Evolutionary ant-stitution

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If the Detroit area’s smoldering interest in local theater should ever find itself ablaze and catching, the newly evolved Planet Ant in Hamtramck is destined to be the prototype for many an upstart venue. It’s no place to take a high school field trip, but with a hip plumness and the let’s-do-it verve of its architects, it’s at least groundbreaking.

Hal Soper – a CPA with an MBA – bought the unassuming brick storefront on Caniff in the summer of 1993, then opened it as a coffeehouse on Labor Day weekend of that year. Besides the java, Planet Ant also served up six nights of live entertainment each week from bands to poetry, and even a drum circle group, which ended up – at the request of customers – in the basement.

"The vision was always to have live music and to be an entertainment venue," Soper says. "So that hasn’t really changed. It’s just the nature of it that has changed. We are now committed to theater."

The coffeehouse du jour idea eventually turned bland. So instead of doing something sensible like throwing in a few lava lamps or a karaoke machine, Soper and his cohorts turned Planet Ant into a movie set. In July 1996, a blend of amateur and professional moviemakers went to work shooting Get the Hell Out of Hamtown (directed, co-written and produced by Yasmine Jaffri), the yet-to-be-released story of a young local guy who struggles to do the obvious.

"Filmmaking is a tough business," Soper says. "We have a final edit done of it, both a sound edit and a video edit. And we’ve taken the approach of learning both of those processes ourselves, instead of hiring that out. We got together and made a movie, and we admit now that we didn’t know what we were doing. But we’re learning every step along the way."

And even if the film doesn’t change the world, it at least served as a learning experience for Soper (as a first-time producer) and local musician Mikey Brown, who acted, produced and collaborated with Jaffri in writing the script. Get the Hell Out of Hamtown was also an impetus for the development of Planet Ant Theatre, now a nonprofit arts organization, and Planet Ant Records, which has already released the movie’s soundtrack.

After the filming of Get the Hell Out of Hamtown, Soper turned the inside of Planet Ant into an intimate theater, replacing the coffee bar and scattered tables with a sound booth, risers and seating for an audience of about 60. It’s only open these days for performances and workshops – like the Shakespeare sessions this past year with Gillian Eaton, an alumna of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Planet Ant’s 1998-99 season will close with the play Lib, by local playwright Kim Carney, a founding member of the Detroit Playwright’s Initiative. Carney’s plays have been performed in Detroit as well as theaters in California and New York. Lib, a coming-of-age-in-the-aftermath-of-the-’60s tale, is set in two dorm rooms on the campus of Wayne State University in 1972. It opens on June 3 and runs through June 27.

This summer will also bring the release of Garage on video, which features Park, the first band to appear on the roster of Planet Ant Records.

In all, it’s a busy docket for an inspired, evolutionary work-in-progress. So, maybe you should just get the hell over to Hamtown.

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