The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale is not the gay theatre. It’s the unpredictable theatre that prides itself on telling great stories that blur the lines between race, income, religion, and sexuality.
Sure, it’s co-owned by a gay couple, Artistic Director Joe Bailey and Media Director Brandy Joe Plambeck, and while they agree they are the “gayest” theatre in town, Plambeck said “we don’t want to have to be any one thing because we’re more than that. We would rather not have that limitation.”
Yes, there are men who perform in dresses and there is plenty of reverse-gender casting, but they expect their work to continue reaching the widest possible audience as The Ringwald approaches its 10th season.
The theme will be “Essential Ringwald” featuring newly-produced shows that extend and magnify the type of shows Detroit has come to expect from the small theatre located just south of Nine Mile on the east side of Woodward.
Looking back, Bailey said “I really love 99 percent of the stories we have told. It’s great to feel an affinity for something and then share that with people and then see people also get excited by that.”
Picture it, Michigan, 2003. Bailey moved home to Ferndale, tired of living out of a suitcase after a 10-year stage career in Los Angeles, New York and many stops in-between. A mutual friend introduced the budding directors on the road. Something about a Mexican restaurant, liquid courage, a sleazy hotel, and a single red rose brought them together.
Plambeck, originally from Wyoming, studied theatre at the University of Northern Colorado. It has always been a dream of his, he said, to find a place where “you can perform in shows that you love with the people that you love.”
Embarking on a new journey together, Bailey and Plambeck founded Who Wants Cake?, a production company named after an episode of Comedy Central’s “Strangers With Candy” series starring Amy Sedaris.
Their first show, The Normal Heart, staged in June 2005 as a benefit for the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project was performed at the First United Methodist Church in Ferndale. Around the same time, a mysterious man contacted Bailey on Myspace.
“He was a doctor who wanted to open a theatre in Ferndale. He was interested in meeting for coffee,” he said. “It was a quick, half-hour meeting. We looked at a few places. We thought this man is insane, we’ll never hear from him again.”
Bailey was wrong about their soon-to-be silent investor who helped them take possession of a 3,000-square-foot office building for lease in the fall of 2006. With help from members of their perfunctory board at the time – Jamie Warrow, Jamie Richards and Missy Beckwith – the crew took six months to knock out walls and build sets before settling in as Ferndale’s first-ever resident professional theatre company.
No, they’re not a bakery, which Who Wants Cake? was mistaken for on occasion. So they opened their doors as The Ringwald in May 2007 with Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy, a parody of the 1987 movie followed by Southern Baptist Sissies.
Live performance at the theatre had gained momentum. Who Wants Cake? was named the 2008 and 2009 Best Theatre Group in WDIV’s Vote 4 The Best contest and the 2009 Best Theatrical Troupe by Real Detroit.
With not much of a budget for advertising, The Ringwald owes a great deal of their success to word-of-mouth. Their first crowdsource funding effort was an IndieGoGo campaign in August 2015.
Admission has always been around $10 to $20 per person, and support comes from investor loans and private donations. Bailey said they have always had growth in mind. In an effort to expand their donor base The Ringwald just converted to an official non-profit status this year in July.
Hit or Flop?
Reflecting on shows past, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, was surprisingly successful this year in February.
“I was super nervous about doing a three-act play. It’s not that common anymore,” Bailey said about the “kinda wackadoodle” dark comedy.
“I loved it when I read it and it scared me so much when I read it, but I had to do this. We rehearsed, we opened that first weekend and by act three (a musical-operetta), the look on people’s faces were like ‘I don’t know what the fuck that was.’ The show was so expensive to produce, there was music, there were eight people cast in it. I thought it was going to be a huge flop, but people kept coming and coming. It turned out to be a pretty big hit for us.”
Unlike Beaches Be Trippin’ in July 2015.
“We asked around and the younger generation was like ‘what’s Beaches?’ In grade school, it was huge. To this day, it’s huge to me. I thought it was a pop culture phenomenon and lots of people don’t seem to know it,” Plambeck said.
Some shows are less about hilarious production and more about recognition it seems.
The Ringwald audiences tend to scale toward older theatre-goers, but this year in May, Heathers, The Musical was a “big fat hit with the youths,” Plambeck said. “Which was interesting because it’s older than Beaches.”
What the connection is for young people remains a toss up, but Marketing and Special Events Director Vince Kelley said, “maybe it’s refreshing to see people their own age rather than just the same old gays.”
It was the youngest cast since The Ringwald’s performance of Rent in 2009, which was Kelley’s first show. He played the role of Angel while he was still in the closet.
“I don’t want to get too mushy, but I owe The Ringwald a lot…I didn’t have much exposure to the gay scene. I really thought if I came out I would be alone and lose all of my friends and family. I know, so dramatic. I was very Catholic. But in 100 percent honesty, The Ringwald, specifically the Joe’s, showed me what it could mean, what I could have by taking the leap,” he said.
“It just goes back to you never know,” Bailey said about their performance of Speech and Debate in 2008 by Stephen Karam who recently won a Tony Award for The Humans. The Ringwald promoted the show to high school students and received little to no interest. “It’s a beautiful, gorgeous script and we closed the show early because we couldn’t pay people to come see it.”
In their nine-year history, Bailey said they have closed shows early only a couple times.
“It’s a tough call to make when people work so hard,” he said. So how does The Ringwald recover?
“Bring back a more popular show,” Bailey said. Like The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, which had returned by request in July 2012. These over-the-top and at times raunchy parodies have made The Ringwald’s Summer Camp series hugely popular. Shows like LUBE: An Unauthorized Grease’d Up Parody, Mommie Queerest, Debbie Does Dallas – The Musical, and the infamous Thank You for Being a Friend – The Unauthorized Musical Parody of the Golden Girls.
Plambeck admits these aren’t the greatest scripts. When Dyan Bailey (no relation to Joe) wanted to join the board as Creative Director two years ago, she told them “I’d like to encourage more original programming and ownership of what we do. So they said yes.”
The Ringwald does try to do a variety of shows mixing it up with more serious work to keep themselves in good form and to grow as actors. Some of those performances include Three Days of Rain, August: Osage County, Glengarry Glen Ross and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Auditions Are Not A Cake Walk
The Ringwald hosts general auditions throughout the year. It’s common for small theatres to pre-cast or use the same actors in their shows, which Kelley said, “we do a lot, but they have earned their position and work hard. It’s super fun to see people in the community, who we didn’t think would audition, come in and blow us away.”
When auditioning, Plambeck said it’s important to “think outside the box. It’s what we like to do and do often. Rules are meant to be broken, let’s stretch the boundaries.”
So don’t prepare a stodgy old monologue from a 1950’s play. Bailey suggests something more contemporary. “And just know yourself and who you are as a performer,” he said.
Meredith Deighton said she got a really great vibe from The Ringwald during her first audition in 2012. She was selected for the part of Agnes in The Divine Sister. Bailey, who she read with, played the role of her mother.
“The Ringwald has given me an artistic home and a family,” said Deighton, who became the Marketing Director and a member of the ensemble-based board two years ago. “I am constantly fulfilled artistically and as a human. This place is magical. Our team, our family. We honestly create magic.”
The Next Act
The Ringwald will continue its Gay Play Series, started in June 2010, to highlight new gay works in addition to the theater’s already gay-themed productions. The Ringwald will continue to host the annual Detroit Improv Festival as well the hilariously bloody show Evil Dead, The Musical, an October tradition at the City Theatre in Detroit.
Season 10 will debut two new ideas. A series called “Screenplays” on Sunday nights will feature readings of movie scripts like Sixteen Candles, Mr. Mom and 9 to 5. “The Ringwald Sings” will see concert versions of musicals peppered throughout the year. Rumor has it they might open with Annie featuring Bailey as Miss Hannigan. Be on the lookout for “Audience Choice” buckets throughout the season, too. A theatre patron’s money has the power to dictate The Ringwald’s summer performance.
And remember, Bailey said, “Every show isn’t for every person. You can’t be offended. Be open to life and I think you will get the rewards.”