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November 9, 2007

Making Theater About the Midwest

Bridgette Redman

Joe asked last week about organizations that were doing a particularly good job of catering to their local community. I immediately thought of Williamston Theatre, in part because I'd just done a story on them.

Williamston Theatre is a fairly young group founded last year by four artists who had spent many years working with Jeff Daniels at the Purple Rose Theatre. Jeff Daniels is an actor who, after achieving success in New York and Los Angeles, returned to his small town of Chelsea, Michigan. There's a beautiful quote on his theater's Website:

Years later, after moving back home to Michigan, I bought an old bus garage in the small town of Chelsea with the dream of creating a Midwestern answer to Circle Rep. I wanted a professional theatre company, featuring Midwestern actors, directors, designers and playwrights, situated in the middle of America, producing plays about the middle of America. People, of course, thought I was an idiot. From the local critics who wanted the latest shows from New York starring my "movie star friends" to the townspeople who thought Art was someone who lived out by the highway, no one could understand what I was trying to do. It made no sense. Except to all those local actors, directors, designers, and especially playwrights, who call the Midwest their home.

In case you haven't noticed, the New American Play can't get a cup of coffee in New York. It seems to me that if the American Theatre is to remain vital it must produce American plays, and it can only do that by supporting, nurturing, and developing American playwrights. Period. Just like Circle Rep did.

That's what we do here at The Purple Rose and we love it.

The statement represents a philosophy that the founders of Williamston Theatre took with them when they opened up a theater in the small town of Williamston. Now in their second season, the founders wanted to create a long-term project which would be unique to their theater and would be an expression of that philosophy.

They came up with the Voices from the Midwest project. The first installment is "Maidens, Mothers, and Crones: The Women of the Midwest." They're collecting questionnaires form Midwestern women of all ages (if you hail from the Midwest and want to participate--the deadline is Dec. 1 and they're particularly looking for younger women as that category has had the smallest response so far. You can download a questionnaire here. ).

Next year they'll do men and the following year they'll do families.

It's a wonderful project that really does focus on a mission that is important to them: Doing theater that speaks to the people in the communities where they live. It's fine to explore stories that happen elsewhere, but there are also stories to be told at home about the people and events at home.

I think that's why their musical "Guys on Ice" has been so enormously successful and has played to packed houses: It's about people that their audiences can relate to. It's about a subject that their audiences can relate to. It's theater that is meaningful because it is local. It gives people a chance to connect with each other and with the art in a compelling manner.

I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of the Voices from the Midwest project. In the mean time, I applaud their undertaking and am grateful that they're investing so much time and energy into creating something that serves its local community so well.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at November 9, 2007 8:27 AM

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COMMENTS

Bridgette -- sounds like a fascinating project and a great example of what I was talking about last week. In researching the story I wrote for "Inside Arts" (due out, supposedly, in their Jan/Feb issue), I found several other examples of similar theater groups: the Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine, which is focused on producing locally written plays with local stories; and Active Cultures, a Maryland theater that proudly calls itself "vernacular" and that is focusing its play development on science stories, in hopes of drawing audiences from NASA, which is headquartered nearby.

I think what we're seeing, increasingly, is arts groups that embrace regionalism as a badge of honor. That's a pretty exciting development, in my mind.

Posted by: Joe Nickell at November 9, 2007 10:28 AM