It was just recently brought to my attention that we’ve now got a new theater company in town. They’re called the Neighborhood Theatre Group, and they’ve got a free show coming up June 5, on North Washigton Street, in this building that will eventually house Ypsi’s coworking facility, The Back Office Studio. So, if you’re out and about for First Fridays, be sure to check out their performance of their original porduction Beaver’s Long Strange Trip. And, here, in the meantime, is an interview with Neighborhood Theatre Group founder Kristin Anne Danko.
MARK: OK, here’s the story behind the Neighborhood Theatre Group as I understand it… You were involved in theater in Chicago, and you moved to Michigan with the intention of starting a company in Detroit, but, somehow, along the way, you stopped in Ypsilanti and decided to try it here instead… Is that pretty much the gist of it?
KRISTIN: Kind of. My partner, Aaron Dean, and I were in the experimental storefront theatre scene in Chicago for almost eight years. We left with the intention of starting a theatre somewhere, and moved to Ypsilanti so that I could pursue my Master’s in Arts Administration at Eastern Michigan University. Detroit made a lot of sense, we love all the wonderful things happening in the city, but after our first year here, Ypsilanti started making more sense.
MARK: What can you tell us about the storefront theatre scene in Chicago?
KRISTIN: It’s really rigorous, but worth every minute of exhaustion. There are so many small storefront theatres all experimenting with the art form.There’s an outlet for artists to plug into at every turn whether it’s in new works, Shakespeare, musicals, devised pieces, improv, sketch, drag camp. It’s there. [below right: Danko flyering in Ypsilanti]
KRISTIN: I experimented with all of it. I’m kind of a theatre junkie. When I first moved there, I began training in improv at iO Chicago and the Annoyance. I did Barprov (improv at bars) with an independent team, I was an ensemble member with pH Comedy Theatre for a while, and did lots of late night shows. I was also in the last cast of the Annoyance’s flagship show, and Chicago’s longest running musical, Coed Prison Sluts. Then, around 2009, I left the comedy/improv scene and started doing shows with lots of different storefront theatres and companies. I met Aaron while working on a devised musical (a process where the cast develops the script throughout the rehearsal process). I did a lot of new works, I did Shakespeare and larger scale musicals, I even did a drag camp musical that satirized the Chicago theatre scene, called Storefront Theatre Musical, with one of my favorite storefront theatres, Cornservatory. My acting resume is all over the place. [below right: Danko in Storefront Theatre Musical]
KRISTIN: Most importantly, we feel at home here. Also, the sense of community and pride in local businesses and artists. The amount of support we’ve gotten already is so positive. And there are so many talented people here… over half the cast of our first show have ties to Ypsi.
MARK: But do you think that you can cultivate a large enough audience here to support a company?
KRISTIN: I do. If theatre’s accessible, people will come. And, if it’s good, they’ll stay. There are several great theatres and venues in Ypsi already: Dreamland, Mix Studio Theatre, Riverside. Let’s grow a theatre community here, and that includes the audience. Integrate it into the culture, go to Taco Tuesday’s at Maiz, see a show, then hit up happy hour at Red Rock.
MARK: I know very little about the local theater scene in Southeast Michigan, but I assume that groups try to differentiate themselves in different ways, through the material they perform, how they’re organized, how they stage productions, how they source their material, etc. Assuming that’s the case, how would someone know that they’re at a production of the Neighborhood Theatre Group? How, in other word, will your productions be distinctive?
KRISTIN: Theatre is all about the experience. Unfortunately there’s a perception that theatre is boring, pretentious, and beholden to a code of etiquette. This isn’t the case for us. Theatre is, and should be, for everyone. There is an exchange between the audience and the actors… they give to us, and we give to them. Think punk rock theatre.
MARK: Can you give us an example of something that we might experience at a Neighborhood Theatre Group production that would illustrate this punk rock aesthetic? You wouldn’t, for instance, be encouraging members of the audience to spit on you, right?
KRISTIN: Ha! No… although I can’t make any promises – I’m quite fond of the spit take. But, I’m referring more to our attitude and approach to theatre. We’re casual, informal, and really want people to feel free to be themselves, and I think that translates through our work. It’s a pretty raw experience for everyone involved.
MARK: So, there’s no fourth wall at Neighborhood Theatre Group?
KRISTIN: Sure, there’s a fourth wall in the sense that the audience is looking at another reality, but the audience is, and always will be, an active participant in theatre. If they’re not comfortable, we’re not comfortable. It’s a give and give.
MARK: Do I understand correctly that your first production will be coming up on June 5th, as part of First Fridays?
KRISTIN: Yes! We are so excited to be a part of First Fridays Ypsilanti. And we are in a new venue, the Back Office Studio (formerly Pub 13) at 13 North Washington. We’re thrilled to use their space as they go through their renovations.
MARK: And what’s the first production?
KRISTIN: We’re doing a staged reading of our first original musical called Beaver’s Long Strange Trip. [below: Rehearsal for Beaver’s Long Strange Trip]
MARK: And what can you tell us about Beaver’s Long Strange Trip?
KRISTIN: It’s the first draft of what will eventually be a full production. It’s about the 1960’s and about today. We’re exploring the roots of the current culture wars in this show through a musical parody of the quintessential American family, The Cleaver’s. Also, it starts at 7:30, doors open at 7, and it’s free!
MARK: How’d you find your cast for this production?
KRISTIN: Most are EMU students or alumnae. Others are actors I met through Shakespeare in Detroit when I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with them last summer. It’s such a good group and they’re doing really great work. There’s so much talent around here, it’s very inspiring.
MARK: Do I also understand that you’re organized outside of the Actor’s Equity system?
KRISTIN: Yes. Actor’s Equity is the actor’s union. There are a surprising number of equity houses in Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan. While equity houses have a lot of great things going for them, they are also extremely exclusive. For one thing, ticket prices are really high. And theatre, I believe, should not just be for those who can afford it… We were blown away by how expensive theatre is around here. Also, it’s difficult for actors, designers, and directors to “get in” with equity houses. We want to help liberate theatre from this exclusivity. With so much creative energy in the area, we need more creative spaces and outlets for exploration. It’s important that these artists stay, so we have to give them what they need. I’ve been seeing a lot of non-equity companies popping up around Detroit and Southeast Michigan, plus all the ones already in Ypsi. I feel a new theatre movement simmering.
MARK: And what’s next for you after this? Are you looking for a more permanent home than the Back Office Studio?
KRISTIN: Yes! I have always wanted my own space, but we are going to be mobile for our first season as we build our company and grow our audience. I couldn’t ask for a better space for our first show, though. It’s really been great working with them. We’re looking at doing more shows there. The team at the Back Office Studio are such wonderful people and so supportive. I’m so glad they’re in Ypsi!