Theater Update: Meadow Brook Theatre
It’s official: Meadow Brook’s ‘first’ season is one for the record books
An interesting phenomenon developed last year moments after Meadow Brook Theatre severed its ties from Oakland University.
Although most within the state’s professional theater community vocally expressed support for the financially strapped organization, a few seemed to delight in quietly spreading rumors of impending doom. Backstage squabbles and unpopular management decisions became the grist that kept rumormongers busy, and one particularly insidious rumor predicted the demise of the theater by season’s end.
David Regal and John M. Manfredi had the last laugh, however.
“This is the first time in seven years that we came out in the black,” Regal, MBT’s artistic director, told BTL last week.
But not by much.
With Theatre Communications Group reporting that slightly more than half of all theaters with a budget of $1 million or more lost money last year, MBT’s financial status comes as good news.
“We’re in the minority by the fact that we made our dollar and a half,” said Manfredi, the troupe’s managing director,” but we’re only in the black by thousands of dollars, not tens of thousands.”
Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that MBT is now fiscally trouble-free. That is especially true as the cost of doing business continues to rise.
“We’re walking a thin line still, and we’ll continue to do so,” Manfredi said.
Looking back at last season
Neither Regal nor Manfredi are particularly bothered by the gossip that swirled about them this past season. It’s expected, they agree, as MBT is the “top dog” among Michigan’s professional theaters. Plus, each is blessed – or cursed, some night say – with a strong ego, a booming voice and a clearly defined personal and professional mission. Such a mix can create both friends and enemies in any business.
Reflecting on their first season at the helm of the venerable institution, Manfredi said, “We made a lot of mistakes. It was a learning process from the very beginning. We did some things right, and in the end, we got through. Everybody got paid, no paychecks bounced and we were able to say that we’re going to be back next season. That was our accomplishment. What we set out to do at the beginning of the year was to get through year one, and we did. So I was pleased.”
One such mistake, Regal and Manfredi acknowledge, was the back-to-back scheduling of two large-cast productions, “Of Mice and Men” and “Talking With.” A short overlap of the company’s outreach program, “Romeo and Juliet,” also occurred.
“We had 70-something artistic people on payroll at one time,” Manfredi said. “That’s when I was on the top of the Oakland Center getting ready to jump off. But we made it through it.”
The mix of shows was also problematic, according to Regal.
“I’m not interested in just one kind of theater,” Regal said. “The idea is not to scare away the traditionalists, and still encourage and excite new people. So it’s trying to find that mix, that balance.”
In particular, “The Gravity of Honey” and “Talking WithÉ” pushed the envelope.
“I was a little disappointed to receive some of the incredibly strong negative reaction to some of the new stuff. But it turns out that ‘The Gravity of Honey’ got more positive reaction than almost anything else. It’s really a crapshoot,” Regal said.
The artistic director also discovered the limitations of his facility.
“I sat in the back row watching ‘Talking WithÉ’ and saw the first 10 rows just engrossed, like at a tennis match. The rest of the theater just sat there and observed it. I think the mistake was that’s a ‘black box,’ 200-seat show where the audience can smell the actors’ breath and be right on top of them. We did a good job with it, but it’s better served in an experimental space or our second space – whenever that happens.”
Both Manfredi and Regal are quick to credit Meadow Brook’s employees for the theater’s successful new start. Most have been with the theater for several seasons.
“We have a very unique staff,” Manfredi said. “Most of the people who work for us are very invested in this theatre.”
So much so, that the staff took a 20 percent pay cut at the start of last season to help it survive.
Meadow Brook’s most successful financial campaign started as a fluke.
“There was a lady at the box office last summer – the second day I was on the job – who said she wanted to help out while buying some tickets,” Regal said. “So I said, ‘Sponsor a show.'”
Although the woman eagerly jumped at the chance, she gasped when she heard the price: $30,000. So Regal joked, “You could always pay our rent!”
That she gladly did – to the tune of $1,000 – and the theater was immediately able to pay its first week’s rent.
And at the end of the final performance of its inaugural season as a stand-alone theater, Regal proudly announced that Rent Angels had paid all but two weeks’ rent this past year.
“The business community seemed to like [the program] a lot for the obvious reason,” Regal said. “It’s a cheaper way to get your name in front of the public and be supportive.”
Most Rent Angels were individuals and groups, Manfredi indicated. A few asked that their names be kept secret.
There was a downside to the program, however.
“There were some businesses that donated their thousand bucks – and then they were done with us,” Manfredi laughed.
Ticket buyers were also generous with donations. That is, until news spread that the theater earned a small profit this past season.
“Now, all those donations have gone from those very sizable ones to $10 or $15. It’s almost like we don’t want to announce that we did well,” Regal chuckled.
The 2004/05 Season
It is no secret that a tight economy and the aftershock of 9-11 have led to a drop in theater attendance throughout the country. But although advance subscription sales for MBT’s upcoming season are slightly down from this point last year, Manfredi and Regal are both optimistic.
“I think this is a better season,” Manfredi said. “I think David and I really want to push the envelope.”
Customers have shown the most interest so far in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Driving Miss Daisy” – a show that opens next January.
Regal has high hopes for “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank” – a multimedia presentation scheduled for mid-March.
“It’s a completely different approach to the Anne Frank story. It’s been a winner in the places it has played before,” he said.
“Art” – the season opener in October – features an accompanying exhibit in the Meadow Brook Art Gallery. Manfredi and Regal believe such an effort will provide an opportunity for both groups’ constituents to cross-pollinate, something that will benefit both organizations.
Rounding out the season are the ever-popular “A Christmas Carol,” Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” and the musical “And the World Goes ‘Round.”
Upcoming collaborative efforts
Several other collaborations are also set for the near future.
A co-production with Oakland University’s Department of Music, Theatre and Dance – directed by Regal – is scheduled this season.
Fans of Manfredi’s black stocking-clad performance several years back in “The Rocky Horror Show” have only to wait until late next summer for a very limited return of the cult classic with Meadow Brook Music Festival.
And MBT is teaming with Palace Sports and Entertainment to present the original New York production of “Golf: The Musical” this August in conjunction with the upcoming Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills.
It’s a show not just for golfers, Regal – a non-golfer – stressed. “It’s not [about] a bunch of good ol’ boys around the putting green. It’s [about] a family and how their lives are with a compulsive golfer in the family.”
Such a venture is a risk for the struggling theater. But it also could be a financial windfall.
“With the millions of people coming here for the Ryder Cup, [they’ll] need something to do at night. This has such a huge upside for us,” Manfredi said. “We’re looking at it as a fundraiser for us. It’s a way to put money in the bank so we can put more Michigan actors to work.”
With only one season under their collective belt, Regal and Manfredi already have big dreams for Meadow Brook Theatre.
“We dream of having a conservatory here in the summertime and winning a regional Tony Award, and I’d love to say that five or 10 years from now we’ll open a second space,” Manfredi said.
He also wants to be the company that manages Pontiac’s Strand Theatre when it re-opens in the near future.
“But right now it’s about survivability,” he said.
“Golf: The Musical” will be performed Wednesday through Sunday at Meadow Brook Theatre, Rochester, Aug. 25 – Sept. 19. For tickets – or for season subscriptions – call 248-377-3300 or go online to www.mbtheatre.com.