Winds of change at Detroit Repertory Theatre as Bruce Millan retires
The Detroit Repertory Theatre, which bills itself as the oldest alternative professional theater in Michigan, is entering a period of transition. While no date has been set, its longtime artistic director and co-founder, Bruce Millan — who helped launch the company in 1957 — has announced he's begun planning for his retirement.
When that happens, Leah Smith, the Rep's marketing and development director, will step into his considerable shoes. The Detroit News spoke with Millan and Smith at the theater last week:
So why haven't you set a date for your retirement?
Millan: I won't retire until we make a complete transition in personnel. When the recession hit, everything was cut. So now we're rebuilding, and trying to reestablish all the positions necessary to run the theater.
How old were you when the theater started?
Millan: I think I was about 23. (He turns to Smith.) Don't look at me!
Smith: But you'd already done a couple years in the service, and a couple years in baseball. You were actually older.
Millan: Oh, I guess I was about 26.
You were in baseball?
Millan: I signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs to play shortstop on their farm team, but it didn't last very long because I got drafted into the Korean War.
When you started this company in the late 1950s, who were the other co-founders?
Millan: My ex-wife Barbara Busby, Dee and Rip T.O. Andrus, and Margot and Cliff Ammon.
Why'd you guys launch a theater troupe?
Millan: We were going to change the world. We were a professional children's theater originally and toured Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and western Pennsylvania. We stopped being a children's theater about 1966.
Why a kids' theater?
Millan: We looked around at theater for children, and thought it was terrible.
When did you settle down in your present space on Woodrow Wilson?
Millan: About 1963 or 1964.
You developed a reputation early on as an unusually progressive company. Why?
Millan: Well, we were a racially mixed company, which upset a whole lot of people. We went into schools and performed. But the suburbs didn't want a mixed company, so eventually we stopped that.
Were you rejected by whites and African-Americans?
Millan: There was a little of both. But there were some people who were in support, who believed in an amalgamation of different people.
You're famous for your color-blind casting.
Millan: I don’t call it that. We cast naturally. We cast the best person for the part, irrespective of race. I was an integrationist. I was even called a beatnik. We were renowned nationally as a pioneer in what Equity called "non-traditional theater."
Give me an early example.
Millan: We did a play for schools, "The Living Text," about the Civil War and Reconstruction. The judge was black, and the slave was white. And it exploded.
City schools we'd toured refused to let us put it on, except for one junior high. Newspapers wouldn't write about it. It wouldn't ever have been talked about were it not for the author Julius Novick, who was impressed and included it in his book, "Beyond Broadway."
What sort of work attracts you?
Millan: I've always been interested in plays with strong social messages, and stuck with that. We did "Of Mice and Men," and a lot of plays by the South African writer Athol Fugard (author of "Master Harold and the Boys") who wrote about apartheid.
This neighborhood got hit hard during the 1967 disturbances, didn't it?
Millan: Yes. The street was burning up, and the theater became a rallying point. Neighbors came here, and nobody touched our theater. We actually went out and tried to put fires out. Tanks were rolling down the street.
Who are some of the great actors who've worked here?
Millan: Council Cargle was one. He died in 2013 just before auditions for "A Thousand Circlets," and was really excited about auditioning.
Another would be Sandra Love Aldridge (who appeared in the 2016 "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice"). She's still around, acting and directing. Another is Harold Uriah Hogan (who appeared in the Rep's 2018 "Harmony Park").
Smith: And Curtis Vondie Hall, whom most people would know from TV's "Chicago Hope." Also Keegan-Michael Key on Comedy Central.
Millan: Yes, he's become something of a star. I've always thought of us being part of a farm system. A lot of actors got their start here and have gone on to other places.
What's the Rep's annual budget?
Millan: About $500,000, which is below a whole lot of places.
How are you doing financially?
Millan: The Repertory is always going to lose money — but it loses money wisely. The arts, by their very nature — we’re not here to make money. The arts need to be patronized. Michelangelo needed patronage. Unfortunately, the arts in Detroit have lost a lot of support.
What's your next production?
Millan: "The House on Poe Street" (opens Jan. 10), which is about how women are rethinking how they see the world.
Are there any other local theaters you particularly admire?
Millan: I admire all of them — for the guts to try.
'Evidence of Things Unseen'
Through Dec. 23
Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit
Tickets: $17 in advance; $20 at door or online