Community Theatres Break The Mold With MAMMA MIA!
When the rights for a blockbuster Broadway show like Mamma Mia! came available, the race to be the first to secure them promised to be fierce. No one was more aware of that than Dexter Brigham, Director of Theatre Programs at Midland Center for the Arts which is located within 30 miles of two other well-established community theatres in mid-Michigan.
"For the past several years, we had been working with Bay City Players (Bay City, Michigan) and Pit & Balcony Theatre (Saginaw, Michigan) to better coordinate our seasons in order to collectively provide the strongest creative offering for the area. When Mamma Mia! became available, it was clear all three of us were going to do it, likely in the same season, which just wouldn't have made sense," Brigham explains. "Instead, we decided to do something radically different!"
Along with Amy Spadafore, Pit & Balcony Theatre's Managing Director, and Kathy Pawloski, Operations Manager at Bay City Players, Brigham approached Matthew Felan, President and CEO of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance to act as the producing entity for an unprecedented venture to unify the talents and resources of the three theatres for one unequalled production of the show. As a non-profit organization focused on supporting regional collaboration and initiatives to improve the economic vitality and quality of life in the area, the Alliance was immediately onboard.
"While historically community theatre has been competitive with each other, this was an opportunity to break down barriers, create a common vision, and unify the artistic and creative talents from this region. This idea spoke to everything the Great Lake Bay Regional Alliance stands for and we are thrilled to be part of this endeavor," Felan said.
Talks and planning began a full year before the first night of auditions. "There's no template for this and there's always concerns when working outside the box, especially with three different theatres with three different cultures," said Pit & Balcony Theatre's Spadafore. "Working more closely together in the years leading up to this built an important level of trust and respect. Open communication has been critical for working through the challenges of a commitment of this scope."
The multiple components to the Mamma Mia! project presented across the region will include six performances at Midland Center for the Arts in their 1,500-seat auditorium September 20-22 and 27-29, 2019. The production will move to Pit & Balcony Theatre for free performances for school students October 2-4, and Bay City Players will present special sneak peek Cabaret Nights on Thursday and Friday, September 5 and 6.
Locking in Tommy Wedge, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Saginaw Valley State University, as the show's stage director expanded the creative circle and created a firm artistic foundation to build the rest of the show. With a long directing resume on all three stages along with numerous productions at SVSU, Wedge brought a keen understanding of the current theatrical climate in the region.
"It's rare to find actors or crew members who only work at one theatre anymore. There's been a culture shift in the last five years that's brought so much cross-pollination. The younger generation especially is breaking the paradigm of having a 'theatre home.'" Wedge explained. "It doesn't matter to them what theatre is producing a show. They care more about being part of a quality show with a positive experience wherever that happens to be."
For Wedge, the greatest challenges have come from logistics behind the scenes. Coordinating the venues and scheduling spaces to rehearse the large cast of 37 as well as equally pooling resources of volunteers, finances and assets, though, has actually strengthened the bridges between the theatres as the process has proceeded. By his observations, "The walls we think are there, when we actually get closer, we discover they're not really solid at all."
Bay City Players' Pawloski agrees with Wedge's assessment, "The more you go out in the world, the smaller your world becomes. Crossing the borders between theatres is building better theatre. It's good for our lighting, sound, props, costume people to see first-hand how it's getting done somewhere else. We learn. We get better. We develop best practices that, in the end, will result in each individual theatre benefiting from the experience of the whole."
Tickets for Mamma Mia! are currently on sale to the general public from the box offices and websites of all three theatres. (www.midlandcenter.org, www.pitandbalconytheatre.com, and www.baycityplayers.org)