Meadow Brook Theatre, Michigan's only LORT house, will lose its artistic director, Geoffrey Sherman, in June 1999 after four seasons.
Sherman told Playbill On-Line that despite his efforts to bring new programming and ideas to the company, the audience and his colleagues at the theatre -- a cultural program of Oakland University in suburban Rochester, MI -- hunger for "a more conservative diet" of works that he cannot provide.
Sherman said he made his intention of leaving known last year, but it was announced only this week. When he began in 1995 he 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." The theatre had a small surplus going into the 1998-99 season, he said.
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.
Associate artistic director Debra L. Wicks will become interim artistic director during a national search for Sherman's successor. It is thought that Meadow Brook will likely shy 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. Several of his works, and works during his tenure, won awards. "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.
Subscribership dropped by perhaps 1,000 since Sherman began in 1995, Sherman said, but single ticket sales are the highest in the theatre's history.
Annual attendance at Meadow Brook, the flagship theatre of Detroit's small and struggling professional community, is about 110,000. "We had people in their 20s and 30s who came into the theatre, some for the first time," Sherman said of the iconoclastic What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton.
In Sherman's four years, Meadow Brook presented its first work by an African-American author (August Wilson's The Piano Lesson), 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, returns 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.
Sherman said he's had offers from other theatres, he said, but his aim might be westward, to ward film and television work. He's been an artistic director for 12 years. He said 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