

 

In its initial year, The Mitten Lab will extend opportunities by invitation only. The plan is to welcome three artists in 2016, two of whom will be announced at the kickoff celebration. The program will eventually be open to artists from all across the country to apply, although the Lab will consistently support at least one Michigan artist per year. The program will be aimed at cultivating early career playwrights, theatre composers, lyricists, librettists, choreographers, and performance artists.

 

Many moons ago, Thomas Logan “paid it forward” by investing time and effort into a couple of very young emerging artists at Rising Stars. Now two of them intend to do the same by combining their passion for theater with their love of Michigan. They say that those early years became the foundation for all the kind of theater they want to do. It is essentially community-based theater. By focusing on talented artists and engaged audiences, together anyone who chooses to partake can play their own role in shaping the future of theater in Michigan and beyond.  


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