Detroit is enjoying a reinvigorated reputation as a restaurant town, but when it comes to things artisanal and locally sourced, you can’t do better than Detroit theater. National tours of Broadway shows at Detroit’s Fisher and Fox theaters are great, but they’re here for only two or three weeks. Entertaining us year-round are what folks in the biz call resident theaters. We prefer to call them homegrown, and we’ve got them in abundance — more than two dozen professional theaters in and around Detroit, offering everything from Shakespeare and world premieres to work that can only be described as post-experimental.
Editor’s Note: When we decided it was time for Visit Detroit to showcase the many flavors of local theater in Detroit and Broadway in Detroit, we didn’t want just anybody handpicking the venues we would tout to readers. Instead, we asked one of the city’s most respected and longtime theater critics, Martin F. Kohn, if he would share his favorites plus his top recommendations.
Check out our round-up of the upcoming season’s best plays and musicals in Detroit. And if you’re looking for current showings of Broadway plays in Detroit, check out the website specifically dedicated to the topic!
Plays & Broadway in Downtown Detroit
Detroit may be home to the second-largest theater district in the U.S., behind only New York, but the more underground stage productions are just as abundant in and around downtown proper.
This season, the Detroit Repertory Theatre (the Rep) will mark its 60th anniversary, a notable achievement, but here’s where this theater stands alone: It appears to be America’s oldest professional theater still being run by its original founders. Yes, “original founders” is redundant, but with artistic/managing director Bruce Millan and fiscal officer Barbara Busby at its helm since 1957, the Rep deserves a little overstatement.
The Rep has always been devoted to diversity in casting, the very practice that has garnered accolades for the Broadway musical Hamilton. Millan doesn’t claim to have originated nontraditional casting, but back in 1957, “We didn’t have the brains to know there was anything different about it,” Millan quips. This commitment has resulted in the Rep enjoying the most diverse audience of any theater in metro Detroit. Its lineup of regional and world premiere productions keeps its audiences among the most enthusiastic.
APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE: The Rep has the best theater lobby in Michigan. Take advantage of the full bar while you admire it.
Near the restaurants known collectively as Mexicantown, Matrix’s mission for 25 years has been to “change lives, build community and foster social justice.” Besides professional productions, Matrix presents work by its teen company, community playwrights group and other neighborhood artists.
The Detroit Public Theatre
The youngest professional theater in Detroit, the Detroit Public Theatre wrapped up an impressive inaugural season last spring. It promises more of the same for 2016-2017 as it stages recent off-Broadway hits, including Dot by Colman Domingo, about a woman losing her memory, and The Holler Sessions, a one-actor play about a jazz radio DJ by New York actor-writer (and Michigan native) Frank Boyd.
APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE: DPT performs at Allesee Rehearsal Hall, the black box theater at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
One day you’re the queen, the next day you’re the scullery maid. No, this isn’t what happens when you make really bad investments, it’s what happens regularly to actors at the Hilberry Theatre, which presents plays in rotating repertory. Wayne State University’s Hilberry is a professional theater whose performers are also graduate students earning their M.F.A. degrees. Part of its educational approach is to provide actors with more experience than they’re likely to get elsewhere, said John Wolf, professor and department chair. “Keeping two or three or four plays in your head can only help but stretch you,” added Wolf, himself an actor. A typical Hilberry season incorporates classic and contemporary plays.
Visiting with children? PuppetART offers puppet shows on weekends with a repertoire of dozens of shows based on folklore from around the world. The shows tend to change with the seasons. In December and January, they perform The Snow Queen, which, Artistic Director Igor Gozman proudly points out, PuppetART was doing well before another adaptation, the movie Frozen, came out. In February, to coincide with African-American History Month, the West African folk tale Oh, Ananse!, gets the PuppetART treatment.
APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE: PuppetART also has a museum and hosts puppet-making workshops regularly. You take home what you make.
The city within the city of Detroit, Hamtramck is home to artists in all disciplines, and two theater companies: Planet Ant Theatre, which offers a season of (mostly) plays so new they’re still being written, and improv. If the avant-garde had an avant-garde it could well be the immersive performances staged by the Hinterlands Ensemble.
The Michigan Theatre
The Michigan Theatre in Detroit, opened in 1926, no longer shows movies, but you can park right where the 4,000 seats used to be. The once-proud movie palace is among the world’s most unusual parking garages. It was featured in rapper Eminem’s feature film 8 Mile.
Downriver and Other Districts
Whether headed way south of the Detroit River or creeping farther north and a bit west of the city, a plethora of theater companies are pleasing audiences of all varieties.
Marquis Theatre & Genitti’s Hole-in-the-Wall
The charming Marquis Theatre in Northville stages adaptations of fairy tales and other children’s shows. Nearby, Genitti’s offers murder-mystery dinner theater and similar entertainment.
Open Book Theatre Company
When it comes to selecting plays, the main consideration is, “Do I love the story?” said Krista Schafer Ewbank, artistic director of Open Book Theatre Company in Trenton, a city located Downriver, which is a loose term for 18 suburbs south of Detroit and down the Detroit River. Open Book has a pretty good story of its own to tell. For its first two years, it claimed the distinction of being a playhouse in the back room of a thrift shop. “So much of our audience loved to come and loved to shop,” Ewbank said. As of the 2016-2017 season, Open Book has a home all of its own that’s easier to find, a straight shot east of I-75.
Tipping Point Theatre
Its plays are for grown-ups, but “one of the things we embrace at Tipping Point is the idea of family,” said James Kuhl, producing artistic director at the Northville theater. “We want this place to feel like something of a gathering place,” added Kuhl, a Hilberry Theatre alum. But anyone from anywhere “can find that welcoming feeling … I never feel like I have to ring the doorbell at my parents’ place,” and that’s how Kuhl wants playgoers to feel at Tipping Point.
The Purple Rose
Actor Jeff Daniels established the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan, his hometown, 25 years ago to give aspiring theater artists the same kind of opportunity he found in New York as a young actor. The theater — named for Daniels’ first starring vehicle, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo — has done that, and more. Several playwrights have had their first plays produced here (including Mitch Albom and Daniels himself), at least 50 plays have had their world premieres at the Purple Rose and the theater has helped make Chelsea, 15 miles west of Ann Arbor, a cultural destination.
Other theaters outside metro Detroit worth a mention
Kickshaw Theatre in Ann Arbor • Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor • Penny Seats Theatre Company, a floating theater
Productions Without Permanent Homes
Theaters without permanent venues in The D are also called “floating” theaters.
Cabaret 313 imports singers from Broadway and beyond to perform their nightclub acts, using different smaller-scale venues around town. Depending on how much you pay, you get to sit pretty close, or very close, to the performers.
APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE: Cabaret 313 makes great use of venues in or near downtown, including the Carr Center, the downtown YMCA and small theaters at the Detroit Opera House and the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center.
Shakespeare in Detroit
Producing exactly what its name implies, Shakespeare in Detroit is another of the city’s floating theaters, without a permanent venue but with a creditable track record.
The Theatre Company
Originating at the University of Detroit Mercy, this company brings together student and professional actors.
What One Critic Calls the Ferndale Cluster
Ferndale, north of Detroit, boasts four professional theaters. Plus, a few others lumped in with this group.
The intrepid artists that established the Ringwald Theatre in 2007 were pioneers. The Ringwald presents gay-themed plays, spoofs of old movies and no-nonsense productions of acclaimed modern works. For most theaters, a season includes four or five productions; a Ringwald season comprises seven or more.
APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE: The Ringwald offers performances on Monday nights.
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
Near the Ringwald Theatre is Go Comedy! Improv Theater, which, as its name suggests, is a hotbed of sketch comedy and improv.
Slipstream Theatre Initiative & Puzzle Piece Theatre
About a mile south and east stands Slipstream Theatre Initiative, which takes a daring approach to classic plays, remodeling them in a space that holds about 40 patrons. Slipstream also offers Monday night performances. It isn’t just a Ferndale thing, explains Bailey Boudreau, artistic director and co-founder. “Our demographic is teens to those in their 30s. There’s a lot of stuff for them to do on weekends, but not that much on weeknights.” Sharing the same building is the similarly imaginative Puzzle Piece Theatre.
Meadow Brook Theatre
Farther north is the region’s biggest professional theater, the much-venerated 50-year-old Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre
In West Bloomfield, this company consistently offers intriguing fare at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre.
Two Muses & Monster Box Theatres
In Waterford, two theater companies share a space that has a coffee shop in the lobby. Two Muses Theatre emphasizes opportunities for women in theater but provides opportunities for male actors and writers as well. Meanwhile, neighbor Monster Box Theatre is in its first season as a professional theater.
On the Big Screen | Detroit Movie Theaters
If you’ve always wondered how you get to see those Oscar-nominated animated short films or wanted to view a classic movie the way it was meant to be seen — in an ornate theater with a really big screen — you’ve come to the right place. Metro Detroit offers some singular choices.
The Detroit Film Theatre (DFT) at the Detroit Institute of Arts presents movies that usually don’t get shown in commercial cinemas, including (but not limited to) foreign films and documentaries. Among the DFT’s most popular screenings are its annual presentations of the rarely seen Academy Award-nominated short films.
The Redford Theatre opened in 1928 to show movies on a grand scale, and that’s what it’s still doing. The Redford shows vintage films, usually preceded by a 30-minute concert on the Redford’s fully restored theater organ that rises dramatically through the floor. (The Motor City Theatre Organ Society owns and operates the Redford.) Some special screenings feature personal appearances by actors from those movies.
Want to hear more theater organ? There’s a dandy one at the Senate Theater, owned by the Detroit Theater Organ Society, which welcomes the public at its concerts.
Cinema Detroit is the place to see city independent and art films in the city.
The Royal Starr Film Festival is held at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak every year, and shows carefully selected movies from around the world.
Check out the Shocktober film fests and themed movie nights happening at these theaters throughout October:
Penn Theatre in Plymouth • Alger Theatre in Detroit • Scary Movie Nights at Meadow Brook Hall
Celebrities From Detroit
Certainly not the entire list, but here are some noteworthy ladies and gents from metro Detroit who have made it big on stage and/or screen.
- Tim Allen – The growling dad on Home Improvement, and the voice of the award-winning Pure Michigan TV and radio commercials
- Kristen Bell – The pipes behind Frozen’s Princess Anna
- Selma Blair – Kris Jenner in the 2016 O.J. Simpson TV miniseries on FX
- David Coulier – Full House’s funny guy
- Tom Selleck – Magnum PI always liked to wear a Detroit Tigers hat
- Lily Tomlin – Thought she served rat poison to her boss in 9 to 5
- Robert Wagner – Nat Wood’s hubbie, Austin Power’s No. 2
- Bruce Campbell – Evil Dead’s chainsaw-wielding hero
- J.K. Simmons – The merciless conductor in Whiplash, an Oscar-winning role
- Keegan-Michael Key – MADtv alum and one of the funny-guy founders of Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre
In the Community
Metro Detroit also enjoys a wide assortment of theaters where talented people do everything the pros do but don’t get paid. That’s community — or volunteer — theater. Here’s a sampling:
- Stagecrafters at the Baldwin Theatre in Royal Oak
- Grosse Pointe Theatre in Grosse Pointe Farms
- Players Guild of Dearborn in Dearborn
- Southgate Community Players at the Corner Playhouse in Southgate
- Village Players in Birmingham
- Farmington Players in Farmington Hills
- Rosedale Community Players at the Peace Lutheran Church in Southfield
Read more about attractions in Detroit.
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