Here's a Detroit story if there ever was one: It's the tale of a little theater that could, did, got booted, went nomad and, just recently, setup a new home. Founded in 2000, the Abreact Performance Space first existed on the second floor of Bricktown's Boydell Building, where co-founder Chuck Reynolds and his roomie Thomas Hoagland, a fellow actor and director, were living. The two theater geeks constructed a stage in their spacious loft, not for public performances, but as a tool for what Reynolds describes as "intense rehearsals." With a collection of unique props, weird scripts and friends who could be described as both, it was natural for Abreact to evolve from practice place to performance space.
Some nuts and bolts: The ongoing construction at the Greektown Casino (across the street from the Boydell) provided perfectly good, and necessary, materials for the theater — carpet, wood, trussing — which was lifted from dumpsters late at night.
And then they needed a curtain. Reynolds put the word out and, somehow, his middle-school principal got wind. "As the story goes," Reynolds begins, "one day a big truck pulled up and all these kids poured out of it. Next thing we know, they're hauling up the school's recently replaced auditorium curtain. It was something else — and that thing was huge."
The theater, which has been known to occasionally operate as a gallery space and music venue, premiered with a set of off-kilter monologues from writer-actor Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio, Law and Order). After six considerably successful years and dozens of productions — including a rendition of Sweeney Todd performed on the 18-foot-by-18-foot stage to rave reviews — the time came, somewhat suddenly, for Abreact to find a new home.
For an "underground" theater operating on a shoestring budget, the hunt for a home lasted two years. In the meantime, Abreact traveled around town like some troupe of tragicomic gypsies, putting on productions anywhere they could, from the now-defunct Zeitgeist Gallery in Corktown to Vivio's Restaurant in Eastern Market, from midtown's Majestic Theatre (home of Abreact's Night of the Living Dead: the Musical productions) to the Gryphon Theater (above the Park Bar downtown, a space that easily could've been included in this issue). The Abreact relied on the city's tight community of artists and art appreciators to keep afloat.
It was in these limbo years that Reynolds, along with cohorts Phil Boden, Adam Barnowski, Mike McGettigen first experimented with charging for entry.
"As cheesy as it sounds, we run on heart and soul," Reynolds says while walking through the Abreact's new space on the first floor of the Lafayette Lofts. "Ironically, though it wasn't a surprise to us, we've been more monetarily successful operating as a strictly donation-based theater."
In fear of sounding trite, Reynolds almost veers from labeling the Abreact an underground theater, "but that's precisely what we are," he concedes. "Most people, I don't think, realize that in the city of Detroit there are around 10 to 15 theater companies in operation and of those, many are producing really fine work. By nature, theater and the arts in Detroit is more underground than otherwise. Still, some of the shit you see in Detroit blows away stuff you'll catch in Chicago or New York City."
Last season, the Abreact received praise for their rendition of Ed Albee's strange play The Goat. It was the first time the Pulitzer Prize winning script had been performed in the Detroit area.
"Sure, some might've been turned off by the bestiality," Reynolds says with a smile, "But so fucking what? It is a love story."
The Abreact jumpstarts its 2010 season, rather fittingly, with a series of Bogosian monologues.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
1301 Lafayette, Detroit; theabreact.org.