In his smart blue-checked shirt and everyday chinos, Bruce Millan doesn't fit the part of an original '50s beatnik. There's no stereotypical shaggy hair, finger-snapping or conversation peppered with hep phrases like "dig it" and "cool, man."
"I never looked the part," Millan says. Maybe not, but he's sure played it.
Fifty years ago, he and five of his friends, who Millan says were surely labeled beatniks, channeled all their frustrations into creating what is now one of the region's longest-running professional theaters.
Like all good underground, countercultural movements, the Detroit Repertory Theatre was, in 1957, a full-on challenge to popular theater and, maybe more importantly, an outlet for the founders' condemnation of certain aspects of society.
Fifty years later, the theater company hasn't budged on its commitment to promoting hard-hitting, deep-thinking, racially non-homogeneous theater. They are celebrating their golden anniversary with the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning show, Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, starting Nov. 1. And there will be a black tie benefit on the night of Nov. 10.
Artistic director Millan and two of the other founders still man the ship, running things onstage and behind the scenes at their beloved "Rep."
In the theater world, it's a coup that they've kept the small professional company afloat so long. In Detroit, it's a coup that they've stuck to their social mission so firmly.
When they began, Millan says, the stage scene was as complacent, non-threatening and sugar-coated as films of the same era. And it was just as segregated, plus it offered nothing of substance for kids, or their parents, to watch.
"We didn't like what professional theater was doing. We didn't like what society was doing, and we were upset that a lot of people weren't really being reached by theater," Millan says.
The Rep started as a children's theater company, producing touring shows that challenged their young audiences. They included overt criticisms of modern society, doing such classic shows as The Elves and the Shoemaker, but with moral lessons that challenged materialistic, post-World War II consumerism. They also had a colorblind "unity" policy, casting black and white actors together, in any role. And, mind you, that started in pre-civil rights-era America.
"At the risk of bragging, we were a precursor to what was going to happen," Millan says.
And their shows were a hit, annually touring the city's schools and reaching across the Midwest. In the 1960s, they'd hit 80 Detroit public schools in 85 days.
Millan says little was made of their casting policies, at least at first. "The thing about it is we didn't make a thing about it," he says. "Children, for the most part, they aren't conditioned to accept or not accept other people."
Then 1967 happened, and their integrated casting policy become suddenly all the more important. The company founders knew they had to spread their message to Detroit's adults too.
At that point, whites thought of them as black and blacks thought of them as white, Millan says.
He says people were wrong — this wasn't black theater or white theater; it was and is just what theater should be. "We are what we are."
They moved into a burned-out dry goods store on Woodrow Wilson just off the Lodge Freeway, where they've stayed ever since.
The theater is off the beaten path, surrounded by urban prairie and dilapidated storefronts. "This is a forgotten street," says Millan, who lives in an apartment in the theater building. He points out where old streetcar tracks still poke through the asphalt. "This used to be one of the going-est neighborhoods in the city."
The theater has a deep commitment to the neighborhood, and Millan says the big question of whether they can carry on is financial.
In conjunction with the company's 50th anniversary, they are collecting funds to expand and develop a "cultural pocket" along Woodrow Wilson. Sponsorship of the anniversary gala will go toward the "Growth Fund," financing the building of a second theater for more "experimental" productions. And Millan says they're discussing possibly returning to their roots in children's theater to reach the still-underserved youth audience. The Rep also has a pressing need to recruit a new artistic team to, as Millan says, "pass the baton."
"No one will work for what we work for," Millan says — and don't think he's joking.
Barbara Busby, the fiscal officer and one of the founders of the Rep, says that in the beginning she made $10 moving sets around for two shows a day, $15 if they did three.
"If you didn't love it, you wouldn't do it," adds Dee Andrus, community outreach director.
It'd be a helluva thing if Detroit didn't need a message of racial unity, but the city still has many of the same challenges and same attitudes as it did when the Rep began, Millan says.
Millan says he and his beatnik buddies "wanted to change the world" five decades ago. Now, he says, humbly, he'd be happy to change just a few people.
If Millan needs proof of the Rep's impact, and what it has meant to its dedicated patrons, he need look no further than the theater's coffers. A decade ago, they started a dollar-a-week donation program, and now the donors' drops in the proverbial bucket tally $60,000 a year.
The Rep may still be calling out from the underground, but clearly its unique voice still has an audience.
Claire Pfeiffer Ramsey is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
The Black Tie Benefit, during which artist Gilda Snowden gives a talk as keynote speaker and exhibits her work, is 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit; 313-868-1347. Tickets are $200. Doubt runs Nov. 1 through Dec. 30. Call or go to www.detroitreptheatre.com for more information.