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In today’s era of economic uncertainty, some might think it’s a miracle that any of our local non-profit professional theaters makes it through a single season without going bankrupt. Yet despite the odds, Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre is about to embark on its twenty-fifth anniversary season – a milestone many similar theaters strive to achieve, but some rarely attain.
“I can’t believe it myself,” exclaimed Executive Artistic Director Carla Milarch, who, along with Associate Artistic Director David Wolber, sat down recently with Curtain Calls to discuss the momentous occasion. “The fact that we’re still here is a huge testament to the commitment of everybody that’s involved with the theater – from the board of directors down to the people that usher at every single show. This theater has a legacy – from our predecessors, Johanna [Broughton] and Dan [Walker], down to the founders – it’s every person who built the theater over the years.”
The Network’s longevity, Milarch believes, is also the result of the grassroots support it receives from all corners of the community. The troupe’s first subscriber, Carolyn Dana Lewis, is still a subscriber today, and patrons have generously opened their wallets to keep the company going. “Last year our annual appeal brought in $80,000, and it was $50,000 the year before. People have just stepped up to the plate time and time again, especially this past year. It’s been a rough year for us.”
It hasn’t been an easy quarter-century, either.
The Network, incorporated in 1981, traces its roots to a collective of Ann Arbor-based artists from a wide variety of disciplines who shared a downtown warehouse where the recently completed YMCA stands today. “Whenever they had something to show, they’d put it up,” Wolber said. “It was kind of hodge-podge.”
The first production was staged in early 1982. But as time went on, the collective fell into disarray. “It wasn’t continuing the momentum. People were starting to split apart, and that’s why it started to focus more on theater,” Wolber said.
Then, in 1997, the Network became a professional theater. “That was our next big jump,” said Wolber. The next was in 2000 when the company moved into its current 139-seat facility that is the envy of other, similar troupes.
“And now we’re moving into the role of being the older generation,” Milarch said. “Twenty-five years is the milestone when you start being perceived as having some staying power. We really are a leader now.”
To celebrate their anniversary, Milarch and Wolber are planning a series of parties throughout the season that will reach out to various segments of the community. The goal, Milarch said, “is to spread the word that Performance Network is for everyone. We’re not an elite thing where you have to be 50 years old and make $100,000 to come to the theater.”
But it is the upcoming season that has the two most excited, and it begins this week with “The Retreat from Moscow” starring Gillian Eaton.