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 giving back to new artists back in Michigan. They are launching a new theatrical program to boost Michigan’s theatrical community.

It All Starts at Rising Stars

Katherine Carter was just 14 years old, when she met 12-year old Rachel Sussman 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 necessary born there, but their love of the art form surely was. Surrounded by friends and family, they learned the craft at all levels. That included everything 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. That was even true to a couple of young ladies living a fair distance away from Broadway.

The Neon Lights of Broadway

Fast forward to 2015, and we find these childhood friends are now successful professionals in the field they both love. Plus, they are still collaborating. Carter is a director and Sussman is a producer. 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.

The Mitten Lab

To boost Michigan’s theatrical community, 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 such 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 boost Michigan’s theatrical community, as a whole. The pair envisions their project as a creative hub, wherein artists can work through their ideas. Theaters will get a taste of new works. These connections will help bring more original plays and musicals to stages across Michigan. Some will be in workshop form, while others, full-scale productions.

The Value of Workshops

The pair insists that sometimes the cost of doing a workshop is a big barrier. Cost 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. Then, 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 Location

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.

Kick-off Event

On September 13th they are kicking their effort off with a sort of celebration of Michigan theater. It takes place at the Detroit Opera House. There will be an exploration of what is meant by the term “emerging artist.” Another discussion will focus on the state of local theatrical work and how to boost Michigan’s theatrical community. The event will also incluse a reading of the new play, Blind Crest by Monet Hurst-Mendoza. The evening reception features 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.

Future Plans

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. They are focusing on talented artists and engaged audiences. Learn more about the Michigan’s theatrical community by visiting our Arts page.

Author: Lisa Diggs

Lisa Diggs is a writer, speaker, entrepreneur, business consultant, avid traveler, and founder of The Catalyst Company, LLC, Michigan Positivity Project, and Buy Michigan Now.