Arts & Entertainment
It's a golden time for the Detroit Repertory Theatre
Founders look back as theater opens 50th anniversary season
By Donald V. Calamia
Originally printed 11/1/2007 (Issue 1544 - Between The Lines News)
FIFTY YEARS OF THE DETROIT REPERTORY THEATRE'
This past week, BTL sat down with three founders of the Detroit Repertory Theatre to discuss the troupe's 50th anniversary. Part one of the interview, focusing on the group's early formation, appears today. Part two, appearing next week, will examine the Rep's last 40 years and plans for the future.
DETROIT - Quick: Name the area's oldest, continuously-operating professional theater company. The BoarsHead? Nope; it was established in 1966. Meadow Brook? Wrong again; that young upstart has been around only since 1968.
No, the correct answer is the Millan Children's Theatre, better known today as the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Although the urban-based company is often upstaged for attention by its younger, flashier siblings, the theater has reached a milestone few will ever reach. For this week the Rep opens its 50th anniversary season with three of its founders still involved in its day-to-day operations.
"I didn't want that name," the still feisty co-founder, artistic and managing director Bruce E. Millan recalled last week, "but they made me put my name on it. I've kind of regretted that ever since."
Over the years, the Rep, as it is affectionately known, has developed a strong and faithful customer base that is drawn to the theater not only because of the shows it produces, but also because of its race-and-ethnicity-blind casting. It's a cornerstone of the theater's philosophy - and one that not universally accepted. But following the crowd has never been the theater's strong suit. Instead, Millan and co-founders Barbara Busby and Dee Andrus have spent half a century blazing trails few have dared to follow - the result of which is a beloved, award-winning cultural institution that has so far survived a damaging storm, a riot, financial setbacks, an unusual lawsuit and a devastating fire. And probably more than a few prima donnas.
The early years
Today, the theater company - which sits in a desolate Detroit neighborhood near the intersection of the Lodge and Davison Freeways - owns three buildings and several parcels of land that the founders hope will one day sprout a new administrative office and a children's theater. In the mid-1950s, however, a career in the theater was not on Millan's agenda when he got out of the army. Instead, he took advantage of the GI Bill and headed to college. It was through two roommates - one of whom was in theater - that Millan met his future partners. And that's when the lure of the greasepaint first took hold.
"We discovered we had three things that we were mutual about," Millan said of Busby and Andrus. "One is that we didn't have any appreciation for what professional theater was doing, and we were not pleased with where society was going. And we did NOT appreciate the fact that they weren't reaching a lot of the audience we felt needed reaching."
Children's theater - which the three felt taught young people the wrong message - was particularly offensive to the young artists. "We decided we couldn't produce that type of stuff," Busby said. "So Bruce then began to write music drama for kids. And that's when we started touring."
Their first effort was almost their last, however.
"We put together our first show, 'The Invisible Indian Chief,' at the old Northland Tent Theatre. We put it all together on a Saturday afternoon, and we put every last penny we had into it - about $125," Millan laughed. "But on the day of the show, there was a huge windstorm, and it blew the tent down. We went back the next week, but it wasn't the same. We played to a very small audience in a very large tent."
Luckily, the trio did not view the storm as a harbinger of bad things to come. "We WERE intent to go on," Busby said.
And they did.
Right from the start, the fledging theater practiced what it preached. And, as you might expect, pre-Civil Rights-era Detroit was not ready for mixed-race casts. "Children are much more willing to (suspend their disbelief) than their parents," said Busby.
Or their teachers.
Breaking into the Detroit market, which was dominated by Wayne State University at the time, proved difficult. "They were doing children's theater all wrong, from our perspective," Millan laughed. "So I went out personally to the suburbs and started selling. I got (them) all interested, but they booked more Wayne State. We were an unknown."
Their fortunes changed, however, when Irma Wertz - the first black president of the Council of PTAs - expressed interest in their shows. "Irma heard good things (about us) - and I'm sure one of the things she heard about was the mixed company," Millan said. "She sent out some members to see what we were doing. All I can say is, with a lot of braggadocio, that we suddenly became one of the larger theaters for children in the Midwest."
Still, there was resistance. "I can't say that we were accepted," Millan said. "But we weren't necessarily rejected. It didn't matter to kids if Hans Brinker's father was white and Hans was black and so forth. They still had wooden shoes on."
End of innocence
Good fortunes turned sour after the theater became a charter member of the League of Resident Theatres and was the first in the country to receive a federal grant by the Secondary Education Act of 1965 for a three-year residency in the Detroit Public Schools. "The school system banded against us, and did everything they could to get us out. And they were eventually successful," Millan said.
The battle was over choice of plays. "The English Department insisted on making the choices. And they were terrible," Millan said.
One play, the "Living Text, Opus I: Reconstruction" - which featured three black actors and two whites, sometimes playing characters of the opposite race - was rejected by every junior and senior high school in the district except for one - the mostly-black Webber Junior High. "We went there, and to this day, it was one of the most fantastic responses," Millan recalled, "because here was something happening that had never happened in their lives - people on stage that related to them, that they understood. It was overwhelming."
A school janitor, a black man, approached Millan after the show. "'How did you know?' That's all he said. Obviously, that's stuck with me all these years."
The school district relented, and the show toured to 80 locations in 85 days. "And the reactions never varied," Millan said.
But a new superintendent the next school year cancelled the program. "He said it was a waste of time."
The company toured throughout Michigan, Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania, eventually playing to more than 300,000 people over a ten year period.
And then came the 1967 riot - which changed everything.Next week: The Detroit Rep is born - and on to the future.