Will Michigan's LORT Meadow Brook Theatre Become a Commercial House?

News   Will Michigan's LORT Meadow Brook Theatre Become a Commercial House? The Detroit area's major resident Equity house, Meadow Brook Theatre, may become a commercial venue after almost 40 years, possibly impacting programming and opportunities for resident theatre artists, Playbill On-Line has learned.

Meadow Brook staff members were told April 30 that at a 2 PM May 1 meeting of the board of trustees of Oakland University (the academic institution that operates the not-for-profit LORT house in Rochester, MI) a proposal will be discussed to lease the 600-seat facility to a new company headed by Joseph Nederlander. A vote on the proposal may come as soon as next week.

It is thought Meadow Brook would no longer be a producing organization, and that the potential commercial arrangement would be similar to an arrangement that handed over Meadow Brook Musical Festival, a summer outdoor concert series, to Palace Entertainment, the commercial outfit that books the nearby sports/concert facility the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The likely scenario is that a commercial producer would try to book small tours or specially-produced product into the space, targeting the oprhaned Meadow Brook subscribers (the subscribership numbers in the thousands). The guarantee of a rental income would be attractive to the university.

It's not clear what would happen to Meadow Brook employees in the next season. Observers suggest the change might mean the loss of job opportunities for local actors and that the fare might become less riksy and more commercial, although some say in recent seasons Meadow Brook has not broken much artistic ground, offering such works as The Female Odd Couple and the current Nunsense sequel, Meshuggah-Nuns.

The theatre was established in the 1960s to offer classics and the kinds of works that were being seen in the then-growing regional theatre movement. Local actors as well as out-of-town performers were routinely used over the years; recently, local players have had a larger presence there. Like most regional theatres, the theory of Meadow Brook was that it would offer works that could not be seen at the popular commercial touring houses operated by the Nederlander family, which started its international theatrical empire in the Motor City. After John Fernald ran the company into a deficit in the late 1960s, new artistic director Terence Kilburn programmed safe commercial works, and any deviation from that by him or his successors was rarely met with audience approval, though critics embraced some risks. A commercial producer might actually have the media savvy and budget to promote risky, Off-Broadway or new titles, perhaps luring a whole new crowd to the theatre.

The theatre would likely remain a union house if a major producer were running the show, but at press time Playbill On-Line was not able to learn more about the possible future of Meadow Brook, located in the affluent suburbs some 20 miles north of the city limits of Detroit.

Commercial players in Detroit have long sought a medium-sized house for more intimate works (whether populist or risky) than offered at the cavernous Detroit venues. The Gem and Century Theatres downtown have filled that void in the past 10 years (Forbidden Broadway, Shear Madness, The All Nite Strut! have all played there), but a reinvented Meadow Brook may serve as a suburban answer.

The loss of the old Meadow Brook leaves Michigan without a LORT house, and the Detroit area with Jewish Ensemble Theatre, Plowshares Theatre Company, Detroit Repertory Theatre, Performances Network, Purple Rose Theatre Company and scattered other venues or presenters as the only Equity players in a diverse and diffuse theatre community. One actor told Playbill On-Line that the potential loss of Meadow Brook as an employer of local talent leaves the talent pool with a feeling of no place to graduate to after working at some of the smaller or university theatres.

Meadow Brook was bruised in recent years by the loss of groundbreaking artistic director Geoffrey Sherman, who said he was quitting after his contract was not extended to his liking, and the sudden exit of Debra Wicks, his successor, in fall 2002. The operation has been guided since last fall by artistic advisor Tony Schmidt.

Meadow Brook's fall season has not been made public.