Detroit Public Theatre gets going with ‘American Hero’

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Securing funding and finding a home are major, sometimes insurmountable challenges for fledgling theater companies. But with $200,000 in fundraising capital and a home in the Max M. Fisher Music Center, the Detroit Public Theatre has slain both those dragons at the start of just its first season.

That’s thanks to the theater’s seasoned co-artistic directors Sarah Winkler and Courtney Burkett, who have diverse management experience between them in Detroit and New York theater companies. Burkett is a mostly lifelong metro-area resident, while Winkler is a recent arrival from New York. But they agreed on one thing: Detroit was ripe for an off-Broadway-level theater.

“There is really edgy, exciting, beautiful theater happening here,” Winkler says. “But in order for that theater that is happening here to get attention, I think we need an anchor cultural institution.”

To jumpstart that dream of creating a new center for Detroit theater, Winkler exercised her considerable fundraising expertise. During her stint as development director of New York’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, the company’s annual budget grew from $300,000 to $1.3 million.

“There were a lot of really generous people who were excited about this idea,” Winkler says. “We’ve had people step forward and say, ‘This is something important that the city needs and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is to make it happen.’ ”

Through a connection with Detroit Symphony Orchestra board member Xavier Mosquet, Burkett and Winkler found a home within a preexisting Detroit cultural institution. The DPT will occupy the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall at the Max, although organizers have had to do considerable prep work on the space, including installing seating risers.

“It’s been used for some events and parties and things, but it’s never been a theater,” Burkett says.

The DPT will break the space in with its first show, “American Hero,” which runs Friday through Nov. 22. The show is a dark comedy about three “sandwich artists” at a strip-mall sub shop who must keep their store open when their manager mysteriously goes missing and supplies begin to run low. The employees begin to draw widespread attention with what Winkler describes as their “homemade, totally rogue sandwiches.”

Earlier this year, DPT organizers staged readings of “American Hero” and several other plays they were considering for the theater’s inaugural season with a group of local actors and directors. Although “Hero” playwright Bess Wohl is not from Detroit, Winkler says the Detroiters who read the play responded intensely to it as a metaphor for their city.

“Detroiters have been doing it all along, keeping their city going, just staying open, and there’s this culty national attention on the city now,” Winkler says. “Everybody’s looking at it and thinking, ‘That’s sort of sexy.’ And (Detroiters) are like, ‘We’ve been here. We’ve been doing this.’ ”

Some of the DPT’s other offerings over the 2015-2016 season will have even more direct connections to Detroit. “From Broadway To Obscurity” is a one-man show by native Detroiter Eric Gutman, and “Detroit ’67” is set in the city during the 1967 race riots.

Burkett says she loves making theater for and about Detroit because the human experience here is “unique from many other communities.”

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done and I just can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says. “I’ve tried other places and I can’t. I have to make plays and I have to live here. Those are the two things I know in my bones.”

‘American Hero’

Friday through Nov. 22

8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays

Allesee Hall

3711 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $20-$45

(313) 576-5111