Encore Michigan

Flint Theatre Guild Closes first summer season

NewsUncategorized September 01, 2019 David Kiley

FLINT, Mich.–Over the summer, Shelly Hoffman launched The Flint Theatre Guild, making it the second theater in Flint that EncoreMichigan covers.

Shelly Hoffman

The FTG’s first summer season began with Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” followed by “A Bright New Boise” by Samuel Dr. Hunter. The third play, which concluded in August, was “Painting Churches,” the Tina Howe play that looks at a family in flux. It is an intimate portrait of their relationships with one another as they deal with the onset of dementia.

EncoreMichigan was only able to attend one of the shows, “Painting Churches,” which featured local Flint actors– Kay Kelly and Michael Kelly and features Katie Young. All three actors, directed by Hoffman, in that play were terrific. The Kellys are married, and were perfectly cast in the parts of the aging poet and his devoted wife. In fact, Hoffman chose the work in large part because she wanted to work with the actors instead of the other way around.

We spoke with Hoffman about her first effort and her plans going forward.What was the inspiration for starting the theater company now?

From “Painting Churches”

Encore: Tell us about why you started the company

Hoffman: For years and years I have wanted to launch a theater company. Nearly 25 years ago now, I produced and directed a couple shows under the name “Erv’s House Productions” and liked the experience and the results. Then my career got in the way and I was too busy or too afraid to try. In 2016 I was offered a position as an Associate Vice President at a college in upstate New York. I went out there for a couple years, had a not-so-great experience and realized my life was too entwined with Flint to really leave it.  When I returned at the beginning of this year, I didn’t quite know what my next steps were. I was at a party at a friend’s house (a dean at the University of Michigan-Flint). And in a conversation with the chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at UM-Flint, I was was invited to use their black box in the summer when there was down time. I decided that now is finally the time!  I formed a nonprofit, enlisted the help of some talented friends, and planned a season.

That was the mechanics of how it happened. The why, the inspiration, is a little more complex. There are many talented theater artists in Flint, but the outlets available to them have decreased significantly over the years. And, of course, there is bureaucracy — layers and layers of bureaucracy. I have envisioned a guild of theater artists working collaboratively to practice their craft to produce high-quality, meaningful, substantive shows.

Encore: Tell us about your background in Flint?

I am originally from the suburbs of Flint, but have lived in the city since 1988 (after having lived in London for a few years) with the exception of 2017 and 18 when I was in New York. I lived, worked, and played in downtown Flint in the 1990s, a time when we could have rolled bowling balls down the middle of Saginaw Street after 5 pm. So, its resurgence is especially pleasing to me and I hope the Guild can contribute to furthering it.

Theater has always been an interest of mine–drama classes in school and at Flint Youth Theatre were a lifeline for me (like so many other kids who feel they don’t quite fit in), but I never had the confidence to really pursue it. As a youngish adult I got involved in community theater, where I met my husband and made almost all of the important relationships I have had. Some emotionally abusive experiences in that theater, though, drove my husband and I away from the art for a while. 

I hold a BA  (’91) in History from the University of Michigan-Flint and an MA (’08)  from there as well. The MA is in English Language and Literature, but I was able, essentially, to build my own program. I focused on 20th century British drama and my program of study included a three-week study abroad opportunity in London (where we went to the theater practically every day), a directed reading with a theater professor (where I read and reflected upon about 30 20th century British plays), and my capstone project, which was directing a production of Stoppard’s Arcadia (under the supervision of another theater professor).

I’ve directed shows for Kearsley Park Players (now defunct) and Flint Community Players (in addition to Erv’s House). I’ve performed with several local groups, was a principal player in the feature film “Alleged” with Ashley Johnson, Colm Meaney, Fred Thompson, and Brian Dennehy, and (together with my husband, Brian Haggard) run ComedyMurderMysteries, an entertainment company.

My professional career has been that of fundraiser, marketer, and nonprofit/higher education administrator. I am currently the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Michigan.

Encore: Do you have partners?

The Flint Theatre Guild was offered this unique partnership this summer with the University of Michigan-Flint Department of Theatre & Dance.  We were able to use the space, and anything in it, in exchange for employing a theater student for each show. 

In addition to that partnership, the core of the Guild is its artistic team — me as a producing artistic director, Jesse Glenn as scenic designer, Gary Jones as lighting designer, Tomoko Miller as guest director — and our board of directors (me, my husband, and a UM-Flint faculty member).

We hope to build partnerships across the community.  We did have the good fortune of partnering with NPR’s StoryCorps for its visit to Flint.

Encore: How did you choose your first three shows. Why these shows?

I wish I could say there was a grand plan at work for our inaugural season, but things happened so quickly and I felt like I was just reacting most of the time.  I read a whole bunch of plays and used the following criteria in making decisions: Was it an intelligent script? Could we cast it? Could we stage it in a black box? Could we get the rights? There were a couple of very new plays we wanted to produce, but couldn’t secure the rights to them.  

We chose The Real Inspector Hound to start because I felt it really, if you will, set the stage for what we are all about. While it’s outrageously funny, it also has a lot going on underneath the surface. It’s lampooning just the sort of theater we don’t want to do and what it says about critics, too, is interesting. Also, Tom Stoppard; I love the wit of Tom Stoppard.

Encore: I agree. Critics are twits.

We chose A Bright New Boise because we were interested in something more contemporary and we really liked the exploration of cult-like faith. Tomoko Miller, our guest director for that production, enjoys shows that cause discomfort for audiences, and had a big hand in making the final decision in favor of this one.

Painting Churches was a way to showcase some talent who had committed to being part of our season.  In addition to that, we liked the way it dealt with dementia and family relationships.

Encore: Are you just going to be summer theatre? Plans for year-round?

Again, because the beginning happened so quickly, and then everything came at us so fast and furiously, future-planning was not in the cards. I was directing two shows at once, producing three, forming a nonprofit, and opening three shows in less than a month, without any idea of how it would be received.  Now that we know what we’re doing and had the positive reception we did, we’re working on plans for where to go from here. We hope the partnership with UM-Flint will continue and we will have some meetings about that next month.  We hope, as well, to expand what we’re doing.  The summer theater fills a niche, but people are asking for more. So we are also exploring the possibility of a permanent home.

Encore: What’s next?

From the outset, we had a three-year goal to evolve into an SPT. We also want now to look at featuring more plays by women. While the numbers are on a positive trend, still only 30% of plays produced in the U.S. are by women and, unfortunately, our first season mirrored this number (but 100% of our directors were women!).  We are also exploring work-shopping plays for aspiring or established playwrights and maybe even staging some “pop-up theater.”

I promised myself two weeks “off” from the Guild after our festival closed.  I’m entering week two now.  After that, I will get to work on some serious fundraising so that we can make all our goals a reality.

Week of 11/29/2021

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