An unexpected success: Detroit Public Theatre
Housed in the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, the Detroit Public Theatre just wrapped up its first season of four productions, culminating with Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ‘67.” The three women who founded the Public — Courtney Burkett, Sarah Clare Corporandy, and Sarah Winkler — sat down at a Midtown coffeehouse recently to discuss the ups and downs of starting a theater from scratch.
Q: Why a new theater in Detroit?
Winkler: There are wonderful little theaters doing really edgy, great work, but Detroit doesn’t have the equivalent of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, or the Cleveland Playhouse. In those cities, smaller theaters and storefronts thrived with a large anchor institution.
Q: Have you done this sort of thing before?
Burkett: For five years, I was director of theater programs at Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre.
Corporandy: And I’m the managing director at the Chautauqua Theater in New York State, as well as working here.
Why a “Public Theater?”
Q: Winkler: We named ourselves that because we have a long-term dream of doing what the Public Theatre in New York does — incubating and encouraging new work and smaller organizations.
Q: Will you commission work like New York’s Public?
Corporandy: We’re not quite there yet.
Burkett: But we’re talking about a play-reading series, creating space where we can hear new voices.
Q: Your audience grew over the year, with “Detroit ‘67,” which sold out six times. What are Detroit audiences like?
Winkler: Loving — and sophisticated. There was a lot of swearing in our plays. After “Sex with Strangers,” an elderly woman made a beeline for me, wagging her finger. She didn’t look happy. I was terrified. But she said, “If you keep producing theater like this, you’re going to need a bigger space!”
Burkett: Our audience has been a thrilling discovery. They meet us in the lobby. They drive in from Flint. And there’s a lot of age diversity, which even New York struggles with.
Q: And economic diversity?
Winkler: Quicken Loans and St. John Providence Hospital sponsored 150 pay-what-you-want tickets for “Detroit ‘67.” We wanted to do that for every show, but didn’t get the funding ’till then.
Q: What percentage of your seats do you sell?
Winkler: We were very conservative. We estimated 30 percent our first year. But it ended up being 60 percent.
Q: What was the most unpleasant surprise?
Winkler: How hard building an audience was — and we’ve been very successful. But I was unprepared for the time and energy and bake-sale efforts involved, like calling senior centers to get the word out that we exist. Because nobody knew we were here.
Corporandy: At Chautauqua, I have a staff of 112. Here we’re all producer, artistic director, production manager, literary manager, casting director, mover, truck driver and laundry person.
Q: And the nicest surprise?
Winkler: Just being incubated by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in this incredible space.
Burkett: When Dominique Morisseau let us do her “Detroit ‘67,” she asked if we’d do it in collaboration with Center Stage in Baltimore — a very prominent theater with an incredible artistic director. We wondered, “Can we dance with these partners?” But we did.
Corporandy: It’s this beautiful mentorship. At the end, their artistic director said, “I want you to know that this mentorship extends beyond this production.”
Winkler: Dominique has been an advocate like nobody’s business. Our fondest wish is that we’ll get to do her whole cycle of Detroit plays.
Detroit Public Theatre 2016-2017 season
“Murder Ballad” — Sept. 28-Oct. 23
“Dot” — Nov. 16-Dec. 11
“The Holler Sessions” — Feb. 1-Feb. 26
“The Harassment of Iris Malloy” — May 3-May 28
Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets: $45 — Friday, Saturday $35; Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday $30; over 60 $30, under 35 $20