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"Doubt" at Lansing's BoarsHead Theater was well received by audiences and critics alike in 2007. Photo: Trumpie Photography

2007: A year of excellence - and surprise

By Donald V. Calamia

Although 2007 was a dark and stormy year for Michigan's shell-shocked economy, the state's struggling professional theater community achieved what our politicians could not: With fluctuating ticket sales and often-significant funding decreases, theater executives across the state cut budgets, revamped their seasons and sometimes lowered ticket prices - yet the programs and services they offered never noticeably deteriorated. Rather, the overall quality produced by Michigan theaters remained consistent throughout the year, proving that when times get tough, artists become more creative.

So much so, that despite the odds, pretty much every professional theater that greeted 2007 was still in business 12 months later - a remarkable feat, given the circumstances. (It also put to rest rampant rumors of pending closures that never came to pass.) Only Ann Arbor's Improv Inferno closed its doors - again - to look for a permanent performance space. And Detroit's Plowshares Theatre Company, after moving its shows around town several times, took a break in the fall to do likewise.

Yet even MORE surprising is this: There was apparently more theater in 2007 than there was the year before.

Listings in Between The Lines' Theater Events column grew 15% last year, as the number of productions shot past the 500 mark in late November. While much of this growth is attributable to first time listings by existing theaters (such as the Novi Theatres and Arab Theatrical Arts) and new companies making their debuts (most notably Northville's Tipping Point Theatre), a handful of others bravely increased their output.

And who would have guessed: The total number of theaters - professional and otherwise - that listed their shows in Theater Events jumped from 105 in 2006 to 122, a 16% annual increase.

That jump was also reflected in the record number of reviews that appeared in BTL this past year. In all, 120 professional productions were reviewed by our four critics in 2007 - an astounding 30% rise over the prior year. Of those, 12 were productions reviewed during our first annual visit to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Ups and downs

Quality theater was busting out all over in 2007, as area critics raved about Doubt and Moonlight and Magnolias at the BoarsHead Theater, Old Wicked Songs at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, Twelve Angry Men at the Fisher Theatre and The Baker's Wife and Dirty Blonde at Performance Network Theatre. The world premiere of Dr. David DiChiera's Cyrano at the Michigan Opera Theatre drew praises nationwide, while Tipping Point Theatre's debut production, Don't Dress for Dinner, was a stunning success. And veteran performers David L. Regal and Mary Wright Bremer charmed audiences in longtime favorite On Golden Pond at Meadow Brook Theatre, whereas The Purple Rose Theatre continued to serve audiences with a pleasing selection of mostly new works.

Meanwhile, Detroit's coolest theater, The Abreact, encountered landlord troubles midyear and found a new home at the nearby Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue. And the annual Box Fest, a celebration of women in theater, surpassed all expectations this summer at Planet Ant.

The year ended on a couple of down notes, however.

The professional theater community was shocked by the unexpected suspensions of artistic director Regal, managing director John M. Manfredi and special projects manager Kate Willinger Manfredi this past November by the board of directors of The Theatre Ensemble at Meadow Brook Theatre. "It was a management and human resources issue," Regal told the Detroit Free Press in a short, but controversial interview. Although the season has continued uninterrupted, no official word about the theater's future has yet been announced.

And a significant blow was dealt to the industry in December with the retirement of longtime Detroit Free Press theater critic Martin F. Kohn. His departure leaves the tri-county, Metro Detroit area without a fulltime theater critic at any of its daily newspapers.

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