Detroit Public Theatre on new Midtown location: 'We have a beautiful clean slate'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
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By the time the Detroit Public Theatre opens in its new Midtown location next spring, it'll have a 200-seat black box theater, rehearsal space and a bar where co-founder Sarah Winkler hopes they'll also serve English muffins.

There's a reason for that: Their  new building, built in 1919 and located at 3960 Third Avenue, was an English muffin factory at one point.

"We'll have snacks, alcohol and Bays English muffins!" laughs Winkler.

An artist rendering shows what the Detroit Public Theatre's new location on Third Avenue will look like. Exterior renovations have already been completed.

But now, it's a blank slate, said Winkler, and perfect for the growing theater.

"It was really empty, which is great for us," said Winkler. "We have this beautiful clean slate."

The new location, also a former garage just three blocks from their original space inside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall, marks a big milestone for the theater founded in 2015.

With 7,000 square feet, it'll have more seats -- up from a maximum of 150 at DSO to 200 -- and they'll have more time, meaning productions can run longer. 

In the past, "there were a lot of audience members who'd just hear about a show and weren’t able to get a ticket and then the show would close," said co-founder Courtney Burkett.

From left to right, Detroit Public Theater co-founder, Sarah Clare Corporandy stands with co-founder Sarah Winkler; Executive Artistic Producer Dominique Morisseau; co-founder Courtney Burkett. Winkler and Burkett are also producing artistic directors.

DPT also plans to create an artists' residency program at the new theater to support other up and coming arts groups, using a grant. The residency program is about paying it forward to other artists, said Winkler.

"The DSO did it for us," said Burkett. "They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to welcome us into their space like that. They heard what we were trying to do and recognized the value in it. There’s a lot of other artists and work and it’s happening in raw spaces."

The new location comes as Detroit Public Theatre is halfway to a $5 million fundraising campaign, the second half of which will go toward capital costs and hiring more staff. The theater, which has put on more than 20 productions over the last 6 years, also is getting ready for its first commissioned play to hit Broadway next spring, "Birthday Candles."

Winkler -- who co-founded the theater with fellow theater producing artistic directors Burkett and Sarah Clare Corporandy -- said they realized they'd outgrown their space at the DSO about two years ago. They looked at more than 35 buildings and had actually planned to announce their new location last spring when the pandemic hit, forcing them to put things on pause.

"We really needed to slow down and breathe," said Winkler.

But the theater's board decided to move forward with the new building, signing a long-term lease. Winkler and Burkett are grateful they did.

"It was a brave but really intentional decision to go ahead in this time and create this building and this new space," said Winkler. "It was an incredible vote of confidence in the need for theater to be present and visible and essential part of the cultural landscape when we emerge from this pandemic."

Interior renovations will start this summer. The theater should open in spring of 2022.

Burkett said there was a time during the pandemic that some wondered if theater would come back -- ever. Now, she believes that communal experience of live theater will be even more sacred when it does return.

"People are yearning for it," said Burkett.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

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