After 36 years, Michigan's LORT Meadow Brook Theatre Closes; New Group Emerges

News   After 36 years, Michigan's LORT Meadow Brook Theatre Closes; New Group Emerges After 36 years as a cultural arm of Oakland University in Rochester, MI, Meadow Brook Theatre — Michigan's only League of Resident Theatres house, the largest Equity troupe in the state — was dissolved by a June 4 vote of the school's board of trustees, who agreed to allow a new group to operate in the 600-seat space.

A grassroots group known as The Committee to Save Meadow Brook Theatre emerged since May 1 with a proposal to counter an offer that commercial producer Joseph Nederlander had given the board. Nederlander had proposed taking over the space and the coveted five-figure mailing list of Meadow Brook and booking commercial product there.

Citing fears that local artists would be shut out of the possible new venture and that commercial rather than artistic or cultural works would be seen, the alternative group proposed creating a new not-for-profit troupe that would operate similarly to other American regional theatres.

In recent weeks, Nederlander withdrew his proposal. On June 4, the board voted unanimously to rent the space to the new committee-created Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble.

Although some local news reports have suggested the committee's efforts had saved Meadow Brook Theatre, what's really happening is that Meadow Brook Theatre is effectively being cleared away — it loses its university funding and the staffers all lose their jobs — by July 1, when the still-nascent company takes up a five-year residence at Wilson Hall on the campus.

Shannon Locke, an area Equity actress who has worked at Meadow Brook and was on the Committee to Save Meadow Brook Theatre, admitted that the summer will be daunting. The first task is to win not-for-profit status so that the business structure of the new group can start. Meadow Brook's budget in recent years has been about $3 million. The troupe hopes to "streamline" its budget but still mount as many as seven works beginning in September or October. Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble has committed to 30 producing weeks, per the university contract.

Technically, the group has no money. There are pledges of about $70,000, which cannot be accessed until the not-for-profit status is achieved. The committee, whose chair is a Meadow Brook stage manager named Sarah Warren, engaged a lawyer and an accountant who are helping (pro bono) lay the groundwork for the new troupe.

David L. Regal, a respected Detroit actor, director and theatre professor who has worked at Meadow Brook under all of its artistic directors, has been asked to be artistic advisor to the new group, though the company is so young that titles are not yet assigned.

Regal told Playbill On-Line that Actors' Equity has been supportive and may allow Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble to be flexible about its LORT status until its feet are on the ground. The troupe will remain linked to Equity and IATSE, Locke and Regal said.

Locke, a Meadow Brook actress in recent years, said the company would continue the annual Meadow Brook tradition of A Christmas Carol (a cash-cow for the company) and there would be student outreach shows (another form of revenue). Regal said the season's shows would be a mix of new, old, classic and traditional fare, with some experimentation along the way. It's expected the company will be conservative in its first season, offering small-cast plays.

Subscriptions would be sold, bringing in some money, but corporate donors and private angels have not yet emerged, leaving industry folk wondering how $3 million (or even $1 million) will appear in three months' time.

"Nothing is solid yet," Locke admitted. "We are smart enough to know we don't have it all figured out yet, but we have a solid core of people. We have to start from the bottom and work up. We don't have anything tangible. All of our efforts were to get the proposal made."

The university will charge the company $1,000 in weekly rent, and expects at least 30 production weeks. The new troupe is self-sufficient and handles all aspects of its operation, and the theatre has no say in artistic programming. The $320,000 accumulated debt of the old Meadow Brook was being handled by the university.

The agreement between the university and the new ensemble includes a relationship between the company and the school's undergraduate theatre program. Regal has 30 years of experience running The Theatre Company of the University of Detroit Mercy, a program that brings together students and professionals. Critics have acclaimed that troupe's works, staged 20 miles south in the city of Detroit.

Regal said that the five-year agreement stipulates the new company and the university cannot compete for funders, and that the university must approve the troupe's donor pursuits.

To view a website created by The Committee to Save Meadow Brook Theatre, visit savemeadowbrooktheatre.org.

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I recent months, Meadow Brook was viewed as a regional theatre in serious decline. Saddled with a six-figure debt, the compnay lost its artistic director in 2002, when Debra L. Wicks suddenly resigned less than a year after she was named to the post. Tony Schmidt, a retired director-professor who worked at Detroit's Wayne State University, staging shows and teaching in the graduate Hilberry Theatre program, served as Meadow Brook's "artistic advisor" since the fall.

"Among other things, he is reviewing scripts for next season along with input from management and staff," a spokesperson told Playbill On-Line in February. Any work he did disappears with the end of Meadow Brook as it was known.

No formal search for a new artistic director had been announced, signaling to some that the university was going to abandon the theatre. Wicks' absence due to personal reasons was sudden and Schmidt was brought in to make sure there was "continuity in operations."

Karim Alrawi, Wicks' husband, served three seasons as playwright-in-residence ending with 2002. Wicks directed the recent Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of bee-luther-hatchee.

Meadow Brook saw increases in subscriptions and group sales for the 2002-03 season.

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Debra L. Wicks was named artistic director of Meadow Brook Theatre, Michigan's major LORT regional theatre in Rochester, MI, in May 2002.

The company billed her as the first African-American woman to be appointed as artistic director of a major American regional theatre company.

Wicks, an actress, director and teacher, previously served as interim artistic director of Meadow Brook since June 1999, when Geoffrey Sherman, who brought her aboard, left after his contract was renewed for only one more season. Sherman said at the time that the short renewal showed a lack of faith in him on the part of the administration at Oakland University, which operates the theatre as a non-profit cultural program. He said he decided to leave partly due to the pressure to present conservative, conventional shows there.

The 2002-2003 season at Meadow Brook included such uncontroversial works as Wait Until Dark, Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution and A Christmas Carol and The Foreigner (all of which have been staged by the company in previous seasons).

Wicks is only the fourth artistic director in 25 years at Meadow Brook. Before Sherman, there was Terence Kilburn (1970-94) and John Fernald (1967-70). She has worked nationally and internationally for more than 20 years as an actress and director. She served as MBT's associate director and associate artistic director 1997-99, and made her MBT stage debut as a lusty Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.

In addition to traditional fare such as The Female Odd Couple, Murder on the Nile, Godspell and Pump Boys and Dinettes under her recent leadership, new works such as Killing Time, A Gift of Glory and Chagall's Arabian Nights (all three by her playwright husband) were staged at MBT. She also gave the Detroit area major productions of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan and Bee-luther-hatchee. She spearheaded the Outreach Program at MBT, serving thousands of schoolchildren.

Wicks has also directed for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Repertory Theatre and Northlight Theatre, among other places. She has taught acting, directing and creative dramatics at the University of Missouri, Iowa State University, Penn State University and Oakland University. She received her MFA in acting and directing from Lindenwood College and BA in speech and theatre from Fontbonne College.

In the 2002-2003 season, Meadow Brook hosted a visit by Ontario's prestigious Shaw Festival, staging Candida, and offered the Detroit premiere of a new Dan Goggin Nunsense musical, Meshugga Nuns.

Observers in the Detroit community rolled their eyes when plays such as The Female Odd Couple and Meshuggah Nuns were presented, saying the fare was industinguishable from commercial houses — the kind of plays the Nederlanders would program.

Visit Meadow Brook at mbtheatre.com.

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When he began as artistic director of Meadow Brook in 1995, Geoffrey Sherman told the OU administration that it would take six years to erase a debt, build a bigger audience and grow in reputation, "and I still believe that," he said in spring 1999.

Sherman had a three-year contract that was extended in 1998 by only one year. He suggested the short extension showed a lack of faith in him, and he knew it was time to investigate his wish to continue writing and free lance directing for the stage and TV. He would later direct in the Detroit community.

Associate artistic director Debra L. Wicks remained interim artistic director during a national search for Sherman's successor (which turned out to be her).

Meadow Brook has since shyed away from "controversial" or "intellectual" plays such as What the Butler Saw, Arcadia, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Three Tall Women, works produced during Sherman's tenure.

"I felt, in terms of audience response, the [large] number of people who didn't come to see Merry Wives of Windsor told me that the sort of artistic policy that I wanted to pursue wouldn't fly as high as I wanted to here," Sherman said.

He added, "If people aren't willing to come along for the ride, I need to find somewhere where people are willing to come along for the ride."

Since his first season in 1995-96, Sherman helped establish aggressive audience development measures and more contemporary artistic programming following 24 years under Terence Kilburn, who kept a low profile but satisfied his crowds — and packed them in — with revivals of Neil Simon, Agatha Christie and classics.

The first artistic director, John Fernald, reigned 1967-70, long enough to put the theatre in a debt that Kilburn's programming of popular mainstream shows erased. A debt began again in Kilburn's later tenure, during the recession.

In Sherman's four years, Meadow Brook presented its first work by an African-American author (August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, directed by Wicks), embraced other minority or multicultural projects such as I Am a Man and Thunder Knocking on the Door and encouraged more communication between the professional theatre and the undergraduate theatre department of Oakland University, where Meadow Brook is located.

Also in Sherman's time, Meadow Brook established measures that are the norm at other major LORT companies around the country: Membership in the industry group called Theatre Communications Group (TCG), newsletters, talkbacks, a telephone comment line, "younger" shows such as The Rocky Horror Show, Off-Broadway-style work such as Three Tall Women, rentals to other professional theatre companies during the off-season and steps toward a "second stage" where edgier work — such as his lauded 1998 New Studio Company staging Angels in America: Millennium Approaches — could be explored, free of the fears of subscribers. The New Studio Company, a hybrid of students and Meadow Brook Equity actors, returned in May 1999 with a staging of Terrence McNally's Master Class, at Varner Studio Theatre, across campus from the mainstage.

Also during his time at Meadow Brook, an educational outreach program began, a community advisory board was formed and the theatre's first development director was hired.

He said at the time that he chose to not offer suggestions for the 1999-2000 season at Meadow Brook.

Prior to working at the 584-seat LORT B Meadow Brook, the British-born Sherman was producing artistic director of Portland Repertory Theatre in Oregon and the Hudson Guild Theatre in New York City.

Sherman was recently named artistic director of BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing, MI.