Profile: Planet Ant Theatre
It’s a brave and expanded new season ahead for Planet Ant
One sign that a city is “cool” is the existence of a thriving theater industry. Such a community includes not only large “road houses” that bring in national tours of hit musicals and comedies, but also numerous small, out-of-the-way and funky storefront venues that produce original works created, written and performed by local artists.
Southeast Michigan isn’t quite “cool” yet – although there have been moments over the past few decades when it looked as if such an explosion was about to take root. Recently, however, area theatergoers have seen a surge in the formation of new theater companies, as well as troupes that specialize in improvisational comedy.
Could Metro Detroit finally be experiencing its long awaited theatrical renaissance?
One needs only to visit Hamtramck for the answer to that question. For across the street from the Hamtramck Public Library on Caniff Avenue sits Planet Ant Theatre, a three-story purple building where innovative works have been staged since its beginning in 1996.
Like its sibling theaters throughout the area, the Ant has experienced its share of difficulties over the years – and many have wondered how its doors have remained open during these financially trying times. But the struggles are finally paying off for the highly regarded professional theater company. In fact, the Ant is about to take a major leap forward.
According to artistic director York Griffith, the upcoming 2004/05 season will find the Ant doubling the number of plays it will produce throughout the year. A few of the shows will be staged at the nearby and larger Hastings Street Ballroom, continuing a relationship that began earlier this year with the rock opera, “Manny and the Mirror.”
“We want to outgrow this place, and it feels like it’s starting to happen now,” Griffith said. “Hastings Street Ballroom is a stepping stone to getting another space. I’m really fond of that space. I think the urban rawness is really important nowadays in theater, at least in the type of theater that I’m attracted to.”
The new season will also see Thursday night performances return to the schedule, and each main stage show will add a preview week at the beginning of its run.
“That [preview week] is really going to help,” Griffith told BTL last Friday prior to the opening of the original comedy, “Detour of Duty.” “We’re doing so much new material next season that it’s going to help to have that week getting audience feedback to see what works and what doesn’t work.”
The upcoming season will also see the realization of a longtime dream Griffith has had for the theater: a complete season of late night shows.
“The late night shows have evolved amazingly quick,” the artistic director said. “They had really good audiences [last season].
So much so, that the inexpensive-to-produce original shows have been slotted to run during the third and fourth weeks of every main stage production at the Ant this upcoming season. Film and music will follow shows staged at Hastings Street Ballroom.
“[The late night shows] kind of have a more liberal feel to them, and that’s kind of like the way the river flows here – we want the late night shows to feed the 8 o’clock shows, but eventually we want this theater essentially to be a try-out ground to run a play at different theaters.”
Such a concept is about to become a reality: Discussions are currently underway for the Ant’s summertime box office hit, “Business as Unusual,” to move to a larger, highly respected theater in the area. And rumors are floating around town that the show might also get bookings in Chicago and Los Angeles.
“This could be a great theater town,” Griffith said. “It could be just as exciting a theater town as it is a music town. That’s what we’re trying to expedite.”
Building on last season’s success
While some theaters in the area saw box office numbers drop this past season, Griffith was pleased – and occasionally surprised – by the strong attendance increase experienced at the Ant.
“Last season was much better than the season before,” he said. “‘Lehrstucke’ sold extremely well, about 80% on average. That’s really good, especially being a Brecht piece – a lot of people aren’t into Brecht.”
Although critical response to Griffith’s unique look at “The Wizard of Oz” was mixed, the production became the Ant’s most profitable production. (That shows what critics know, you might be thinking to yourself!)
“‘Garage’ has the actual record for box office, but it cost a lot more [to produce]. It just about broke even, where ‘Oz’ actually made quite a bit of money. We’re pretty happy about that, and that’s why we’re putting it up again next year.”
For its revival, “Oz” will move to Hastings Street Ballroom where Griffith will have more room to explore the Land of Oz
The Ant’s most recent production, Larry Joe Campbell’s “The ‘313’” at Hastings Street Ballroom, brought many new faces into the theater. And although it wasn’t a huge moneymaker for the company – it was an expensive show to produce – Griffith believes it brought other, more long-term, benefits to the Ant.
“There’s always been a problem in Detroit of people not feeling like it’s a legitimate city in a lot of ways, not just in the arts. But if we’ve got these guys coming back here to do a show that had success in larger cities, hopefully it will legitimize the theater that we’re doing here in the eyes of the person that would never even think of going to see theater. It was a great shot in the arm,” he said.
Another sign of the theater’s burgeoning success was the turnout at its annual auditions: More than 100 people tried out for the upcoming season.
“We’ve never had that many people come out,” Griffith said. “And there were only five bad auditions!”
With more productions and new faces both in the shows and in the audience, Griffith believes there’s a new energy flowing throughout the Ant. And with Eric W. Maher returning to the theater he helped create as its newly appointed executive director, Griffith is excited about the new season.
“We have a lot going on compared to two years ago, and I think next season is going to be amazing!”
Complete information regarding Planet Ant’s 2004/05 season can be obtained by calling 313-365-4948 or online at www.planetant.com.