Debra L. Wicks has been named artistic director of Meadow Brook Theatre, Michigan's major LORT regional theatre in Rochester, MI, 20 miles north of Detroit.
The company is billing 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, has served as interim artistic director of the 35-year-old 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 shows there.
The upcoming 2002-2003 season at Meadow Brook includes such uncontroversial works as Wait Until Dark, Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution and A Christmas Carol (Wicks will direct all three) 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 has 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 will host a visit by Ontario's prestigious Shaw Festival, staging Candida, and will offer the Detroit premiere of a new Dan Goggin Nunsense musical, Meshugga Nuns. Visit Meadow Brook at mbtheatre.com.
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.
— By Kenneth Jones