by GERARD BREITENBECK
Since 1966, Meadow Brook Theatre has worked to be, “Michigan’s Answer to Broadway.” To Director Travis Walter, this means producing new plays, employing top-flight acting talent, and utilizing innovative methods of production.
For the next four weeks, the stage is set for The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. “It is a wonderful drama which played offBroadway a few years ago and is written by Steven Levenson, who is represented on Broadway currently by his show, Dear Evan Hansen, and offBroadway with his show, If I Forget,” Travis Walter explains. “He is really an up-and-coming playwright with great insight into the human condition.”
Every season, Meadow Brook Theatre produces seven shows (not counting their “Children’s Series,” which contributes seven shows of its own). As one of three members of the theater’s play selection committee, Travis Walter is eager to underline Meadow Brook’s commitment to showcasing new work. According to Walter, “everyone is producing the same three Shakespeare plays, the same two Eugene O’Neill plays.”
This season, Meadow Brook’s plays have run the gamut from Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, to Altar Boyz– a musical satire about a Christian boy band in the grips of an existential crisis. Next season’s titles promise another mix of mysteries, comedies, musicals and dramas, which are, like this season, distinctive for their novelty.
“We are very fortunate that we have an audience that is very willing to see new works,” Travis Walter says.
Sometimes that means very new works. For example, the Robert Lorick musical Johnny Manhattan will be work-shopped and produced at Meadow Brook this September in anticipation of securing funding to open on Broadway. As Walter explains, “We are extremely excited… We were approached by the authors and producers because they had heard that we are a great place to try-out a new show.” Lorick, who died last January, is known for writing the Tony-award winning, The Tap Dance Kid, while the music for Johnny Manhattan is composed by Nunsense creator and Meadow Brook Theatre board member, Dan Goggin.
Beyond finding and attracting new and interesting plays, turning those plays into the full-scale productions you can witness inside their 584-seat theater space, is a remarkable task.
“We rehearse six days a week,” explains Terry Carpenter, Associate Director and Stage Manager. “Straight plays might have close to 100 hours of rehearsal spread over sixteen days… We have a full-time set shop during the season – technical director, shop foreman, two carpenters and a part-time scenic artist. In the prop and costume shops and lighting & sound departments there are eight technicians as well as eight interns…”
It’s a team that speaks effusively of one another and of their shared mission. “I love where I work,” says Properties Director, Kristen Gribbin. “We really work together to create the best shows that we can. I know that sounds a little silly, but we are a family, and it’s that shared passion for putting on good work that makes coming into work every day a joy.”
And it’s work that the greater Rochester community has played an integral part in, not only through their patronage and monetary donations, but also by donating costumes, set pieces, and props.
“We’ve had many generous donations while I’ve been here,” Gribbin recalls, “that are perfect for an upcoming show, [which have] immediately made it onto the stage–curio cabinets and coffee tables. Unfortunately, because of our limited storage, [although] many people have offered us very generous items–an antique piano or a Victorian settee–we just don’t have the space… and I end up having to turn the object down.”
Meadow Brook’s enthusiasm for innovation and artistry is also evident with talent like current Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin star Doreen Bass, (featured in cult films such as It Follows, Kill the Irishman). “We bring in actors, performers, designers and choreographers from across the country to take part in our little piece of Broadway in Michigan,” explains Development Director, Andrea Walker-Leidy.
Part of that attraction is the work they produce, and part of it is the commitment to finding innovative ways to produce it. Regarding a recent adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, Director Travis Walter explains how “we started the second act with a deluge of an 8-minute rain shower on the stage. The audience was in awe trying to figure out how it was done. We had an 1,100-gallon tank of water that was treated, recycled, heated and pumped up to the ceiling and the system had a new design by Brian Kessler, our Technical Director, so that it didn’t just pour down in streams…we needed it to look like real rain so it needed to be randomized droplets. I can’t give away the magic of his invention, but it was truly awe inspiring.”
It’s clear that the people who work at Meadow Brook Theatre are proud of what they are doing with the state’s largest professional theater. Not simply that they should manage to provide southeast Michigan with spectacle, but that they are committed to finding, or creating, whatever it is a play needs to reach its full potential.
“We may not have the same budget,” Walter admits, “…but many of our patrons have told us that they have seen the same plays on Broadway and have liked our production better than the one in NYC.”
The team at Meadow Brook continues to draw accolades for providing high-quality productions right down the road in Rochester. Visit mbtheatre.com for tickets and see for yourself.