September 26, 2016

Summer Stock Theater: Barn Again in Michigan

With today’s many entertainment options, it’s surprising that the “let’s put on a show!” spirit of 1930s-era movies lives on in barn theatres across the country. The summer stock theatre tradition actually dates to 1919 when shows—mostly lighter musicals, comedies and mysteries—were performed by touring troupes or resident companies that launched careers on stages outdoors, under tents and in barns.

Michigan is home to three barn theatres, including one of the country’s few remaining Actors Equity (union) summer stock houses. As the Barn Theatre of Augusta launches its 67th season, producer/director Brendan Ragotzy relates how his parents founded the original Village Players in neighboring Richland in 1946, but three years later were forced to move.

Director Jack Ragotzy and actress Betty Ebert Ragotzy searched in vain for a new theatre home until, just two weeks before their 1949 season opened, they found a never-used dairy barn. “It was a grey day when they turned onto the farm’s dirt driveway,” tells Brendan. “When they saw the barn, the clouds opened up, the sun beamed down…Kismet!” The handsome structure, its soaring ceiling made of curved beams with no cross-bracing, had a single lightbulb and no running water. Yet, within two weeks the show went on and, with the exception of 2010 when it was dark due to the economy, this Barn Theatre has operated continuously. “It’s a gorgeous gal,” Brendan says of the 484-seat barn, which is a Michigan Historic Site.

Its professional company draws on the talent of apprentices from the Barn Theatre School, which each season accepts about 24 students who have completed at least one year of college. “Barnies” learn and work behind the scenes and on-stage with the pros in an intense summer of honing their craft. Alumni include Johnathan Larson, who went on to create “Rent”, and actors Jennifer Garner, Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat and Robert Newman. Following each of the six main-stage shows, apprentices and seasoned talent perform in a cabaret setting.

Despite increasing economic competition, Brendan, who worked on his first show at age 10, remains optimistic in carrying on his late parents’ vision with his wife Penelope Alex, an actress who is also the School’s dean. Whether or not their four kids follow the spotlight, “Lady Luck has been very fortunate for the Barn,” says

Brendan. “We’ve had great local support; that’s been the key to our survival.” At The Red Barn Playhouse in Saugatuck, the Lakeshore Arts Alliance (LAA) is also working to keep the house lights on. Housed in a 1914 horse barn, it was converted to a theatre in 1948 and over the years, says LAA Board Chairman John Huyge, “It has been opened and closed a half-dozen times.” Now leased by the LAA as a home for arts education and performance, volunteers have remodeled the 250-seat theatre into a year-round venue that includes films and concerts.

The LAA, whose executive director is John’s wife Pat Huyge, is working to buy The Red Barn property and open an academy for the performing arts similar to the intern program of its heyday. “This barn was an important part of the entertainment in the community,” says John. “It reflects back to a time in history when things were less complicated.”

Keeping things simple in a 150-year old venue, the community theatre group at The Barn Theatre in Port Sanilac has entertained summer audiences “on a shoestring budget” since 1980. Andy Fabian, village council president and owner/chef at The Van Camp House restaurant says, “People come from miles around to have dinner and go to a show. It’s really a great little happening.” The Thumb area venue is in a casual, rustic setting for about six performances between June and September, and he assures, “It’s the most genuinely cool place to be.”

-Kath Usitalo writes about destinations and the Great Lakes State. Her blog is greatlakesgazette.wordpress.com.